The long, lurid tradition of public health propaganda
By Kevin Hartnett
December 08, 2013
A creepy looking Uncle Sam in anti-ACA ads.
There’s a name for all of this, of course. The campaign to get people to embrace the Affordable Care Act, and the countervailing effort to cast doubt on it, is essentially a propaganda war. And though propaganda might seem like a heavy weapon to deploy on an already-passed health care law, public health has been the site of intense propaganda wars for more than a century—sometimes with lurid, dramatic imagery that makes the tussle over the ACA look tame.
You’ve definitely seen public health propaganda, even if you didn’t think of it in those terms: practice safe sex, buckle your seat belt (“click it or ticket”), stop smoking, don’t drink and drive. If these types of appeals feel less sinister than some propaganda from the past, that’s not an accident: It’s evidence of a meaningful shift in our awareness of propaganda, and what kind of messages work on us.
The kegstanding frat-bros.
Propaganda is nearly as old as human civilization, but scholars generally cite World War I as having given birth to the medium in its modern form. Governments on both sides of the fight exploited the rise of film, newsreels, and national periodicals that gave them access to a new mass audience. The result was often pretty blunt: In America, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information, which made a finger-pointing Uncle Sam a household figure, and disseminated over-the-top images that demonized the German Kaiser as a “mad brute” gorilla set on ransacking American virtue.