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Last Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
'Sneeze into the hankie. Got it?'
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Graphic of scene from Coughs and Sneezes
From how to use a hankie to safe sex education, public information films have been trying to influence British behaviour for 60 years. Did they work?

"Sneeze into the handkerchief and then put the handkerchief into the bowl of disinfectant to kill the germs, not in the family's washing.

"Got it? Sure? Good! Remember; Don't spread germs."

In 1948 this was a message broadcast in cinemas across the country and delivered in a familiar cut-glass English accent, in the public health campaign film Jet-Propelled Germs.

It's one of 60 such films being released on the National Archives website over the next six months, to mark the 60th birthday of the Central Office of Information (COI).

Graphic of scene from Jet-Propelled Germs (1948)

Jet-Propelled Germs, which created the now familiar slogan "Coughs and sneezes spread diseases", and its predecessor Coughs and Sneezes (1945) can be watched here (see link on the right).

They starred Richard Massingham who also directed some of those early films. Although the tone is hilarious to a modern audience, and was mimicked by Harry Enfield, the campaign was driven by serious concerns about absenteeism.

After the war - and just before the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 - up to 15 million people watched the transmissions in cinemas, tacked on the end of newsreels.

The films became more sophisticated as television grew in popularity. Some of the memorable ones over the coming decades included Charley Says, Keep Britain Tidy and the HIV/Aids tombstones. More recent subjects include internet shopping and mobile phone crime.

The Charley Says cat which warned children not to go with strangers or play with matches was so popular that its catchphrase was used in a club dance record in the early 1990s. Its films developed a cult following and were reissued on DVD.


Even the old ones still have value today, says Janice O'Reilly of the COI. "I think they're a great social document because they reflect some of the issues of the day.

"They're also part of the culture and heritage of the country so there's that nostalgic value also. When Harry Enfield does a pastiche, you know they're part of the fabric of society."

Harry Enfield from Cholomondeley-Warner films
Public information films are fillers shown on donated air time
They must fall into the categories of health, safety or welfare
They can be shown on the BBC
Government adverts, such as police recruitment, are paid for, and may not be shown on the BBC

The simplicity of the instructions has provoked ridicule. Writer and critic AA Gill, recalling one that warned not to go to sea in a boat with a hole in it, described them as "useless truisms... paid for by the Ministry of Don't Do That".

But they did perform an important function, says Professor Rod Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health, who remembers there used to be signs on buses saying Do Not Spit, to stop the spread of tuberculosis.

"Some of those public information films were valuable," he says.

"There's always scepticism about what turns out to be fairly bland messages but if you had a product and you didn't mind going bankrupt, you'd take more risks."

The ads were a powerful lever and got something in everyone's head
Professor Rod Griffiths
Faculty of Public Health
The newly-created COI was born out of the bowels of the Ministry of Information, which had harnessed the war effort with its famous campaigns such as "Your Country Needs You".

So the first films benefited from a mood of national consensus which remained after the collective effort of fighting a war and five years of being told by the government what to do, says Professor Griffiths.

Although that faith has been eroded by suspicion of state intervention, the genre has still scored some notable successes, he says.

The famous tombstones which marked the 1980s HIV campaign are etched on the minds of millions who watched it. The tone was criticised at the time as heavy-handed but it did galvanise different health agencies, he says.

"The ads were a powerful lever and got something in everyone's head," says Professor Griffiths. "They gave the media something to talk about and created the agenda even if the ads themselves were a bit naff."

He claims the rate of HIV/AIDS has been lower in the UK than in other parts of the Europe "largely because people got a grip on it, and that's largely due to public information".

Home-made animation

The 1984-style Big Brother overtone was what made them effective, says Radio 1 film critic James King.

Scene from Coughs and Sneezes
Find a hankie...
"We're not used to that in British society, we're too nice and polite," he says.

"So when there's a public information film saying 'If your Frisbee gets caught in a pylon and you try to get it, you'll get electrocuted' or 'If you run on the beach with no shoes, you'll cut your feet' and they're really direct like that, it's very effective.

"Charley Says worked because kids watched them and thought they were cute little cartoons but they packed a punch at the end when a stranger tried to pick them up."

The animation had a home-made, cut-out look similar to the Roobarb and Custard cartoons, so they didn't look scary, he adds.

Naturally it's impossible to tell what ills were averted by people having seen the films - more of which are going to be made available online by the COI in the coming months - but they certainly did not pass unnoticed. And for that, Mr Cholomondeley-Warner, bless you.

Send your comments or suggest some public information messages for a modern society, using the form below.

"Don't sleep in the same room as your pet birds - avian flu kills!" "Dogs eat excrement! Don't let them lick your face!" "Don't wear hoodies! They make you look suspicious!" The contemporary list could go on for ever.
Paul Atkins, Solihull

What instilled fear into me was the series about the dangers of playing on the railway lines. One left little to the imagination and showed a young lad falling from a bridge into the path of an oncoming express train. On a more cheerful note, I remember the fairy godmother who told the boy that if he wanted to attract the girls he had to "learn to swim young man, learn to swim".
Richard Quinlan, Stockwell, London.

I think we need a public information film on subjects such as: spitting (not acceptable), chewing gum disposal and zebra crosssing rules!
Sarah, Luton

What really stays in my mind was the series from the mid eighties informing kids of the dangers of running into the street. The words 'Johnny will never run again' stay with me to this day. Very chilling, especially for a five year old.
John Ferguson, Edinburgh

The one that struck fear into me; I still cant watch it today without wincing is the boy running full pelt down the beach where the film froze and he was about to step on a lemonade bottle; nasty! And what about the licence dodger? "Theres a TV set on at number 25 and theyre watching Coloumbo"!!!! The BBC just isnt the same anymore! Saturday morning kids TV just before Grandstand, after "watch with mother" or at closedown, we miss those immortal words! "That was a Public Information Film"!!!!!
Jonathan Cale, Gloucester

The one that really frightened me was Lonely Water, using the figure of death to send home to kids the dangers of swimming in open water. It just shows how times have changed. When I recently showed it to my nine-year-old daughter - she didn't find it terrifying in the least!
Viki Brice, Llangynidr

Given the prospect of an Influenza Pandemic (Avian 'Flu varient of not) and the widespread habit of spitting everywhere, I would have thought it expedient to get some of these messages back in the public domain. This would go some way to off-setting the misinformation bandied about by the media by presenting some simple common sense.
Simon Howes, London

Who could forget the man trap rug or mixing cross ply and radial tyres with disastrous results or even the green cross code man come to that? Ah the wasted hours of television and youth, still I guess it could have been the tweenies!!
Steve Burton, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, UK

I think the hanky ads are still relevant today and should be shown again, particularly in light of the threat of flu. When I went to junior school we had to show a clean hanky every morning.
Maria Richards, Wolverhampton

Can we bring back those 'Don't spit' notices please, for buses and bus stops. I'm catching the bus to work at the same time the kids are going to school, and I don't like approaching the bus shelter anymore, it's left dripping with saliva after they have crowded onto the bus and gone. And I hear TB is on the rise again, I think that is a big reason why.

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