Did the BBC AIDS advert in It’s A Sin really happen? The true story

It told people ‘don’t die of ignorance’


Right at the start of episode four of It’s A Sin, we see the Pink Palace housemates gathering around the TV. Jill, Ritchie, Ash and Roscoe all watch as a BBC AIDS awareness advert plays, complete with explosions, a gravestone with the word ‘AIDS’ emblazoned on it, and dramatic music. A man’s voiceover says AIDS is a “deadly disease” with “no known cure”. But did this BBC AIDS advert we see in It’s A Sin really happen?

It’s A Sin tells the story of five young friends navigating their 20s amidst the 1980s AIDS epidemic. In the five hours of It’s A Sin we learnt more about queer history, including the AIDS epidemic, than school ever taught us – and it showed us more about gay sex than school ever did, too. It’s raised awareness for HIV/AIDS, with Terrence Higgins Trust saying people are ordering four times as many HIV tests thanks to the “It’s A Sin effect”.

Here’s everything we know about the true story behind the BBC AIDS advert in It’s A Sin:

Was the BBC AIDS advert real?

The advert really did happen, and appeared on British TV in 1986. It has loud music, an explosion and crumbling rocks, showing a gravestone being made with the word AIDS carved in to it. The advert played on the BBC channel, and was issued by the UK’s health departments.

In the advert, a man’s voice solemnly says: “There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all. It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure. The virus can be passed by sexual intercourse with an infected person. Anyone can get it, man or woman.

“So far it’s been confined to small groups, but it’s spreading. So protect yourself and read this leaflet when it arrives. If you ignore AIDS, it’ll be the death of you. So don’t die of ignorance.”

There was also another AIDS advert, different to the one we see in It’s A Sin. This one featured an iceberg, and the camera pans below the water to show the word AIDS etched in to it, similarly to the gravestone. It has the same information as the AIDS advert shown in It’s A Sin episode four.

What was the UK’s reaction to the BBC AIDS advert?

When the advert first aired in 1986, the BBC reports it received “accusations of panic-mongering and complaints that it would terrify any children who happened to be watching”. Watching the advert now, you can see it’s full of stark warnings and strong words.

However, the advert was the world’s first government-sponsored national AIDS awareness campaign, and has been “hailed as the most successful”, with the tactics of the BBC advert being replicated worldwide.

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The creators of the advert have since spoken to The Guardian about it. They said then Prime Minister “Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a natural supporter” of the advert, as she thought it would be encouraging young people to have unprotected sex. They called the advert “hard hitting”, which was necessary as it was a “life and death situation”. Reportedly 90 per cent of the public recognised the advert, and many changed their behaviour due to it.

At the time, there had been a lot of homophobic fearmongering from the tabloid press, which ran headlines such as “I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS”. Instead of spreading public health awareness of HIV/AIDS, as the BBC advert we see on It’s A Sin tried to do, tabloids spoke as if the virus was something to be hidden away and ashamed of. Other tabloid headlines included “Brutal truth about AIDS: No one’s safe”; “Cough can spread AIDS, warns doc”; and calling AIDS a “gay virus plague”.

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