Tracking down 'Bleachman,' San Francisco's AIDS-fighting hero of 1980s ads
A bit of '80s San Francisco ephemera.
Updated 9:00 pm, Monday, December 4, 2017
He was the hero San Francisco deserved. And with his bleach-jug head, crimson cape and comically oversized needle, Bleachman might just be the one it needs right now.
In the late 1980s, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation launched a campaign targeting IV drug users. Before needle exchanges or safe injection rooms, encouraging addicts to sterilize their needles with household bleach before reusing them was one pragmatic way of reducing HIV transmission rates. Bleachman put a smiling face to the message.
Longtime city residents might remember the costumed mascot's grinning mug from bus stops, comics and posters. But despite Bleachman's kid-friendly appearance, the ads were surprisingly frank.
One surreal television commercial survives on YouTube.
"If you use the drug, you gotta use the jug," Bleachman says to the camera, standing before a shot of the pre-Salesforce Tower SF skyline. Then, he demonstrates how to clean a needle.
Behind the mask (or jug, rather) was Les Pappas, who worked at SFAF for 10 years. Bleachman was his brainchild, he said, and the costume was initially made to fit him — though according to SFAF spokesman Andrew Hattori, he wasn't the only one to wear it.
On weekends, Pappas said he and a group of T-shirt-wearing outreach workers would venture into the Mission and Tenderloin neighborhoods to distribute pamphlets and bleach. The ridiculous costume grabbed drug users' attention and, unlike more negative ad campaigns, it also "brightened people's day."
"At that time, drug users were looked down on even worse than they are today," he said. "The idea was: Why not have a superhero? Why can't they have a superhero? It was meant to be a very positive kind of thing."
"(Drug users) would see that not only did people care about them, but they cared enough to make, for (drug users), a hero of their own," he added.
As Bleachman, Pappas would take Polaroid selfies with his fans. (The photos would remind drug users to clean their needles, he said.) One day, he recounted, a woman came running up to him with a crumpled old photo in hand.
"It was probably the only thing she'd really hung onto for a while," Pappas said. "She was so excited to have the picture and then to see Bleachman again."
The jug-headed hero generated publicity wherever he went, and his appeal stretched beyond the Bay. Pappas toured with the costume to other cities, like Los Angeles and Toronto, and he credits Bleachman's success with inspiring later goofy mascots, like the anthropomorphized anatomy of the Healthy Penis campaign.
Some things have changed since Bleachman's heyday. The number of HIV infections reported annually in San Francisco has been trending downward in recent years, according to the city's Department of Public Health. There are fewer infections nationwide as well; The estimated number of new HIV infections in the U.S. decreased by 10 percent from 2010-14, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC also updated its guidelines regarding needles and bleach – it's always safer to use a new syringe, the CDC now advises, though bleach "continues to have an important role in reducing the risk for HIV transmission."
As drug use and needle waste continue to be problems, both across the country and around the Bay Area, could creating another Spandex-clad crusader be the answer? Maybe, Pappas said – but it's compassion, not a cape, that's the important part.
"The existence (of a drug-user) is very much full of negativity. If you want to help people, you can't come at it that way," he said. "There certainly could be another superhero, but the underlying things are to show respect (and) treat IV users the same as everybody else."