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Images, Producers, Viewers

What are health posters designed to do?

The first job of the health poster is to recruit the viewer’s gaze. Like the commercial advertisement — which disturbs, seduces, entertains, annoys — the health poster will do almost anything to get the attention of its public.

The cultural expectation is that the health poster — like the commercial advertisement — will exert a powerful effect on the behavior of the public.

Beware… Drink only approved water. Never give a germ a break! War Department, United States, 1944. A soldier, about to drink from a microbe-infested jungle stream, is surprised to see in the reflection his face transformed into a figure of death.Through a combination of rational argument and emotionally affecting imagery, the health poster will persuade or motivate viewers to carry a handkerchief, see a doctor, get an x-ray, use a condom, refrain from drinking unsanitary water, get vaccinated, give money to a health advocacy organization, etc.

The different styles, approaches and figurations reflect differing views of what posters can do.

Each poster belongs to a singular historical and cultural moment: a particular health campaign, disease, institution, set of professional and public constituencies. Each poster is produced in unique circumstances that reflect the technical abilities and expectations of the artists, designers, sponsors and audience. But the poster always does more than just spread a stated message about health. It also conveys ideological, cultural and moral assumptions about gender, politics, race, class, and/or society.