Several years ago I happened upon a Rolling Stone magazine article that put forth a fascinating idea. It described a little known “experiment” done in the 80s just as the AIDS epidemic had begun its chokehold on the gay community. Gay Men’s Health Crisis and other likeminded organizations desperately needed money for research. However, unless the public was personally touched by the disease (at that time largely confined to homosexual men, Haitians and drug addicts – not a particularly influential lobbying contingent), resources were bound to go to more mainstream causes like cancer and heart disease, which personally affected the majority of donors. So the AIDS fundraisers did something ingenious, repositioning the disease in the public mind. Instead of stating the facts – that unless you were a gay man, an IV drug user or a blood transfusion recipient your chances of getting AIDS were slim to nil – they focused on the idea that “anyone” can get AIDS, from the littlest Ryan White to the oldest Arthur Ashe. AIDS doesn’t discriminate with regards to race, age, sex or sexual persuasion, which is technically true. If you’re a human being you can get AIDS, just like if you skydive you can get killed jumping from a plane. We’re all equal opportunity employees for death, but what this truth conveniently ignores is that most of us will not die skydiving because we don’t skydive – just like most people in the 80s were never going to get (nor know of anyone afflicted with) AIDS.
I thought of this marketing strategy as I revisited Alex Gibney’s 2006 documentary The Human Behavior Experiments, which explores how otherwise good, decent, law abiding citizens will do the unthinkable when guided by a strong authority figure, or not do the right thing when given “permission” by the presence of others reacting unconscionably.
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