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Consuming ideology: food, the body and the nation

Consuming Ideology: Food, the Body and the Nation
Ian Cooke
Maiken Umbach
Hello, and welcome to this session. This week, we are looking at how the work of persuasion and promotion of ideals comes into the most personal aspects of our lives– how branding, slogans, and other tactics are used to affect decisions about what we eat, what we wear, and how we organise our homes and daily lives. In the arena of public health, this becomes more personal, still– how we behave with respect to our bodies, diet, nutrition, and exercise; whether we smoke, drink, or take other drugs; how we raise our children; our sexual behaviour. Who do we think has the right to influence and comment on these most personal aspects? When does it become appropriate to attempt to influence our decisions?
And who do we allow to trust and convince us? I’m here today with Ian Cooke at the British Library to talk through some of these issues. Ian, Britain is a very liberal country, priding itself on this liberal tradition. Does this kind of influencing happen here, too, and how do people react to it? Well, although sometimes we like to think it doesn’t, there is obviously very clear examples of times when public health campaigns have run. And, actually, there’s a long tradition of public health campaigns in Britain.
And although some of the examples I’ve got out on the table here might look kind of charming to the eye, there is also a tradition that sees this as something that we may need to be wary about– we may need to think about. And certainly, these are issues we touched on in the session on freedom, when we were thinking about the theories of John Stuart Mill. And that sort of sensitivity to the state telling us what to think and how to act certainly came through in the Second World War. And we can see how the government responded to this through the Ministry of Information. Now the Ministry of information was unpopular when it started.
You can see that in the negative publicity it got in the press, and also the way people wrote about it. So at the Ministry, they were very concerned to bring in experts from public relations and advertising, and also conduct a little public opinion research to see how they could get materials produced that went more with the grain of say, common sense, or the prevailing public opinion at the time. And you can see that very clearly through some of the health and productivity campaigns. The example I’ve got here– say, for example, this one from Dig the Victory. Can you tell us a bit more about these? These are leaflets produced in the 1940s, I believe.
But they’re not quite what one expects. They’re not quite what we remember from that campaign. They’re not big propaganda pictures, are they? Well, that’s why. I mean, although Dig the Victory did have a very memorable poster campaign, actually the bulk of the publishing around it were these how-to guides. So they kind of– the general view was already accepted that it was important to kind of grow your own, and contribute to a sort of productivity drive. And so it tells you in some detail here kind of how to dig, how to save seeds. Elsewhere is kind of which crops to grow when.
And of course, all this fed into the need to reduce our reliance on imports, and also reduce the need to transport food around the country. And so you see the potato becomes quite a significant vegetable here because it was relatively easy to grow, and it could be used as a substitute for other things that were resource intensive, such as wheat. So here we have Potato Pete’s Recipe Book, another kind of how-to guide there. It’s a very jolly image. I just noticed there are a lot of women here shown following Potato Pete– some men, as well, but could you tell us a bit more about the gender dimension of this kind of propaganda? Who was it targeted at? Yeah, of course.
I mean, women were a very important group that the Ministry was targeting with its domestic information campaigns and publicity campaigns. And certainly when it comes to the area of public health, they become a very significant group. Deborah Lupton writing in the Imperative of Health notes how from the 19th century, women are seen almost as kind of the guardians and the agents of change to do with public health within the family, but also sort of a bit more widely within society, as well. So women are certainly very important, and seen as very important in public health campaigns during the Second World War and after.
And indeed, one of the most kind of successful and long running campaigns during the War was The Kitchen Front. Really, kind of the title brings it home. And this was a series of daily radio broadcasts on the BBC, which would run recipes– so sort of what to cook with the food that was available, as well as giving out information about rationing and so on. And so it gave information about government policy. And you can see sort of a use of both humour here, and celebrity, and I think both of them were very important. Humour gets used a lot in British domestic wartime propaganda.
It’s almost kind of more inclusive and more enduring than those kind of heavy morally exaltations to do your duty. And celebrity is important, as well. So you can see here on The Kitchen Front recipes, it tells you who was broadcasting at the time. And these would have been sort of well-known, family favourites and the broadcasters. And you even have the caricatures of the quite famous comedies. You’ve got Gert and Daisy here on Gert and Daisy’s Wartime Cookery Book. And celebrity can provide an important role because it’s people we already know, it’s people we like, and people who we maybe identify with who are presenting us the message. It’s not sort of someone from the Ministry, it’s not someone detached.
And again, they can be seen as the voice of common sense, the voice of everyday people, and can be seen sometimes as independent from, let’s say, a state view, or a government view. So they can at the same time kind of express public dissatisfaction, or kind of gripes with things like rationing, at the same time as giving information about it. So there is this important role that they’re playing again, and kind of reinforcing that message that it’s what we do. It’s kind of the common sense thing. We should be doing it. And I think there’s something that you see through all of these campaigns– how there was an interest in matching the mood of the public at the time.
And the Ministry both commissioned and conducted its own public opinion research to see how these campaigns were playing out, and to sort of make sure that what they were doing was going with the grain of public opinion at the time. And as we’ve seen sort of throughout other sessions, that’s quite common through a lot of this messaging– that there is kind of an intent to change attitudes, and change behaviour, but it has to work with prevailing public preferences and conceptions. So this week, I think what we’d like you to do as you’re working through the sessions is think about campaigns that you see around you in your everyday life.
How are they trying to kind of either change attitudes or reinforce attitudes? What tactics do they use? And share some examples of those in the discussions that follow. And I suppose my last question is really, has there been a campaign that’s changed your mind?

In this film, Ian and Maiken begin our exploration of how ideology and propaganda travel into the most intimate aspects of our personal lives: clothing, eating, and sexual behaviour. The first topic we focus on are the politics of food. We go through some of the British Library’s collections of historical pamphlets to analyse how and why the British government made it its business to encourage people to grow and consume certain foods during the Second World War.

Please use to comment function to share your thoughts on this topic. Is the politicisation of food culture unique to times of war and conflict, or can you think of peacetime examples where what and how we should eat has been subject to political intervention, directly or indirectly? And is it legitimate and sensible for political actors to try and guide such choices, or should they remain ‘private’?

© British Library.

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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