Germany’s latest AIDS-awareness commercial evokes some strong emotions: shock, disgust, nausea. And that’s exactly the point.
The controversial ad, which was released online on Sept. 3 and starts running on German TV on Wednesday, Sept. 9, shows a couple having steamy sex in a dimly lit room with menacing music playing in the background.
The viewer sees only the back of the man’s head until the very end, when the camera pans to his face — to reveal that he’s Adolf Hitler. Then the slogan flashes across the screen: “AIDS is a mass murderer.”
It’s a strong message, but HIV/AIDS organizations in Germany are arguing over whether it’s the right one. Rainbow, the AIDS-awareness group spearheading the campaign — which also includes newspaper ads and posters featuring the images of other dictators, like Stalin and Saddam Hussein — says it deliberately wants to provoke people, especially young Germans, into using condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV.
“We want to give this terrible virus a face,” Jan Schwertner, spokesman for Rainbow, tells TIME. “AIDS is a forgotten issue in Germany. It’s been swept under the carpet. This shock campaign is necessary to get people thinking again.”
But the use of Hitler’s image — always a highly sensitive topic in Germany — has angered mainstream HIV/AIDS organizations, which say the ad stigmatizes HIV sufferers.
On Tuesday, Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe, an umbrella group for HIV counseling centers and Germany’s biggest AIDS organization, called the video “disgusting” and demanded an immediate end to the campaign.
“The video ridicules all victims of the Nazi regime, and it equates HIV-positive people with mass murderers,” says spokeswoman Carolin Vierneisel. “The advertising campaign just relies on provoking anxiety among people.
That’s the wrong approach. Successful HIV prevention is based on factual information about the risks of HIV transmission and encourages people to use condoms.”
Germans need the encouragement — the facts about HIV rates in the country are alarming. According to Rainbow’s research, eight people become infected with HIV in Germany every day.
Across the country, 60,000 people are living with HIV. To help explain the advertisement’s shock tactics, the campaign’s website states, “Over the past number of years, public interest in AIDS has massively declined.
The number of victims, however, has not. As of now, over 28 million people worldwide have died. And every day another 5,000 fatalities are added to that number.
This makes AIDS one of the largest mass murderers of all time.”
The ads will be shown in German cinemas and broadcast on TV starting on Wednesday, aiming for maximum impact.
The agency that created the commercials, Hamburg-based Das Comitee, has robustly defended the campaign, pointing out that the video has already had thousands of viewings since last Thursday, when it was posted on video-sharing sites like YouTube.
“We need to warn young people about the dangers of AIDS and the risks of unprotected sex,” says creative director Hans Weishäupl.
“AIDS is the mass murderer of the 21st century, and we have to show people how awful it is.” He adds that he’s received a lot of positive feedback on the commercials from young people and their parents.
Weishäupl agrees that his agency’s methods are controversial but insists that the end justifies the means.
“It’s the message that counts, and of course it was provocative to use the picture of Hitler,” he says. “But how would you visualize a terrible virus?”