During World War I, 18,000 American soldiers were infected with STDs every day. By the height of World War II, that number had decreased to 600 per day–partly thanks to a fierce propaganda campaign that used graphic posters to educate men about the dangers of venereal disease and how to prevent it. A sick army was an ineffective army, and the government was intent on stopping the scourge.
Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II, a new book from Boyo Press, presents 60 pages of these images, largely made by anonymous artists in bright silkscreened colors. While doing research at the National Archives in Washington D.C., editor Ryan Mungia discovered a cache of long-forgotten VD posters. To anyone who attended health class in the 21st century, the euphemistic slogans and imagery here are so blatantly propagandistic as to appear campy–many could be mistaken for schlock movie posters of the same era. “While they may appear dated today, they were serious business when they were produced during WWII,” Mungia says.
One strategy poster designers favored was representing women–specifically, prostitutes–as disease-mongering harpies, and sexual desire as a fatal trap. “The posters pulled out all the stops in their effort to shock, shame, and intimidate men of the armed forces into practicing safe sex by casting women in a terrible light,” Mungia says. “She may be . . . a bag of TROUBLE,” reads one slogan under an illustration of a sickly witch-like woman; another reads “BOOBY TRAP” plastered over an image of a busty prostitute. Such depictions were uncontroversial in the ’40s. “You can even draw parallels to femme fatales that were cropping up in B-movies of the period,” Mungia says.
Another theme was graphically associating disease with the enemy–the Axis leaders. One standout example, by renowned graphic artist Arthur Szyk, reads “Fool the Axis–USE PROPHYLAXIS” and features caricatures of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini stricken with gonorrhea, chancroid, and syphilis, respectively. “These posters reflect the concept that failure to protect one’s health through promiscuous sexual activity leads directly to supporting the enemy,” Mungia says. “Our carelessness–their secret weapon,” another such poster reads, against a background of a Swastika and a Japanese flag.
It’s hard to quantify just how effective these posters were in combating venereal disease, if at all, since their rise coincided with the introduction of sulpha drugs and penicillin–which, by the end of the war, had a 92% success rate against gonorrhea. Research by the Office of War Information suggested that posters featuring bold graphics and symbolism were less effective than those with a more representational, realistic approach, according to Jim Heimann in the book’s introductory essay, “Propaganda for the Penis.” “The latter was being spearheaded by art directors from Madison Avenue, which explains why by the end of the war, posters began to look more and more like magazine advertisements,” Mungia says.
Compare these vintage posters to their contemporary equivalents–on the subway, on billboards–for a visualization of how Western attitudes toward sex have changed over the years. Today’s STD prevention posters tend to focus more on education than on shaming and scare tactics (though there’s still a bit of that), and unlike WWII-era posters, acknowledge that not all sex is hetero. Besides, the power of posters is being usurped by newer forms of media. As Heimann writes, “[These images] represent perhaps the last period when the poster could elicit a response from a mass audience on a widespread basis.”
Protect Yourself is available here for $25.