News ‘Insensitive’: Government’s ‘confronting’ COVID ad divides experts

‘Insensitive’: Government’s ‘confronting’ COVID ad divides experts

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A “confronting” new TV ad showing graphic effects of the coronavirus has divided health experts, with even one of the architects of the infamous ‘Grim Reaper’ HIV/AIDS campaign saying it went too far.

As Sydney struggles to contain a concerning outbreak, the graphic new ad campaign warned people in New South Wales to stay home, get tested and vaccinated.

But the choice to feature a young woman struggling to breathe was questioned by some, when most Australians under 40 are not able to access the Pfizer vaccine they are recommended to get.

“This ad should be immediately taken off air,” said adjunct professor Bill Bowtell, a strategic health consultant at the University of NSW who was at the forefront of Australia’s HIV/AIDS response.

But others say the push comes at the right time.

“If there was ever a role for fear campaigns, it might be now. This is a stark reminder that COVID takes people into the ICU, with severe risks,” said Professor Julie Leask, vaccine uptake expert at the Sydney University school of nursing and midwifery.

Separately, another new government vaccine ad was described as “dull” and “tired” by experts, with Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese suggesting the government go “back to the drawing board”.

‘Confronting’ ad airs

At a press conference in Canberra on Sunday to detail the ‘Arm Yourself’ campaign, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly revealed a second ad would soon air in Sydney.

“Stay at home, get tested and booked in for a vaccination. They are the three messages on that ad,” Professor Kelly said.

“It is quite graphic and it is meant to be graphic.”

Co-ordinator general of the federal vaccine taskforce Lieutenant-General John Frewen said the ad aimed to “help people understand the very dire consequences of COVID and bring a sense of urgency” to vaccination and stay-home orders.

Sydney in coronavirus lockdown
Sydney’s lockdown could continue for weeks.

“It is an aggressive and confronting ad, about the specific circumstances in Sydney,” he said.

The ad, which premiered on television on Sunday, warns that it shows “representation of severe COVID-19 illness”.

“Some viewers may find the video distressing,” the pre-roll card warned.

It then shows a young woman on a hospital bed in a darkened room, with tubes in her nose as she struggles to breathe.

In a statement, a government spokesperson noted “the Delta variant is much more infectious and is impacting younger cohorts more than previous variants”.


But Professor Bowtell, involved in the infamous Grim Reaper campaign in the 1980s, said the ‘graphic’ ad went too far.

He noted there were 15 people in Sydney hospitals in intensive care, including one teenager, one person in their 20s, one in their 30s and one in their 40s.

“Today in Sydney a young girl with COVID – about the same age as the actor in the ad – is on a ventilator fighting for her life. This insensitive ad can only distress her family and friends,” Professor Bowtell tweeted.

Speaking to The New Daily, he said the Grim Reaper ads while confronting purposely didn’t show people sick with HIV/AIDS, which he called “a long way” from the COVID ad.

“This ad should be taken off air,” Professor Bowtell said.

But Siimon Reynolds, the creative mind behind the Grim Reaper campaign, was more positive about the ‘graphic’ ad.

Grim Reaper ad campaign
Bill Bowtell worked on the Grim Reaper HIV/AIDS campaign, which ran in 1987.

“It is showing people that COVID is bad, that COVID can really be painful,” he told the ABC.

“It is showing people that young people can get it, not just older people … It is 10 times better than the first ad.

“The hesitancy has to be overcome … you have to wake people up.”

Some took aim at the ad’s push for people to get vaccinated – despite the fact most under-40s aren’t yet eligible for the preferred vaccine Pfizer.

“Pretty fair for young people to feel extremely manipulated by watching this ad,” tweeted Triple J radio host Bridget Hustwaite.

Deborah Lupton, professor in the University of NSW’s Centre for Social Research In Health, raised similar issues.

“What is the point? Young people can’t get jabbed right now. It’s very strange,” Professor Lupton, an expert in social research on public health, told TND.

“I think it’s the government trying to divert attention from themselves.”

But Professor Leask said the ‘fear’ response could be effective – as long as the government gave the proper help.

“If they properly resource multicultural communities, help people meet obligations to help people stay home, there is a role for that kind of messaging right now. There may be some complacency,” she told TND.

However, Professor Leask – a social scientist and expert in factors affecting immunisation uptake – said the government must do more to directly encourage people to follow messages, like providing more financial support so people would stay home.

“If you don’t have JobKeeper support any more, and the choice is going to work or not putting food on the table, then you might take that risk,” she said.

“You need to make it easy for people to stay home, and adequately resource communications campaigns with diverse communities.”

Despite months of calls for Australia to release a colourful video with celebrities, as seen in the United Kingdom and Asia, the federal government admitted it couldn’t run such a blitz because it didn’t have enough vaccine supply.

Lieutenant-General Frewen said the ‘Arm Yourself’ ad would be “adapted” over coming weeks to fit certain diverse communities.

However, when asked by TND about the criticisms, he said there would be a more eye-catching campaign shared “later in the year” when tens of millions of Pfizer doses are due to arrive.

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