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AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)


Main image of AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)
Directors includeNicolas Roeg
Production CompanySammy Harari
SponsorCentral Office of Information
 Dept of Health
Music (Iceberg)Brian Eno

Narrator: John Hurt

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Advertising films to raise public awareness of AIDS.

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In November 1986, the British government finally grasped the scale of the AIDS problem, setting up a Cabinet Committee devoted to combatting what was rapidly becoming an epidemic. £20 million was earmarked for a publicity campaign, £5 million of which was to be spent on television commercials which could be adapted for cinema. The dilemma facing the government and advertising agency was whether to use shock tactics, as recommended by health groups, or take heed of moral campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, who called for the promotion of "monogamy, not sexual precautions". Another contentious issue was whether to overturn the Independent Broadcasting Authority's restriction on commercials recommending condom use.

The result was a hard-hitting campaign masterminded by Sammy Harari, who had devised the 'Heroin Screws You Up' campaign. Apocalyptic images of icebergs, crumbling mountains and falling monoliths came crashing on our screens. The aim was to shock people into practising safer sex. The most remembered of the five advertisements were Tombstone and Iceberg, with their iconic, nightmarish imagery, compounded by John Hurt's chilling commentary.

Shot in a moody palate of blue and black, Tombstone is highly charged and doom-laden. A cliff-face explodes in slow motion; an industrial drill bores into a huge block of rock; the word 'AIDS' is chiselled into the polished surface of a granite headstone and a "Don't Die of Ignorance" leaflet drops onto the surface along with an elegiac bouquet of white lilies. The solemnity of the accompanying voice-over quells any vestiges of ambiguity - "There is now a danger that is a threat to us all. It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure. The virus can be passed during sexual intercourse with an infected person. Anyone can get it... If you ignore AIDS it could be the death of you. So don't die of ignorance." Iceberg is similarly iconic, featuring falling icebergs inscribed with the word 'Aids'. This was public information at its most sensational. Expensive special effects and high-concept production design brought public information filmmaking into the realm of state-of-the-art corporate advertising.

The television advertisement campaign was accompanied by educational television and radio programmes on AIDS and related leaflets, bearing the 'Don't Die of Ignorance', slogan were sent to every home in the country. Despite widespread apprehension, the campaign was later acknowledged that it had been successful in precipitating more open discussion about AIDS in the media.

Katy McGahan

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Video Clips
AIDS: Iceberg (0:41)
AIDS: Monolith (0:40)
Hurt, John (1940-)
Roeg, Nicolas (1928-)
Central Office of Information (1946-2012)
Public Information Fillers