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What do health posters actually do?

Rotten er en Landeplage. (Rats are a plague on the land.) Statens Annonce & Reklamebureau, Denmark, 1946. A rat crawls over a map of Denmark. The caption reads “Anmeld straks Rottebesøg paa kommunekontoret-og Bekæmp selv med alle midler” ('Immediately tell the city authorities if you have rats in your house, and use all possible means to exterminate them').Some posters attempt to incite anxiety. Health posters often represent contagion through an iconography of death: skulls, skeletons, shadows. Disease proliferates, spread by ominous agents. We are beset by germs, flies, rats, mosquitoes, prostitutes, swarming masses of humanity, even seemingly innocent figures such as little girls or old men. The disease agent is not us, but something else, an Other. Even so, we may harbor it within our bodies and unintentionally spread it by our conduct.

But they also offer reassurance. Collective and individual action, under the guidance of medical authority, are depicted as effective counters to disease. The health campaign does not want to scare the viewer off by showing the details of the horrors of disease. The disease agent is therefore often ridiculed or domesticated. The thing that kills is the thing that visually entertains.

Do health posters really do the job?

Since the opening years of the 20th century, health professionals have been impressed with the advertising model. Visually compelling ad campaigns measurably increase sales. But advertising is not an exact science and reasons for the effectiveness of particular advertising images are often difficult to discern.

Health behavior is complex: Much is at stake. Health campaigns often have limited budgets and usually cannot saturate the media. And even if they do, the public can always ignore them. History shows that mass media health campaigns best succeed as part of coordinated mobilizations that involve public health workers, communities, government officials and grass-roots activists at the local, regional, national and international level.