A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

125 127 3 130 6 131 7


No. 41. 26th March, 1943


(This is based on special reports received from Regional Information Officers, in the thirteen Regions, covering public reactions up to 14th March, 1943.)



1. What the public says about venereal disease.

2. What the public knows about venereal disease.

3. The public's attitude to publicity about venereal disease.


4. The extent to which the public have seen the press advertisements

5. General reaction to the advertisements

6. The appearance of the advertisements

7. The contents and wording of the advertisements

8. The advertisements criticised in detail


9. Suggestions for further publicity and education

10. Suggestions for further administrative action


1. What the public says about venereal disease

It has been generally found that there is considerable reluctance to discuss venereal diseases spontaneously. This reluctance is specially noticeable among older people, the “working classes” and those living in rural areas. “Many are extremely averse even to speak the words, ‘venereal disease’.” Among “thinking people”, however, the reluctance is much less marked, especially once the topic is opened. The “strong natural reluctance” of the majority has meant that there has been little spontaneous comment on the Venereal Diseases Campaign, and, even when questioned, many people were disinclined to talk. Thus, a factory worker contact in the North Midland Region says: “I asked quite a large number of people: ‘Have you read this?’ and they said ‘Yes’ and then closed up like oysters”.

Whenever it was possible to make the inarticulate talk about the subject, it was found that there was “no fundamental difference of opinion between those who find it difficult and those who find it easy to discuss the subject”. Though this report will mainly mirror the opinions of the articulate, there is no reason to suppose that those of the inarticulate, who have formulated their views, have different opinions.

2. What the public knows about venereal disease

No special effort was made to discover the extent of public knowledge about venereal disease but it is evident that it is extremely limited. Many, especially young people and older working-class people, do not know what venereal diseases are - under that or any other name. Among those who know of their existence, there is widespread ignorance of “the forms they take and the risks of promiscuity”. A married factory worker in Birmingham “of a quite intelligent type”, said: “I'd never heard of venereal disease and didn't know what it meant - neither did a lot of other girls in the factory”. Ignorance is thought to be greater among women than men, and greatest in rural areas, where there is a tendency to write it off as “just a problem for towns”, or as “a process of nature, like childbirth, and old age and death”.

Among those who know about the diseases, there is a very widespread belief, and even “habitual anxiety”, that infection may be caught, “not only from lavatory seats, but by contact with door handles, towels, cups, etc.”.

3. The public's attitude to publicity about venereal disease

Among those who are aware of the present campaign, approval is almost unanimous. The idea of making public the facts about venereal diseases seems to have disturbed only an infinitesimal minority. Expressions of approval are, moreover, almost invariably followed by the opinion that the question should have been tackled long ago, and that the present campaign is long overdue.


(N.B. So far reactions are almost entirely confined to the press advertisements first appearing in the National and Provincial press Feb. 22nd, March 1st and 8th)

4. The extent to which the public have seen the press advertisements

The fact that venereal disease is a subject which causes little spontaneous comment has made it difficult to discover how far the press advertisements have been seen or read. It seems likely, however, that the majority have not yet noticed the advertisements, and that many of those who have seen them failed to realise what they were about, and did not read them. It is suggested that “young people, both in and out of the Services, rarely, if ever, read a paper and that those who do would be inclined to overlook the advertisement, which is not striking enough to catch the eye”.

On the other hand, the great majority of the “more thoughtful people”, - including local government officials, Civil Servants, accountants, clerks, typists, journalists, commercial travellers, factory management personnel, nurses, doctors, welfare workers, and ministers of religion, - do seem to have read the advertisements.

Insofar as the preliminary target of the campaign was to arouse the interest of the informed sections of the public, it appears to have succeeded. Insofar as the ultimate target is the feckless and the stupid rather than the more intelligent, it has not yet achieved its end.

5. General reaction to the advertisements

There has been considerable approval for the advertisements on their first appearance:-

a. They are regarded as “evidence that the problem is really being tackled at last”.

b. They “cover a lot of ground very concisely”... they are “simple and direct”... and strike a “reasonable balance between prudery and over-graphic emphasis”.

