Responses to AIDS as told through posters

A collection of “more than 6,200 posters in 60 languages from 100-plus countries” regarding AIDS is being made available to the public through a website. Here is what these posters can tell us:

Well, naturally, you would think about it as medical history since AIDS was then a uniformly fatal disease. But the reason it’s more important as social history is because, if you look at a whole lot of the posters, you will see how different countries approached the subject. Here you’re dealing with a new disease, dealing with the closeted subject of sex, and it was really amazing to see the variation from country to country and even from groups within a country. To me, that’s by far the most striking thing about the collection.

Generally speaking, in the United States, the posters were less interesting because they had to be neutral. They had to be careful not to offend some group or some sensibility so the best American posters were usually put up by private organizations. Abroad, that wasn’t quite as true. There were some good ones that the CDC put out. One shows a young woman sitting on a chair dressed from the waist down, her legs are crossed, and it says, “A sure way not to get AIDS.” Another one, my children’s favorite, shows a young man and woman necking through the back window of a car. It says, “Vanessa was in a fatal car accident last night. Only she doesn’t know it yet.”…

The watershed was October 1986 when Surgeon General [C. Everett] Koop published his AIDS report. That totally changed the picture. That was the beginning of a huge outpouring of posters all over the world, not just the United States. He really made [it acceptable] to talk about using condoms. If you look at The New York Times, the word “condom” I don’t think appeared until the mid 1980s. I may be mistaken but it certainly didn’t appear very early.

This sounds like a very interesting collection which would be useful for examining two things:

1. How the medical knowledge was translated into cultural narratives across different countries. As the cited part above suggests, this public message would need to fit with cultural messages regarding sex and diseases. It is also interesting to think in which countries and settings posters are very effective ways for disseminating information as opposed to other options like television or radio shows and commercials, public service announcements in various forms, or through state influenced facilities like schools and hospitals.

2. How the cultural message changed over time, particularly as medical knowledge improved and the public became more educated. For example, did more recent posters have to be more edgy in order to remind people that AIDS is still something they should be concerned about?

This may just make a great example for a class session on medical sociology.

As a side note, I wonder if there is much interest in posters among historians, art museums, and those interested in social history. Earlier this year, I saw an extensive exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago of TASS (the “Soviet press agency”) posters during World War II. The exhibit was quite interesting as the posters combined art with text and design in creating a negative cultural image of Germans. Are posters primarily a mid to late 20th century phenomenon and how much can they tell us about the larger society compared to other media options?

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