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Love, humour and consumerism

Learn how love, humour and consumerism were used as public health tools.
Alex Mold: Health educators often attempted to use positive emotions in their efforts to reach the public. In this step, we will look at a series of public health posters from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The posters dealt with a range of different conditions, and we will see how they drew on feelings of love, on humour, and their desire for consumer goods to try and get people to change their behaviour. We will also think about some of the potential downsides of these techniques and tactics.
When thinking about how health educators motivated feelings of love, it’s useful to distinguish between different kinds of love; parental and romantic. Let’s start by looking at parental love. In this poster, produced by the Central Council for Health Education some time in the 1960s, we see a child and a Teddy bear, looking up at a disembodied hand holding a cigarette. The child has an innocent expression on his face, whereas the Teddy bear appears angry. It would seem as if the child’s plaintiff expression is supposed to convey vulnerability, and the Teddy bear, anger, or frustration at the smoker. Take a closer look at the hand holding the cigarette. Do you think this is the hand of a man or a woman?
We can’t say for sure. But the hairless hand and arm and the pink fingernail might suggest that this is supposed to be the hand of a woman. This is important, as women and especially, mothers, have long been the target of public health campaigns. And as we will see in a minute, they feature heavily in campaigns that make use of parental love.
Mothers have also tended to feature strongly in vaccination campaigns. This poster, produced by the Health Education Council, most likely during the late 1970s or early 1980s, depicts a mother and her baby. The smiling mother cups her hand gently around the child’s head, and the baby looks up at her. The message of protection is reinforced by the text, which encourages mothers to protect your child by immunisation. Although the image is a photograph, it has been very carefully composed to underscore the message of maternal love and protection. Both the mother and baby are dressed in white, suggesting purity. And the mother was wearing a wedding ring on her finger, to make it clear that the child is born in wedlock.
The pose of the mother and baby is also reminiscent of the Madonna With Child, perhaps the ultimate representation of maternal love. So what do we have when we think about the two posters that we’ve looked at so far? Well, I think it’s clear that parental love is being used to motivate parents to protect their children from harm. But it’s also perhaps attempting to motivate feelings of guilt. Failing to get your child vaccinated or smoking in front of him or her not only threatens the well-being of the child, but also makes you a bad parent. Or so the posters imply.
A different kind of love, romantic love, has been made use of by health educators. We can see this particularly around campaigns designed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV/AIDS. As we saw in the previous step, and in step 2.10, the initial reaction to HIV/AIDS in Britain in the mid 1980s was characterised by panic, which manifested itself in some early health education campaigns that made use of fear and shock-and-horror tactics. But as the response matured, other tactics came into play. In this poster, produced by the gay AIDS organisation the Terrence Higgins Trust, draws on images and words associated with feelings of romantic love to promote a safe-sex message.
Playing on the lyrics from the well-known Beatles song, “All You Need is Love,” the poster adds, “And a little bit of rubber,” thus promoting condom use. The brightly-colored poster, with its use of yellow, pink, and the heart-and-arrow motif delivers a simple message in a striking and humorous way. At the same time, it is implied that you need more than love. That love in the age of AIDS must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility.
Love and responsibility also feature in this poster, produced to advertise the National AIDS Helpline by the Liverpool Health Promotion Agency in 1997. The poster uses images of multicoloured hearts to deliver the message that “Love and Passion” is “still in fashion.” The text promotes a safe-sex message in order to prevent the spread of HIV and STIs, but also pregnancy. This suggests this poster was intended to appeal not only to gay men, but to heterosexuals too. Once more, love is matched with a message to behave responsibly. So although different kinds of love is being motivated here than with the posters designed to elicit feelings of parental love, there are some similarities.
Both uses of love temper this with a sense of responsibility, and possibly guilt, if the viewer does not act in such a way to protect the people that they love, whether they be their sexual partner or their children.
The pairing of a positive emotion with a more negative one can also be seen in attempts to use humour in public health campaigns. This poster, produced for the Health Education Council in the late 1970s, makes use of a visual pun, with the text of the poster playing off the central image. The phrase, “Is your body coming between you and the opposite sex?” is given a slightly different spin by the image of the overweight man on the left, and the smiling women in the swimming pool. The joke appears to be on him. His body is literally coming between him and the woman in the pool. Is this funny? Viewed today, or even at the time, it’s hard to say.
Humour is a tricky tactic to employ. Some people will get the joke and find it amusing. Others will not. Yet, others might find it offensive. Indeed, we could see this image as stigmatising of the man at the centre, and of overweight people in general. The poster is promoting a certain kind of body image which may or may not be desirable, but it could have potentially damaging effects.
Feelings of attraction and repulsion are also at work in this image. The poster centres on a large photograph of the 1970s glam-rock icon, Marc Bolan. His pose suggests an exaggerated impression of disgust. The text above his head, “If Marc Bolan kissed you would he feel like this?” raises a question which is answered by the smaller text below. He would if you smoked. The text states that he doesn’t like kissing girls who smoke, as they taste like an old dog end. Once more, humour mixes with feelings of disgust and sexual unattractiveness. These are not the only tactics at work. Towards the end of the text, the poster refers to the financial cost of smoking.
This is something that was made use of in other anti-smoking campaigns that attempted to motivate feelings of acquisitive consumerism by stressing the financial cost of smoking. In this poster, produced by the Central Office of Information in 1966, we see a young man surrounded by fashionable consumer goods. These include expensive icon items like the moped, and new electronic devices like the record player. The man at the centre of the picture is wearing a t-shirt with “I Don’t Smoke” emblazoned across the front. The text at the bottom reads, “More money, more fun if you don’t smoke.” The message is clear. If you don’t smoke you will have more cash to spend on expensive luxury consumer goods and activities.
And this will be more fun than smoking.
A similar message is put forth by this pair of posters, also made for the Central Office of Information in 1965. Both posters feature a stylised lithograph of a young woman and a young man, respectively. Both are smoking cigarettes. But instead of smoke coming out of the end of the cigarette, there are silver coins. In each picture, the central figure is scowling. And their facial expressions, explained by the text above. Although each is slightly different, the message is much the same. By giving up smoking, you will have more money, which you can use to buy consumer goods. For the women, her smoking also seems to have led to the loss of a boyfriend.
And for the man, he’s got a shocking cough. Giving up smoking, the posters suggest, will leave you with more money and have some other positive effects too. It’s interesting that the health benefits of giving up smoking are very much secondary here. And they weren’t mentioned in the first poster at all. Some might argue that this de-emphasizes the health risks of smoking, and plays up acquisitive consumerism, which may not necessarily be a good thing in and of itself.
So what does all of this tell us? Well, we’ve seen how even what we might think of as positive emotions are evoked, such as love, humour, or consumerism, negative emotions can also be involved. Love is balanced by personal responsibility, and perhaps guilt. Humour can also end up stigmatising individuals and behaviours. And consumerism may be viewed by some as a force for bad, as well as good. What this suggests is that use of emotions in public health campaigns could be a double-edged sword for health educators.

In this Step we will look at a series of public health posters from the 1960s through to the 1990s. We will learn about how feelings of love, humour and consumerism were used as tools for behaviour change. Subjects included HIV/AIDS, smoking, safe sex and healthy body image. In this video we will also discuss how these tactics may have negative consequences.

How has health education evolved? Are similar tactics – love, humour, shock and horror still used today?

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A History of Public Health in Post-War Britain

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