What makes a great public information film?

As the most significant series of public information films in decades rolls out across the UK, we turn to to memorable campaigns of the past.

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In February 1987, a 40-second advert premiered on TV that has a particular resonance now. “There is now a deadly virus,” ran its text. “So far it’s been confined to small groups. But it’s spreading. And unless we act now it’s going to get much, much worse.” It moves the viewer around a bleak, frozen tundra and foreboding dark skies. Then comes the AIDS advert’s memorable tagline: “Don’t die of ignorance.”

Directed by Nicolas Roeg for the Central Office of Information, and soundtracked by Brian Eno, the AIDS: Iceberg campaign is one of 23 short films, many of them addressing public health issues, on the BFI’s newly released Blu-Ray collection, The Best of COI: Five Decades of British Public Information Films. It also arrives quite by coincidence as the most significant series of public information films in decades rolls out across the UK, known best by its simple, striking tagline: “Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives”.

The current adverts were not made by the Central Office of Information, the UK’s government’s marketing and communications agency (which was closed by David Cameron’s coalition as part of its austerity drive in 2012), but by the advertising agency MullenLowe Group. They won the competitive tender for the NHS contract in 2019, which will last for three years. Their first TV advert aired two days after Boris Johnson’s first daily press briefing on coronavirus, on 18 March, when 53 people were already dead.

Made quickly out of necessity, it featured a reassuring voiceover from British actor Mark Strong, and the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty in front of a plain blue screen. He spoke simply to get his message across: “It’s important we protect older people, and those with existing health conditions.” Another advert arrived a week later, after lockdown, made within 24 hours.

Then came MullenLowe Group’s third advert, on 6 April: a montage of wailing ambulance sirens, squeezing ventilators, chests struggling for breath, and gowned and masked staff. Strong now described, in doomier tones, a virus “life-threatening for people of all ages”. Its mood recalled the public information films (PiFs) of the past: a time when the government was more at ease telling us what to do, and less afraid to frighten us.

The Central Office of Information was established in 1946, after the Ministry of Information was closed following the second World War. A central hub for government, the COI helped Whitehall departments produce campaigns on issues affecting all citizens’ lives, and despite having limited budgets, made ground-breaking PiFs on polio, clinical depression and the efficiency of Britain’s blood transfusion service. This was all during the first decade of the NHS, showing the ambition that crackled in those tough, straitened times.

“From its earliest years, almost all COI film-making had a strong tradition of good practice behind it,” says Patrick Russell, head of non-fiction at the BFI’s national archive. “At its best, it understood its suppliers, and knew which projects needed which treatments.” The COI was especially well-supported through the 1960s and 1970s, and “played an important part in providing stability to the British movie industry”, Russell says. It also gave work to young directors who would go on to make innovative feature films, like Lindsay Anderson (If…), Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract) and John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday).

The COI especially encouraged stylistic innovation, even in films for limited audiences. Take 1963’s Smoking And You, made to be shown on projectors in secondary schools. In only eleven minutes, Director Derrick Knight uses cinema verité-style hidden camera close-ups, angled shots which recall film noir, and documentary footage which foreshadowed reality TV.

By the mid-20th century, TV ownership was growing, too. More attention-grabbing shorts were made as a consequence, ready to squeeze into advert breaks for bigger audiences. Arguably the most notorious of them is 1973’s Lonely Water, which features a grim reaper figure haunting a lake in which children drown, bragging about how easy it is to drag “show-off” and “foolish” children who play in unsafe water to their deaths. Commissioned after a government working party was established to deal with the rise of drowning-related accidents, the terror it exuded had psychological effects on a generation of children. As creative director Robbie Edmonstone writes in the BFI’s Blu-Ray liner notes: “Taking these hazards and turning them into the traps of a malevolent spectral bogeyman… will ensure that most of the children who watch it will never so much as get into a bath for the rest of their lives.”

By the 1980s, corporate advertising gloss was infiltrating PiF culture. Roeg’s AIDS: Iceberg was the second of two adverts in a £5 million campaign (the first was the equally memorable Monolith, featuring exploding volcanos and a huge gravestone being chiselled). Viewing habits then diversified with the rise of cable and satellite TV. PiFs were still made through the 21st century, but audiences were harder to capture when hundreds of channels and online viewing was the norm.

Today, the Cabinet Office has strategic oversight over all government communications, but individual departments and NHS trusts can commission their own materials. Some would argue that this devolution of responsibility could improve the targeting of messages in certain cases. In a global health crisis affecting the entire country, however, the consistency of messages being delivered could be threatened.

The government’s communications strategy regarding coronavirus has been widely criticised: messages have arrived too late, or have not been expressed strongly enough. The first coronavirus campaign advert, about the importance of handwashing, appeared in late January on social media, radio and in poster form. “The government and NHS are well prepared to deal with this virus,” its text began reassuringly. On 4 March, the day of the first British fatality, an updated advert for the same formats stressed the 20-second rule. This soft approach reflected the mood, and presumably the brief, of Boris Johnson’s Conservative government. Johnson’s libertarian beliefs have rarely been at ease with more forceful, state-directed measures.

Inconsistent messages followed from ministers and scientists over the next fortnight. TV adverts and a memorable slogan only emerged in mid-March, after more than 50 people had died, while the most clear and urgent videos arrived in early April. MullenLowe Group’s Chief Growth Officer Lucy Taylor explains that the new campaign used more sophisticated imagery and editing as they had more time to work on it. By this point, Chris Whitty had been seen every night on TV, and the company felt a fresh approach was required. He then had his Covid-19 diagnosis, and wasn’t available to participate anyway.

“We also wanted to be able to use more of the moment footage to illustrate the issues and make it real and relatable for the public”, Taylor adds. Stock footage was generously donated by news channels such as ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News – “not something they would have done normally”. Collaboration in the height of a crisis, be it late in the day, worked wonders.

The Department for Health and Social Care responded to questions about the day-to-day development of the coronavirus campaign with the following statement. “Our response to the outbreak has been driven by the latest scientific and clinical advice. The coronavirus public information campaign is based not only on that, but upon the latest behavioural insights to ensure that people across the UK receive the information they need to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.” The sources of their scientific and clinical advice continues to be debated elsewhere. When asked by email for the source of their behavioural insights, the department did not respond.

MullenLowe’s latest advert is powerful, but its wailing sirens may have come too late: the cumulative death toll on the day it was broadcast was 5,373. At the time of writing, it is 20,732. Earlier messages could have had so much more of an impact. With a centralised government body behind the planning of them, with years of experience behind it, one wonders how many more people could have not died of ignorance, too.

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