People Like Us

In the 1990s something happened to public awareness campaigns; they became interesting. No longer advice-laden missives, campaign materials became eye-catching and thought provoking. During this decade, one campaign was hugely influential in its impact on a number of different levels; this campaign was Zero Tolerance. The campaign has promulgated a rash of copycat images not only from campaigns on other issues but also mainstream advertisers. Governments, initially surprised by the impact of feminist-led campaigns, have started to show interest in this transformation of a form of communication that has been around for a long time.

Public-awareness campaigns have attracted interest, not only from government but also within academia. Political science, communication studies, criminology, psychology and sociology have all examined public-awareness campaigns and usually the focus is on the impact and influence of campaigns on individuals and society (Leiss, 1987). Rather than simply examining the effectiveness of campaigns, this article questions why campaigns are seen as socially necessary. It is not enough to consider how the message is received, of equal importance is how it is conceived (Burton, 1990). A critical approach is important in uncovering the exercise of power contained within campaigns.

Campaign messages are not neutral. They are socially constructed and represent vested interests. Friere (1970) has argued that knowledge is created through the human act of ‘naming’ but ‘naming’ is not a process of objectively describing some ‘truth’ but rather an expression of a particular viewpoint. Any critical theory must therefore consider the context of knowledge creation and as Smith (1978) highlights, the context of knowledge production has traditionally excluded women from participation. Instead, governments and corporate bodies have dominated knowledge production, generally for economic and political purposes.

Certainly, companies and organisations have used visual images to promote their goods and services since the birth of advertising (Leiss, 1987). From leaflets and posters to radio and TV, advertising can increase awareness and inform the public. There is little doubt that advertising has become increasingly sophisticated during the latter half of the twentieth century, however, advertising is not usually seen an effective tool for conveying complex issues or promoting attitudinal change (Benady, 1994). Although public awareness campaigns use many of the strategies of advertising to get the message across, often relying on images and slogans to promote their message, the aim of a campaign is not to sell a product but to sell an idea, challenge existing behaviour and so effect change.

Chris Baker, convenor of judges of the IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards has argued that advertising strategies are more effective on social issues than on the sale of frozen peas. While everyone has an opinion on peas, concepts are harder to pin down and attitudes can be shifted if emotions are aroused within the target audience (cited in Benady, 1994).

For campaigns on social issues, a simple but focussed message is often the most effective form of communication (Leiss, 1987). Messages need to be clear, concise and relevant. It is through the use of simple images and snappy slogans that the public absorbs the message. This can open the door to public debate and help the ideas behind the slogans gain political legitimacy (Pahl, 1985).

It is assumed that the intentions of public-awareness campaigns are benevolent (DETR, 1997). They are to warn of harm, to protect citizens and preserve rights and freedoms. The state as ‘protector’, uses public-awareness campaigns to communicate, inform and educate the public. This article examines the emergence of public awareness campaigns and of primary interest is why the state should, in the face of competing social needs, provide the enormous resources necessary in mounting campaigns? But it is important to bear in mind that campaigns are political vehicles, used to convey ideological messages (Gamman & Marshment, 1988; Baeher & Gray, 1996). Whatever the focus or subject matter, traditionally campaigns have focused on controlling behaviour, creating order and securing social consensus; there is a design, constructed to convey a message to a particular audience. Generally, campaigns emerge out of social concern or even crisis. Put simply, the aim of most campaigns is control a particular social problem, making it easier for the state to function, be it on a local or national level.

The article also examines how campaign materials identify and communicate with its target audience. Fundamentally, if a campaign fails to speak effectively to those who most need the message, then the message will be lost. Of particular interest therefore is the interaction between the campaign development and existing knowledge and research.

Campaigns are not a new phenomenon. Posters used to instil moral ‘norms’ and promote collective action were evident during the Second World War and the propaganda machine specifically targeted women to ‘do their bit’ (Colman, 1995; Hanson, 1996; Dougherty Delano, 2000). Women became the targets of campaigns, which sought to highlight their social position and their social responsibilities. More recently, ‘drink-driving’ campaigns, generally assumed to be gender neutral, illustrate how campaigns develop over time. But a consequence of the political dominance driving public-awareness campaigns, is that other sources of knowledge are often ignored or made senseless as they ‘do not fit’ within the logic of the existing system. These ‘subjugated knowledges’ (Foucault, 1980), including those from a feminist perspective, risk marginalisation. The state’s role within drink driving campaigns is accepted as legitimate, seen as part of a crime prevention initiative. By comparison, crimes against women have until recently been seen as individualistic acts, not a societal problem (Stanko, 1985; Kelly, 1988).

Whilst public-awareness campaigns endorsed by the state may appear ideologically neutral, the Zero Tolerance Campaign’s feminist background was never denied (Foley, 1993; Kitzinger & Hunt, 1994). The Zero Tolerance campaign, was (and remains) concerned with change, through challenging traditional views and pointing out the lie that lurks beneath the claim of social equality between the sexes. Three factors remain central to the power of the Zero Tolerance campaign. Firstly its grounding in a feminist understanding of male violence against women, secondly its consistency of approach and finally its repetition of its simple basic message.

