The Little Red Ribbon That Was Heard Around the World

Back before “going viral” was even a thing, a little red ribbon nailed it. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when New York artist Patrick O’Connel wanted to heighten awareness of the mounting AIDS crisis — which was then the No. 1 killer of young adults in the country — it wasn’t as simple as setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Back then, social activism was social in the truest sense of the word. If you wanted to organize a group of people to advocate for a cause, you started with people you knew. And that’s exactly what O’Connel did. He founded the group Visual AIDS, a group of artists committed to creating art inspired by the AIDS epidemic.

Visual AIDS didn’t just create art; they held rallies and hosted gallery shows, all with the goal of raising AIDS awareness. But, being artists, they wanted a visual symbol — something that could communicate their message in one glance, without a word being spoken. That’s when costume designer Marc Happel got involved. Inspired by the yellow ribbons people tied around trees to show support for members of the U.S. military serving in the Gulf War, Happel suggested that a ribbon would also make a good image for Visual AIDS. Instead of tying ribbons around trees, however, he suggested making them into lapel pins. The group chose the color red to symbolize AIDS awareness, held “ribbon bees” to make them, and passed them out by hand to anybody who wanted one.

The tipping point was when they convinced a celebrity dresser to pin them on celebrities appearing at the Tony Awards. Nobody mentioned that the red ribbons symbolized AIDS awareness — in fact, it was rumored that the network threatened to cut to commercial if that happened — so they definitely attracted attention. Today, audience members and TV viewers would be breaking Twitter trying to find out what the ribbons were for, but the 1991 audience had to wait for the next day’s papers.

That’s when AIDS awareness ribbons went viral, although only in the ’90s sense of the term. They went from the Tony Awards to the Emmys, and then to the big leagues: the Oscars and the Grammys. Then the general public caught on, and Visual AIDS started getting requests from schools and church groups. By late 1992, red ribbons were showing up everywhere from diamond necklaces to Christmas ornaments. The New York Times even declared 1992 “the year of the ribbon.”

Soon that looped red ribbon was picked up by other causes. Today, there are so many that you almost need a reference to know which color symbolizes which initiative. That small group of artists started a phenomenon that is now recognized worldwide as a symbol of support for AIDS, and they did it without Twitter or Instagram. In 2015, social media gives us a head start. Isn’t it inspiring to know how people broke through to the public with a worthy cause without the use of those platforms? It got me thinking what I could do to change the world for the better.

Image source: Flickr