Back in the day, before we had this thing called the internet, options for getting information out to the world were much more limited. There was the media of course, but when it came to spreading info about HIV & AIDS, the newspapers and TV messages usually fell into two camps: panic or silence. Neither was particularly effective at sex education. Of course, the government’s silence until Surgeon General C. Everett Koop published his report in 1986 didn’t help, either.
So one method for spreading the word was posters. They’d show up in bars and community centers when non-profit organizations took the lead, wheat pasted to walls and bus stops when activists took over, and even on buses, trains and other public places when public health departments and other governmental agencies got involved. Many of these posters were funny, some were challenging, and a few were thought-provoking.
30 years into the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Edward Atwater (a retired doctor) is sharing his poster collection through an online catalog hosted by the University of Rochester. So far, only 1917 of his total collection of over 6200 posters from around the world have been uploaded, but they’re working on it. And this interview at The Atlantic is really worth checking out. Here’s a quote:
The reason it’s…important as social history is because, if you look at a whole lot of the posters, you will see how different countries approached the subject. Here you’re dealing with a new disease, dealing with the closeted subject of sex, and it was really amazing to see the variation from country to country and even from groups within a country. To me, that’s by far the most striking thing about the collection.
Generally speaking, in the United States, the posters were less interesting because they had to be neutral. They had to be careful not to offend some group or some sensibility so the best American posters were usually put up by private organizations. Abroad, that wasn’t quite as true.
Here are a few examples from the collection. Go check the rest of it out. It’s a really amazing project.