Information provided by television advertising is an important weapon in the fight against a new public health pandemic--AIDS. The authors assess the brief history of AIDS advertising through a rhetorical analysis of the 1987, and 1989 federal AIDS television campaigns. The descriptive findings from this analysis provide insights for rethinking the role of television advertising in this, and possibly in other, pandemic crises.
The current AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) crisis in the United States has truly become a pandemic. It is the subject of unparalleled media attention, and at the same time, a target of millions of federal and private dollars in research funding and public health efforts. One of the reasons for this degree of societal concern centers on the fact that the United States currently houses the largest number of documented AIDS cases in the world. The magnitude of the crisis is evident in the reports of more than 80,000 cases of full-blown AIDS currently in the U.S., with projections of 270,000 cases by 1991, resulting in more than 170,000 deaths by that time (Centers for Disease Control 1989). Furthermore, the CDC also reports that there are somewhere between one and two million Americans who are presently infected with, and capable of transmitting the AIDS virus, but have no symptoms at all. These haunting statistics echo the fact that the AIDS virus is here to stay, and it will be a significant part of our lives, as well as our childrens'. AIDS is foremost a disease that kills. As such, AIDS has the potential to cripple our economic system with lost jobs, disruptive work environments, and escalating insurance premiums. The pernicious nature of this pandemic suggests that AIDS prevention must become a marketing priority. As Kotler and Zaltman (1971) indicated in their introduction of the "Societal marketing concept" nearly 20 years ago, marketers can enhance social welfare by applying marketing concepts to societal problems.
It is our contention that the AIDS pandemic is particularly suited to marketing interventions. Since there is no medical cure or vaccine for the virus, the primary weapons available for prevention are public information and education (Lunin 1988). Fortunately, the federal government, as well as many private sector agencies and organizations, has been instrumental in providing AIDS information through the media. Hotlines, the mass media, newsletters, and school and community programs have all been used to increase awareness, dispel misinformation about the disease, and discuss preventative measures. Yet, amidst this concerted effort lies a pressing concern: What is the appropriate role of advertising in the AIDS crisis? AIDS is a disease that involves behaviors still somewhat taboo in our culture today (e.g., anal intercourse, IV Drug use, and homosexuality). As such, many individuals find it difficult to listen to, think about, and even discuss these sensitive issues. Given the intrusive nature of advertising, traditional roles of health-related advertising may have to be reconsidered in light of the uniqueness of this health threat.
At present, there is a dearth of published research regarding the role of advertising during pandemics such as AIDS. Such research would be instrumental in shedding light upon the nature of the current AIDS advertising campaign, as well as in guiding future research on what information should be used, and how it should be communicated by way of advertising.
The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we intend to explore the manner in which the federal government and the advertising community are addressing this pandemic through a rhetorical analysis of the 1987, 1988, and 1989 AIDS television advertising campaigns. Rhetorical analysis is generally used to interpret the meaning of messages by exploring the symbolic conventions used by communicators. As such, this technique provides an effective means of identifying possible roles that advertising assumed during the first three years of the AIDS campaign. Second, we intend to use the findings from our rhetorical analysis as an informed basis for rethinking the role of television advertising in this, and possibly other, pandemic crises. Before examining the 1987-1989 AIDS campaigns, however, it is instructive to first review prior conceptualizations of the role of mass media and advertising during health crises.
The Role of Mass Media
During Health Crises
Mass media have an important role to play during a health crisis. However, the great potential of the mass media has long been a source of both hope and frustration for Americans. Historically, the influence of mass media on social crises can be divided into three eras (Katz 1980; Maccoby and Roberts 1985). During the first era (the 1930s and 1940s), mass media were thought to have immediate and causal effects on the masses. Public policymakers and health officials depended heavily upon mass media/publicity when seeking up promote health enhancement or to prevent disease. During this time, for example, the mass media (i.e., publicity) were instrumental in building awareness and informing the public about polio (Sills 1957). In particular, President Roosevelt and the March of Dimes played major roles in generating awareness and evoking a high level of public concern about polio via the mass media (e.g., press releases, articles in popular magazines, etc.).
In contrast, the second era (1950s and 1960s), has been labeled the "minimal effects" era. Communications experts now deemed the mass media useless and incapable of affecting individuals. Even the health community began to question the impact that information disseminated through the mass media had upon society. Apparently, most of the frustration during this period stemmed from inconclusive findings regarding mass media's effectiveness in changing behavior or influencing individuals to consider more healthy lifestyles (Klapper 1960). Finally, the third and current era has been called the era of "contingent effects" (Katz 1980; Maccoby and Roberts 1985). Communication experts once again feel that the mass media are helpful in influencing individuals, but indirectly and cumulatively (i.e., over continuous exposure). Through sheer repetition, mass media are believed to provide an effective means of imparting the latest scientific information to large groups of people. In essence, most researchers now recognize that the mass media are indeed an important influencing agent in our society, but the behavioral impact of mass media exposure is gradual and generally difficult to assess (Wallack 1981).
Most researchers do degree that the primary role of mass media during health crises is one of creating awareness of, or heightening public sensitivity to health issues. No other communication tool has the credibility of mass media to get important information to the masses via hard-hitting news stories. For example, Pratt (1956) found that coronary patients learned as much from news stories about President Eisenhower's heart attack as they did from their own physicians or from other informational sources. More recently, Edgar, Freimuth, and Hammond (1988) discovered that college students rely heavily upon the mass media (e.g., television, newspapers and magazines) for their information about AIDS. …