How the scare tactics of the past shape the Affordable Care Act debate today

The long, lurid tradition of public health propaganda

By Kevin Hartnett

                       December 08, 2013


A creepy looking Uncle Sam in anti-ACA ads.


A creepy looking Uncle Sam in anti-ACA ads.


The Affordable Care Act has prompted a Supreme Court case, polarized Congress, and defined a national election. It has also inspired a secondary battle in the creative realm. Opponents of the law have produced videos in which a creepy-looking Uncle Sam prepares to administer a prostate exam; they’ve altered photos of the president to look like Heath Ledger’s sadistic Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Meanwhile, government agencies charged with enrolling people have responded with friendly animations that promote how the law works, while left-leaning groups have contributed zany pro-ACA ads in which recently insured college “bros” perform keg stands, worry free.

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.


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.

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Categories: Behavior Modification

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