At the same time, many people regard them as “only a first step in the right direction”, and, as the first wave of general approval subsides, people are becoming more critical of the advertisements, and many alterations are suggested.

6. The appearance of the advertisements

Many people consider that:

  1. The advertisements do not attract enough attention . This is far and away the commonest criticism. They are considered insufficiently forceful and arresting. “Young people need stronger and more colourful presentation.” They are thought to be “too much like Fuel advertisements or other Government advertising”, and this, it is considered, will deter people from reading them - “people simply do not look at advertisements of an official appearance”. On the other hand, the lack of any plain sign that they are Government advertisements is commented on; some have even mistaken them for patent medicine advertisements. The Food advertisements and the “Squander Bug” were referred to quite frequently as “much better examples of Government advertising - more ‘human’ and better ‘attention-getters’”. It is suggested that the words “Venereal Disease” should head the advertisements, or that “startling headlines” of some kind should be used. The use of the faint letters “V.D.” with the oblique panel superimposed has apparently failed to catch the public eye.

  2. The advertisements are too crowded : They are variously described as “too wordy” or “too long”; the small print is also deplored. “The busy housewife, who might occasionally look at a paper, would not trouble to read it through”.... “it is thought that a series of shorter ones appearing more frequently might attract more attention”.

7. The content and wording of the advertisements

(a) The approach should be more open, frank, and drastic , in the opinion of the majority. Only a “handful of people” expressed “disgust at their publication”. The general view is that they are not outspoken enough, “too wrapped up”, “too hush-hush”, “genteel”, “highbrow”, “polite”, “too much like a chapter from Ecclesiastes”. “The advertisements lacked punch.” A number of people advocate “the scare approach” - “you have to frighten them”. “Fear of shocking”, it is felt, “must not be allowed to gag the campaign”. “This is not a time to be squeamish or mealy-mouthed”.

The Daily Mirror publicity, and particularly the issue of 22 February, has received far more praise than criticism and has attracted considerable attention - sometimes on the part of those who had overlooked or misunderstood the press advertisements.

(b) The wording should be simpler : It is thought that “the advertisement would be much more intelligible to working-class people if everyday words were used - the words most frequently suggested were ‘pox’ and ‘clap’”. A man in a Birmingham factory is reported as saying: “Unless you put it in good old ‘Brum’, the chaps won't read it - you tell the old fogies who writes 'em, we working people haven't been taught these clever words”. In the same way, “Sexual intercourse”, is suggested for “intercourse”; and “self-control” for “abstinence”, which is taken to refer to drink.

(c) The “moral” versus the “medical” approach : Two distinct schools of thought are discernible throughout the reports. The moralists, who want “more stress laid on the religious and moral aspect”, and who also want to “frighten people into chastity” by showing them how “truly horrible” these diseases are; and “those who believe that we are dealing with physical health and not morals, and that it would be better to concentrate on methods of prevention rather than on the fact that abstinence is not harmful”.

On this question much controversy is reported, and the advertisements are criticised from opposite sides. The “moralists” are critical on the grounds that “the moral issue is too much neglected” and that “information just encourages sin”; while the contrary view is that “all the moral propaganda in the world won't cure sufferers from V.D.”, and some even think that “the public should be given more information as to the use of preventive measures with specific instructions as to how these are to be used”.

The majority appear to favour the “health” or “medical” approach, rather than the “moral” approach.

8. The advertisements criticised in detail

(Points taken in the order in which they occur in the “Ten Plain Facts”.)