Campaigns as propaganda


Knowledge creation is never divorced from human interest (Habermas, 1971). The ideas and images used within public-awareness campaigns are manufactured for a purpose, generally to create a world that explains and justifies action. Such use of knowledge constitutes an exercise of power. Certainly, if the intention of public-awareness campaigns were merely to inform, there would be no concern for potential behavioural or attitudinal change. By selecting the information included in such campaigns, the ideological imperatives of the knowledge producers and controllers determines the distribution of knowledge. The messages are not necessarily for the ‘good’ of the recipients but rather suit the purposes of the message producers (Jowett & O’Donnell, 1986).



An example of how public awareness campaigns have been used to capture the hearts and minds of the public is the propaganda war fought during the Second World War. In the UK and the US, governments launched campaigns aimed to stir up patriotism and secure public support. The posters used generally took one of two forms, the ‘can do’ and the ‘don’t do’; the former used images of fearless individuals, strong and confident, while the latter played on public fear and concerns.

For many women, acute wartime labour shortage provided the first opportunity to participate in the workforce (Woollacott, 1994; Summerfield, 1995). More than that, it has been argued that “The conditions for the renewal of feminism … were provided by the Second World War” (Meehan, 1985:35). ‘Can do’ publicity campaigns were particularly aimed at women who had never before held jobs but, far from being feminist in nature, the images used sought to glamorise the jobs, accentuating the feminine qualities of the women performing them.

Of all the images used on posters at this time, perhaps the most famous was that of Rosie the Riveter–the patriotic female factory worker; she was tough but she still had her lipstick and mascara (Colman, 1995). The message for women was that the compromise between femininity and employment was achievable. She was described as “…the symbol of a generation of American women who rolled up their sleeves and went to work during World War II. Rosie the Riveter, red bandanna wrapped about her head, embodied the “We Can Do It” spirit” (Hanson, 1996:44). The ‘can do’ poster was directed at young women, generally unmarried, who could do the work until the men came back, at which time they would presumably be expected to settle down to domesticity, hand the jobs back to the men and have babies.

What view of reality is being proposed here? The state needed women in the workforce and in this respect the posters were reassuring women that they could ‘do it’. But at the same time, there was concern that gender roles should not become too blurred. It was one thing to exploit their labour but the state did not really want women to secure any long lasting social liberation. Women might be able to work but they would work within male defined confines. Recruiting women into the workforce whilst painting a picture (quite literally) of how women should look, meant that their role as ‘women’ was not changing and that their labour was not meant to threaten the status quo.

Such posters served to set the agenda around the labour shortage. By making women feel responsible for doing ‘their bit’, attention could be diverted away from government activity. Writing in America, Margaret Mead (1946), argued that women experienced the war not in a collective sense, but as individuals, through the absence of the men they loved. But the poster propaganda, by focusing on local problems (labour shortage), diverted public attention and debate away from issues such as foreign policy, military spending and war crimes. The call to patriotic duty re-enforced the ideological message that the whole population was pulling in the same direction (Summerfield, 1995).

By comparison, the ‘don’t do’ posters were designed to startle and provoke people out of their indifference with images and messages that were meant to be shocking. The posters pointed to the enemy within and this enemy was likely to be a woman. Many of the posters played on the fears held by the public. ‘Walls have ears’and ‘careless talk costs lives’ ensured that the public was aware of its duty to safeguard against enemy spies. Rupp argues that a “new woman” with strong sense of citizenship emerged, “She wore simple clothes and sensible shoes, used lipstick, powder and fixed her hair in a short, smooth, neat style, and did not indulge as much as she had before the war in coffee drinking, smoking or gossiping.” (1978:145-6)

But for all that they were still ordinary women, someone’s wife or mother and that is how they were depicted, but the text informs the public that she has cost lives through her ‘careless talk’. The design of this poster, using a photograph of an ordinary looking woman and text which is provocative, gave an uncompromising message and it is the incongruity of the image and the text that has impact.

The emotional appeal of the messages contained in the posters, the simplicity of the slogans and compelling nature of the images highlights the ready acceptance of what would now be called a ‘sound bite’. This visual media helped to make sense of severe social disruption and not only gave women a role in securing the safety of the country but also acted to re-enforce their femininity at the same time.

The impact of such campaigns should not be under-estimated. The re-enforcement of gender stereotypes, the promotion of public anxiety and the construction of a patriotic moral consensus reduced the potential for dissent and social unrest. But despite the aim of promoting social cohesion, public-awareness campaigns also provoked social change (Rowbotham, 1973; Braybon & Summerfield, 1987). Women, the primary target of the campaigns, took on social responsibilities, which after the war, many women were either reluctant or unable to discard. Working women do not simply produce goods but also produce a cultural identity. Butler has argued how gender is constituted through performance; that gender identities gain their power through “a stylized repetition of acts.”(1990:140). Campaign developers, perhaps unwittingly, were responsible for more than just the behavioural change of individual women over a limited time period. The transformation of women’s social position may have been unintentional but it was real. After the war, this type of propaganda was replaced with theories on childcare (Bowlby, 1953), which urged women to stay at home. Although many women returned to domesticity after the war, their potential and ability had been publicly recognised and their awareness raised. It was the discontent of women’s lives, identified by Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963), which heralded the second wave of feminism.