A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46


1 . Public attitudes on Personal Health and Keeping Fit

The questions on the changes in health and weight were asked partly to arouse interest and partly to obtain information which could be compared with the results of a possible similar inquiry at a later date. In the present inquiry 10% of the 1796 people questioned said they were better or slightly better in health than before the war, 53% said their health was the same, and 37% that it was worse or slightly worse. About the same proportions had gained, lost or remained the same weight.

The Ministry of Health wanted to know the extent to which people were aware of the conception of keeping fit, i.e. taking preventive action as distinct from curative treatment. In answer to the question “What do you do to keep fit?”, 33% said that they did not know or that they did nothing special. 51% said that they got plenty of exercise, worked hard or kept busy, 23% that they got fresh air, 21 % that they paid attention to diet, got adequate sleep and lived a regular life. 10% that they took health salts, patent medicines, etc. Only about 5% said they that saw their doctor or visited a health clinic regularly.

In answer to the question: “Where do you go, or look, for information on how to keep fit?” 74% replied that they did not go or look for such information, or that they relied on their own common sense, or the advice of their families or friends: 9% looked to publicity in some form or another, such as books or magazines, newspaper articles, lectures, radio and Women’s Guilds, etc; and 19% said they went to the doctor or clinic.

That so high a proportion as 19% should say that they went to their doctor or clinic in answer to this question when only 5% made a similar answer to the question “What do you do to keep fit” is apparently accounted for by confusion between preventive and curative action. The form of the question seems to have suggested to people who are not in the habit of seeking advice when they are not ill, that the investigator was referring to what they would do when they are ill. This confusion shows itself in other parts of the inquiry.

A further question, the intention of which was to gain information on public interest in positive health, was whether the informant had time to go to public talks on matters of general interest; a number of possible subjects were specified including health. 32% said they had time, 65% said they had not the time to go to such talks in general. Of those who said they had time, 9% said that lectures on how to keep healthy would interest them most. Comparing this result with the other subjects suggests that keeping healthy as a topic is of about equal interest as talks on the war situation, gardening and cookery.

From these results it appears people do not go out of their way to seek advice on keeping fit and are to a small extent only aware of the possibility of taking active steps so to do.

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2. Coughs and Colds

The questions were asked: “Do you take any special precautions against catching a cold?” and “If yes, what precautions?” 43% of the total sample take some special precautions. Among the answers, 11% said they avoided infection from other people or got fresh air.

In answer to the question “How do you think colds are spread?” 49% said “By other people coughing and sneezing near you” and 75% gave answers implying that colds are spreading infection.

In answer to the further question; “In what ways can you become more careful about spreading infection when you cough or sneeze?”, 26% said “Use a handkerchief when sneezing or coughing”. 53% said that those with colds should keep away from other people.

When asked if they thought other people had become more careful about spreading infection when they sneezed or coughed, 38% replied “Yes”, 27% said “No”, and 35% said they had not noticed. From these figures it can be seen than an appreciable proportion of people are connecting droplet infection with the spread of coughs and colds.

The figures become more illuminating and point to a definite influence of publicity when analysed by the following groups: (a) those who said they remembered the slogans used in the Autumn Health Campaign, and (b) those who said they did not remember them.

Replies to Questions, 5,6 and 7 Percentage remembering slogans Percentage not remembering slogans
Question 5: “How do you think colds are spread?”
“By other people coughing and sneezing near you” 54 38
Other answers 53 52
Do not know 13 26
Question 6: “In what ways can you become more careful about spreading infection when you have a cold?”
“Use handkerchief when sneezing or coughing” 28 15
Other answers 86 71
Do not know 12 28
Question 7: “Do you think other people have become more careful about spreading infection when they have a cold?”
Yes 41 29
No 28 24
Have not noticed 31 48

In all these questions the proportion of people returning what may be considered the critical answer is significantly greater in the group remembering the slogans that in the group not remembering. This would be less remarkable if the questions followed one another on the questionnaire; but they are in fact separated by other topics. This lends weight to the belief that the Autumn Health Campaign has been responsible for the difference.

3. Handkerchiefs

A question was asked about whether rationing had made people short of handkerchiefs. 43% said that it had. Of this 43%, 355 said they used substitutes such as pieces of rag; the reminder, 8% did not use substitutes. This leads to the conclusion that the great majority of people were not short of handkerchiefs or suitable substitutes; but supplies of substitutes will in time be exhausted. Further inquiry was made in the summer months when the need for handkerchiefs is smallest.

It was found that 28% of women always used a man’s handkerchief when they have a cold, 23% sometimes, and 49% never.

93% of people said they thought it was really necessary when they had not a cold. Of these 32% said it was necessary because there was always a possibility of coughing or sneezing, 41% because a handkerchief was “handy to have”, 33% because it was the conventional thing to do.

85% of parents said their children carried handkerchiefs, 10% that their children did not, and 5% that they did not know. 92% said they taught their children to cough and sneeze into their handkerchief. As is pointed out in the report, the percentage of affirmative answers to these questions is probably inflated.

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4. Publicity

79% of people said they remembered the slogans used in the Autumn Health Campaign. 18% remembered seeing films about coughs and sneezes.

The posters were remembered by 59%. 57% thought the Bateman cartoons were the most effective, 14% the Droplet Infection poster, and 5% the vehicle card. 15% said they thought that all these posters were equally effective, and 5% that none were really effective. Humorous posters in general were much preferred to serious posters.

A third of the people questioned said that there were regular articles on keeping fit in their newspaper, but this is probably a misconception for advertisements, short paragraphs, food announcements linked with health matters, etc. 18% said they usually read such articles, 10% that they sometimes read them, and 2% that they never read them. Those who said there were no regular articles in their newspapers were asked if they would read them if there were. 17% said they would, 7% that they would not, 4% that they did not know. The reasons why the 7% would not read such articles were mainly that they had no time to do so or were not interested.

The majority of people did not take magazines or periodicals, but of the 42% who did, 21% said there were regular articles on health in them. 14% usually, and 6% sometimes, read these articles.

18% said they had noticed the “What do I do...” series relating to health, but only 4% could substantiate this by quoting the title or defining the subject of the announcement.

Leaflets on health matters were received by 11%, but only 5 % could identify their content.

Radio announcements or talks about health were recollected by 40% of people; but, here again, only 23% were able to specify the subject matter.

The results in section 3 above are, of course, in themselves an index of the effects of publicity. Even assuming that the results are inflated, they indicate an attitude of strong social approval to the use of handkerchiefs.

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