When the 'nanny state' ruled: Strange appeal of bossy ad campaigns from the 1960s and 1970s

The ads warned us against everything from dropping litter to venturing near water. Now a new book is celebrating them

In an original Keep Britain Tidy poster revealed in 1965, an enormous, admonishing finger –ostensibly a divine digit – is designed to inspire in the littering transgressor a sense of shame, guilt and fear. A classic example of how Britain's post-war public-information campaigns worked, it arrived at a time when the nanny in "nanny state" was arguably at her most terrifying.

Any child of the 1960s and 1970s will recall how this approach also manifested itself in the unsettling public-information films released by the Central Office of Information. Think of the figure of death waiting for a young "show-off or fool" to come a cropper in Dark and Lonely Water (1973), a stark warning to children against playing around water, or even the teleporting road-safety superhero, the Green Cross Man.

These were not so much benign nannies as omniscient watchmen – Orwellian Big Brothers who watched and judged our every move.

Similar images feature in Keep Britain Tidy: And Other Posters from the Nanny State by Hester Vaizey, a new book out on Monday that draws on dozens of examples from the National Archives. They warn us to, among other things, wash our hands before eating and always wear a bicycle helmet. The abstract, almost supernatural quality of some of these messages has fascinated me since my own childhood. I grew up in 1970s suburban Manchester in constant fear of messages like these.

Now a graphic designer and screenwriter, I started a blog last year about Scarfolk, a fictional town in which the terror in the warnings of my youth is exaggerated to darkly comic effect with the introduction of over-the-top supernatural or totalitarian elements.

In my post about the "we watch you while you sleep" campaign, I unearth posters and a film from the town archives that show how, in 1976, Scarfolk Council surreptitiously introduced tranquillisers to the water supply and employed mediums to creep into the bedrooms of citizens who were suspected of wrongdoing and record their dreams. Evidence they gathered would be assessed by a local judge who could hand out the appropriate punishment.

 

The blog took off and my own book, Discovering Scarfolk, is set for publication later this year. It will be a study in parody and absurdity, but I often find that I only need to nudge the original material to take it to its logical, warped conclusion. For years, government agencies warned us in deathly tones about the seemingly esoteric dangers of leaving bottled milk outside one's house, or placing rugs on newly polished floors. By the time the finger-wagging Keep Britain Tidy poster of 1965 was produced, the concept of the omniscient watchman was already ingrained in the public imagination, and not just because of religion. Second World War propaganda campaigns were the forebears of these public-information drives.

The "Careless Talk Costs Lives" series by the Punch cartoonist Fougasse depicts Hitler eavesdropping on private conversations. In each image, Britain's enemies are secreted into the background, in bottles or as wallpaper designs.

After 1945, in the absence of a tangible enemy such as Hitler, the idea of all-pervasive surveillance seems to have transferred naturally from the war (and later the Cold War) propaganda effort to public-information campaigns concerned with more quotidian issues. When the state asked us to adapt our behaviours around cleanliness, health and safety, family and work, it perhaps assumed that we would accept that the "ears" in the walls belonged to the state or society rather than a foreign enemy.

Messages such as these work because if an authoritarian presence – even a figurative one – can be invoked, people are more likely to respond. Stanley Milgram, the American social psychologist, showed this in his work on obedience. And more recently, Derren Brown entertainingly demonstrated the same idea in his 2012 show, Fear and Faith. Yet we now rarely see public- information posters or films of the kind created in the post-war period of paranoia up until the 1980s. With the exception of less nuanced warnings about drink-driving or smoking, the government has become noticeably muted on the subject of how we should conduct our day-to-day lives.

In 2011, the Central Office of Information closed its doors. Has the state stopped "nannying" us? Perhaps not. The omniscient watchman made an abrupt return last year. No posters or films heralded his arrival; it was the whistleblower Edward Snowden who alerted us to his presence.

Despite the absence of a public information campaign, and perhaps ironically, given the Government's tradition of warning us about all-encompassing surveillance, the NSA and GCHQ spying revelations have reminded us that we should be careful what we say because, online at least, the walls still have ears.

'Keep Britain Tidy and Other Posters from the Nanny State' by Hester Vaizey ,Thames & Hudson. £14.95.

Follow Richard Littler's blog at scarfolk.blogspot.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn