Proper Gander: A Masterclass in Manipulation

The goggle-box has burned some pretty bizarre images onto the nation’s psyche over the years: squirrels wearing yellow trousers learning to cross the road, an unintelligible orange cat warning us not to talk to strangers, and gloomy icebergs as AIDS metaphors. Public Information Films have lurked in the gaps between programmes for sixty-five years, waiting to jump out and attack us with a government instruction. But not any more. Tufty the squirrel and Charley the cat have been made redundant by the closure of the government’s Central Office of Information, which produced the films. Britain Beware (ITV1) marked the demise of the Public Information Film with a nostalgic retrospective presented by a jovial Adrian Edmondson.

The early films told bemused middle-aged men how to use new-fangled zebra crossings, and nosey housewives how to sniff out Nazi spies. As the tone and content of the films changed over the years, and as censorship rules were relaxed, the producers set out to shock. Each drink-drive campaign has been a bigger pile-up of gore and emotional blackmail than the one before. And the notorious Apaches film traumatised a generation of flare-wearers into not playing on tractors or drinking weedkiller. Then, when the public grew tired of shock tactics, humour would often be used on the next campaign. Such as slovenly Joe and Petunia, who showed us how not to behave when picnicking in a cartoon field. Occasionally, shock and humour would collide in a mess of awkwardness, like when Jimmy Saville joked to a teenage car-crash victim in a wheelchair that he wouldn’t be going to any more discotheques.

As Britain Beware points out, Public Information Films told us to avoid dangerous things like using drugs or having unprotected sex, but they also encouraged us to sign up for a risky career in the Army. Each Army recruitment campaign has led to a rise in the numbers of naïve applicants hoping for the jet-set adventures the films promised them.

Public Information Films used all the tricks up the advertisers’ sleeves – shock, humour, exaggeration – to drive home their message. Watching them is like a masterclass in manipulation. And the changing subject-matter of the films – wearing seat belts while driving, avoiding smoking around children – reflected wider changes in legislation and attitudes. As a gauge of social trends, Public Information Films tell us more than just how to avoid grisly, slow-motion accidents.

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