Shock Australians out of vaccine hesitancy, urges Grim Reaper mastermind Siimon Reynolds

The man credited with creating Australia’s most powerful public health campaign of all time has urged a “hardcore” message to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Siimon Reynolds became a household name as the creative behind the 1987 ‘Grim Reaper’ advertising campaign which warned the public of the growing threat of HIV and AIDS. He later went on to co-found Photon Group, which is now Enero (which owns BMF, the agency responsible for the Federal Government’s vaccine campaign). He recently returned to Australia after several years in the US.

In an interview with Mumbrella to mark his appointment as chair of social e-commerce platform Buyers Circle, Reynolds was asked how he would tackle the communications challenge of overcoming Australians’ confusion and hesitancy about taking COVID vaccines.

Speaking as much of Australia went back into lockdown to contain new COVID outbreaks,  Reynolds told Mumbrella: “It’s crazy they haven’t gone hard on ‘You’ve got to get the vaccine’. In the last ten days it’s become apparent that it’s a problem that people don’t have vaccines. But if we go back three weeks, a lot of people – in fact, 30% of Australia – had no intention of getting the vaccine such was the feeling that we had nothing to worry about any more.”

Listen to Reynolds discussing vaccine hesitancy here:

Reynolds: Popstar Pink’s own experience of COVID would make her an ideal face of campaign

Reynolds suggested that Australians needed to be given a fright about the need to get vaccinated rather than feeling that they could safely wait it out. “I would definitely do – maybe not the Grim Reaper – but I would definitely do a hardcore version to wake people up that this thing could easily be around for another year, could be around for another two. The different strains could become more sophisticated as we know and become more dangerous.”

He added: “Where the parallel with the original AIDS campaign of 30 years ago is no-one knew anybody, or most people didn’t know anybody who had AIDS, certainly in the heterosexual community. It’s similar here. How many people actually know someone who’s got COVID in Australia? Not many. As a result of that, everybody’s just not believing that it’s going to be particularly a problem for them.”

Reynolds suggested that government messaging so far has failed to move people. “There’s two things an ad campaign has got to do. It has got to inform and it has got to persuade. The problem with the government advertising now, it that it’s only informing. It’s only making statements. It’s not tugging the heart in any way. It’s not affecting us emotionally. It’s not particularly persuading in any way other than someone reading off an autocue.

“It’s a very low level of marketing in my opinion.”

Asked what the best approach was to persuade people to get vaccines when available, he said: “I don’t have much faith in the ‘doing the right thing’ thing. It’s a bit like for the environment. We’ll do a little bit. We’ll put our rubbish in a different bin but is the average person going to do much? I’m not sure the average person is.

“To me it’s about two things. It’s first of all letting people see how painful COVID is, and then getting people to talk about it, who people actually want to listen to.”

Reynolds argued against simply wheeling out celebrities for the sake of it. Instead he said any campaign should use those who had first-hand experience of the disease like pop star Pink. The musician was so sick when she caught the virus in 2020 that she later revealed that she wrote her will.

“A classic example of a potential ad in my view is to get Pink to lead the campaign,” said Reynolds. “She almost died from COVID. She’s someone that a lot of people under 50 are going to listen to.  If you’ve got a series of people who actually had it, talk about how bad it is then I think you could wake a lot of people up.”

Last month Nine launched a public information campaign featuring its on air talent urging viewers to get the jab when they could.


Reynolds added: “A lot of people are saying get celebrities. But celebrities isn’t it. Get celebrities who’ve been crushed by COVID and then you’ve got an ad campaign.”

  • The full Mumbrellacast interview with Reynolds, in which he talks about his role with Buyers Circle and what he has been doing since stepping back from the adland limelight, will be uploaded on Tuesday July 13.

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