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AIDS Posters


A public health campaign which made itself felt in print.

Public health posters are a response to times of crisis. Since the advent of printing posters have been created to inform the public of what they must do (sometimes on pain of death) in response to outbreaks of plague or other infectious diseases.

Apart from major epidemics, war is the crisis which tends to elicit the most public health posters: in both World War I and World War II many posters were produced to save the soldiers from syphilis and typhoid, and to encourage the population to keep fit for fighting. In peacetime, the 20th century saw a decline in the public health poster, as acute infectious diseases became less prominent and chronic degenerative diseases more burdensome.

The emergence of the AIDS crisis (as it was perceived to be) in 1981 therefore bucked a trend. It saw the staffs of local authorities, health providers and even central governments reverting to the practices of their parents and grand-parents in the 1940s and commissioning new designs to protect people from the new disease, AIDS. Officials who never thought they would be involved in such activities found themselves in advertising offices and artists' studios approving designs for multi-million pound publicity campaigns. These campaigns continued for over 20 years, and in some parts of the world are still going strong in the second decade of the 21st century.

This reversion to an earlier way of doing things is perhaps all the more surprising because the decades in which the AIDS poster campaigns have flourished were the very decades in which the internet was introduced, browsers were created, and billions of web pages were published. Many a campaign was accompanied by the warning "this will be our last poster campaign - in future everyone will get their information from the web". There was plenty of electronic campaigning, especially through the 'Stop AIDS' campaign, with its ubiquitous pink condom. But paper posters continued because of their greater presence, durability and immediacy in the real world of the street, the nightclub and the support group.

The most vivid evidence for the campaigns is of course the posters themselves. Small numbers of impressions of them have survived in half a dozen collections around the world. Several of these collections were created by Thomas Hill, a connoisseur of countercultures then based in Amsterdam, who recognised that the posters engendered by this worldwide crisis would be well worth the tremendous effort and expense involved in collecting them. There are currently over 3000 AIDS posters in the Wellcome Library, and the vast majority of them came to the Library from Thomas Hill, in 1999 and subsequently. As a result of an intensive campaign of cataloguing and copyright-clearance in 2009-2010, the Wellcome Library catalogue is now the most extensive database of them.

The themes of greatest interest in the posters will emerge with the passing of time, as the posters settle into their place in various historical contexts. However enough time has already passed to bring certain features into relief. One is the fragmented target audience: there are AIDS posters pinpointed at groups such as black teenagers Canadian speakers of Chinese the middle-aged and middle-class students taking recreational drugs and lesbian mothers. The bubonic plague had affected all sections of a population, whether rich or poor, urban or rural. In fact it had been written into the definition of a plague that it should attack all without discrimination: in the 'Dance of Death', Death could swoop down and carry off an emperor or bishop as freely as a serf or a bourgeois. The AIDS posters by contrast speak to a world driven by the fissures defining thousands of identity groups. The marketing professionals who produced them, especially in the USA, had been trained to focus on targeted groups identified in United States presidential campaigns and in commercial advertising.

Another noticeable feature is the apparent change in notions of propriety. At least one government of the time allowed itself to be associated with a return to 'Victorian values' nevertheless, during the same period it became commonplace to see condoms depicted, praised and affectionately caricatured on street posters. Some posters were even more explicit, referring to such foci of disease as prostitution, heroin injection and forms of gay sex, which many people will have wished to know nothing about. Some of the designers took a risk too far: a poster of the Washington Monument with a fluorescent condom on it was never distributed. In many other cases, however, the imperatives of the potential epidemic over-ruled any considerations of taste or decorum.

You can investigate the collection of AIDS posters in its entirety through this listing in the Wellcome Library catalogue: cataloguing information is available, and in many cases medium-resolution images of the posters themselves. Many have been licensed under a Creative Commons licence for further use in educational and other contexts. The posters themselves can be viewed by anybody, free of charge, in the Wellcome Library during its opening hours.


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Image gallery

A public health campaign which made itself felt in print.


John Hurt provides the voice-over for this UK Government public health advertisement.


This short advertising film was produced by the Health Education Authority to promote condom use among young people.


81-year old Fred Brewster shows us 'Geronimo', a reusable condom he used in his youth.


"The Aids epidemic has rolled back a big rotting log and revealed all the squirming life underneath it".