(a) “Innocent” or “accidental infection” : The deep-seated and widespread belief that venereal disease can be got from lavatory seats, cups, towels, etc., has led to much criticism of the advertisement (Fact 6) for “not laying sufficient stress on the possibility of the spread of the disease through contact other than intercourse”. Those who cling to this belief without being quite certain, ask: “why did not the advertisement clarify the chief point on which the general community ardently desires enlightenment - an authoritative statement concerning innocent infection from public lavatories”. “The most heated discussions” centre round this question. Confusion as to whether or not the germs “quickly die outside the human body” has not been lessened as a result of an article in the February issue of “Health and Strength”; this has been taken to mean that syphilis can be transferred by any fluid containing the germ, either directly, or indirectly through a pipe, cup, razor, comb, wind instrument, etc. “People say the two statements are contradictory and that they want more definite explanation on the subject of the dangers of infection.”

Some people suggest that Plain Fact No. 6, though medically true, is psychologically unsound. “It would be better to put it about that these diseases can be contracted without intercourse, so as to provide affected persons with an excuse, and thus make them more willing to submit to treatment.”

(b) “Free and easy sex behaviour” as risk of infection (Fact No. 7) : This, and the advocacy of clean living, will, it is thought, sound to most younger men and women “like special pleading, and a sop to the moralist”. Surely, only intercourse, and not the milder degrees of free and easy sex behaviour, spread venereal disease; is it not fraudulent to suggest danger where none exists, so as to discourage sexual behaviour which has no connection with venereal disease? Fact No. 7 says “Clean living is the only way to escape infection”. The presumption is that venereal disease provides evidence of unclean living. Surely, it is said, innocent people can be infected by husbands, wives, or parents? This stress on promiscuity is thought to be bad; according to a contact with experience in the V.D. department of a hospital: “Sex guilt is the greatest bar to attendance, and this applies equally to the innocent, those infected by husbands and wives”. (It is added that the other great bar to attendance is “sheer carelessness and irresponsibility”.)

(c) Treatment :

(1) “ The efficiency of treatment , as well as its nature, has not been sufficiently stressed”, it is thought (Plain Fact No. 8). “There is a fairly widespread belief that the disease cannot be cured, or at any rate not completely”; on the other hand, there are “rumours of a new treatment that is effective in one day”. Ignorance and misinformation regarding cure are apparently very common, and “some astonishing theories on this have been propounded”.

(11) The secrecy of treatment : It is suggested that “future advertisements should be regionalised”, and that “addresses of the nearest clinic should be given in the local papers” as many people dislike asking their own doctor about this”. It is asked: “What is the position about medical etiquette.... if people knew it was all right to go to a strange doctor, they would be much more ready to go.” Two difficulties arise over the location of clinics. On the one hand, “infected people object to going to local hospitals, because there is not the required degree of secrecy.... Further, most clinics are held during working hours and, when a man takes time off from work, this causes comment among his fellow workers. There is also the great fear of meeting friends there”. On the other hand, it is also said that “as long as treatment for V.D. is carried out in separate clinics, secrecy of treatment cannot in fact be maintained - particularly in small towns”.

(d) The symptoms : It was very commonly thought “the advertisements were not outspoken enough about the symptoms of venereal disease”, and that “more information should be given”. “The public feel that these should be described and illustrated in a really forceful and possibly frightening way”. Not only will “many people who have got it, still not know that they are infected”, but also “a good deal of worry will now be caused by any rash, since the advertisement evaded the point of location of the symptoms”. Chemists and doctors in one town are said to have been “flooded with enquiries from ignorant people” because this omission “gave them the wrong impression that they were suffering from one of these diseases”.

(e) Suggested omissions , besides those indicated above, are:

(1) “ The connection between drink and immorality has not been brought up.” It is widely thought that “alcohol is responsible for much V.D.” and that “publicity should convey a very strong warning about the dangers that may be run into while under the influence of drink”. It is suggested that the advertisements were silent on this point because of the powerful influence of the brewing trade.

(11) The need for cleanliness should be stressed more; particularly “girls and women should be educated to wash more, especially during and after menstruation”.

(111) “An appeal to parents to discuss the subject with their children” should have been included.

(IV) The “dread effects of the disease” upon children should have been stressed.


(These may be classified under two headings: Suggestions for publicity and education, and suggestions for administrative action.)

