How have public health messages changed? Over to you

Post submitted by Dr Alex Mold.

Are you afraid of making “One False Move”?
Do you want to give your children “A Lifetime of Protection” against infectious diseases?
Are you behaving in such a way that you “Don’t Die of Ignorance”?

These are just some of the public health messages explored in a public film discussion evening organised by Dr Alex Mold on 25 March 2014 on the theme “Communicating Health, Communicating Disease”.

The participants, of all ages and backgrounds, enjoyed public health information films dating from the 1960s to the present, followed by expert analysis and lively discussion.  It was interesting to discover not only how public health messages have changed, but also how our views of public health have altered over time.

Dr Heidi Larson discussed “A Lifetime of Protection”, a film produced in the 1970s to encourage parents to vaccinate their children against diseases such as measles and rubella. The film raised many issues around public trust in vaccination and the risks associated with this practice. Members of the audience also commented on the gendered nature of the film and its message: the majority of people interviewed in the vox pops in the film were women, suggesting that childhood vaccination was being presented as an issue for women and mothers not men and fathers.

Video: Immunisation: a lifetime of protection (Credit: Wellcome Library)

Gender and ideas about risk and responsibility were also at work in “One False Move” (1963), a film about the dangers of cross-infection and the need to promote good hygiene in the hospital.  Professor Anne Marie Rafferty from King’s College London, noted that the central message about reducing the risk of infection and encouraging staff to behave responsibly was directed at a specific audience: female nurses and working class auxiliary staff.  For some in the audience, this message was patronising and reinforced hierarchical assumptions about who was responsible for spreading infection.  Doctors, for instance, were noticeable by their absence.  Yet other viewers felt that the film was informative and clear in its message about cleanliness and good practice.

Video: One False Move (Credit: Wellcome Library)

The question of intended audience also came up in connection with of a set of films from the 1980s and 1990s about HIV/AIDS.  Dr Catherine Dodds pointed out that some of the films like the AIDS Monolith appeared to be targeted at everyone, whereas other, later, films appeared to be more directed at specific audiences who were thought to be most at risk of contracting the virus, such as young, sexually active people. The changing nature of the message on AIDS was also raised in the discussion following these films. Members of the audience pointed out that the ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ message put forward by the AIDS Monolith film provided little information about who was at risk, or how people should behave in order to reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV.

Notions of risk and responsibility were also at work in the final film, “Swine Flu – Why You Should Get Vaccinated” from 2009 (NHS West Midlands). Sandra Mounier-Jack pointed out some of the contradictions in the film, such as the fact that although the film sought to encourage those who were in at risk groups to get vaccinated, they were not expected to demand the vaccination themselves – instead their GP would contact them. Despite being the most recent, the audience felt the film was in some ways very traditional in its presentation of the issues.

In between the films, and at the end of the session, there was a lively discussion between the experts and the audience.  Particularly stimulating were a set of ‘visual minutes’ produced by two artists from Creative Connections.  These minutes illustrated powerfully some of the central themes that came out of the themes around risk, responsibility, individual behaviour, prevention and choice.

Members of the audience enjoyed the selection of films and the opportunity to critically engage.  Following feedback from participants, we are planning further public sessions as part of Alex Mold’s Wellcome Trust New Investigator Award project on the place of the public in public health.  These will present the campaigns in context, as well as analyse their content, and focus on non-communicable as well as infectious diseases.

Image: Visual minutes by Creative Connections. Credit: Alex Mold