9. Suggestions for further publicity and education

There is a fairly general feeling that “press advertisements are all very well as a beginning, but can only be a beginning” and that “the Government should go much further in bringing home to the people not only the consequences of infection but the seriousness of the present position”. Many people feel that “such advertisements are read by only a proportion of the community”, and that “an advertisement in the corner of a newspaper does not give sufficient prominence to so important a subject”.... “Why could not the advertisements be placed in the centre of the page?” Even more is it doubted whether “such advertisements get to the right people”, and it is felt that “stronger methods are needed to reach the ignorant, uneducated, careless and indifferent” - such as, for example, “young girls in country districts, who, at the moment, are possible victims because of their haunting of camps and aerodromes”.

Suggestions include:

(a) “Short films shown in the ordinary commercial cinema.” This is the most frequent of all suggestions. They should be “forced on the proprietors, if necessary”.

(b) “Posters that will easily catch the eye” , on hoardings generally, in railway stations, factories, technical colleges, and the lavatories of pubs and cinemas.

(c) Pictures and photographs , whether in the press or on posters. It is pointed out that “lots of people don't read advertisements and only look at pictures”. Some “advocate the use of ‘horror pictures’ to bring home the gravity of the matter not only to young people, who ignore the advertisements, but also to some older people who regard the diseases as almost routine matters”. One suggestion is “a photo of a blind baby, with the caption: ‘Do you want your baby to be born blind?’”

(d) Literature and pamphlets , “freely and frankly illustrated”, and “giving facts and instances”, are suggested by many people. These would be more effective if they did not “have to be asked for”, and it is suggested that they should be “issued with every ration book, or in the pay packets of all men and women”. The Y.M.C.A. pamphlet on the subject for troops is praised.

(e) Sex education in schools is commonly suggested, though for adolescents rather than young children; the biology course is thought the best place for it. Some think “a special campaign should be launched at young people”, but others consider it “unwise, at such a difficult age, to muddle up their ideas on sex”.

(f) Talks to youth organisations are frequently suggested, also talks to adults in the Home Guard and Civil Defence, in local Welfare Centres and Women's Institutes, and hostels - particularly for young girls. Factory talks are also advocated - “provided particular factories in an area are not picked out, thus giving them a stigma”.

(g) Wireless Talks by doctors, preferably “The Radio Doctor” and “women welfare workers”. Sir Wilson Jameson's talk (23rd October, 1942) has been repeatedly praised in Regional reports and, according to B.B.C. Listener Research Report, “listeners gave this talk an appreciation index of 90 (out of 100), a record for the 110 talks reported on, and 13 points above the average”.

An embarrassing possibility in connection with wireless talks is, however, quite often mentioned: It is suggested that, “if possible, these should take place after 9 p.m., so that very young children should not hear them, as ‘some have already started asking questions’”. “It would be better for the announcer to say, ‘A statement on V.D. will follow this bulletin’, and parents could shut off or pack the children off to bed.”

(h) The Church : “The efforts made by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church in general to support the scheme” have met with some appreciation, and it is thought that “more should be done on these lines”. Special Services, and even films on the subject in churches, are suggested. Some, however, regard “the cant of the moral aspect as typical of the way in which the leaders of religion in this country try to settle problems”.

10. Suggestions for further administrative action

  1. Compulsory notification is widely and vigorously advocated, and the arguments against it are quite unknown.

  2. Regular medical examinations for the whole population are suggested, and “an increasing volume of opinion” is apparently in favour of them. It is thought that they might also help in detecting T.B., malnutrition, etc.

  3. Compulsory examination before marriage is a popular proposal. “The presentation of a certificate showing a clean bill of health should be an essential condition of marriage.”

  4. Isolation of severe cases is sometimes suggested and compulsory treatment occasionally.

  5. Strict enforcement of the alcohol licensing laws , particularly in connection with the serving or drinks to boys and girls under 18, is urged.

  6. Licensed houses under strict police and medical supervision” are suggested by a small minority as a solution.

Home Intelligence Division

26th March, 1943 .

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