More than posters

A guest post by Russell Davies, strategist and author of Everything I know about life I learned from Powerpoint.

I have a small collection of posters about energy saving, from the last 50 years or so. I love them because they’re fascinating little documents of design and doomed, misguided thinking about policy and communication.

These were the first ones I got and they’re probably the best. They’re from 1976 and were part of a campaign from the UK Department of Energy. They were intended to be put up in British Rail stations. I love them because they’re so simple and direct; a school of poster design I think of as ‘Tidy Your Hammers’. There’s no clever psychological trickery or nudging going on here. Just straightforward exhortation/instruction. Presumably it had absolutely no effect. The only obvious trace of the campaign in government archives is a row between the front benches about an apparently willful misunderstanding of energy policy.

A friend claims to remember TV adverts along these lines ending with a dramatic rubber stamp swooping down – SAVE IT. I wonder what the modern equivalent of that sort of thing is. Rubber stamps don’t connote officialdom and authority in the way they used to, but what does?

This is probably the earliest one I’ve got. A WWII poster from the Ministry of Fuels and Power with the message: “Please shut this door, draughts steal fuel required for production.’ Again, admirably straightforward. Think of an instruction and get someone to illustrate it. In this instance Cromwelll Cooke. About whom not much seems to be known. (By the internet, anyway).

These lovely things were issued by the Energy Efficiency Office (part of the UK Department of Energy) in around 1986. Again, same idea. Just tell people what to do and illustrate it nicely. In this case they exhibit that mid-80s enthusiasm for things that look 50s. Look at that logo – it could be a company from Happy Days. These were put together by the Orwellian sounding Central Office of Information, of which more later.

This is my only US example. A poster from the extensive Don’t Be Fuelish campaign from the midst of the 70s energy crisis. They’ve abandoned straight-forwardedness and attempted to have an idea (if the Fuelish pun can be regarded as an idea). And they’ve engaged a semi-famous illustrator – Jack Davis – whose style people might have seen in places like MAD magazine. But basically, it’s a confusing mess. Especially with that red overlay, presumably designed to tackle the fact that American’s have air conditioning as well as heating.

Why do I have these things? Firstly, because they’re lovely. But mostly because they’re chastening. I work for an energy company. We’re always trying to tell people how to save energy, in fact we’re obliged to do it by the government. And there is very little we can suggest that is not in these posters. Shut doors. Switch off lights. Turn down thermostats. #insulateBritain. Google ‘energy saving advice’ and you’ll see the same stuff today. But these messages do not get through. People know it. They just don’t do it.

The lesson from all this is obvious. The Central Office of Information (who I mentioned earlier) used to be responsible for all the UK government’s publicly and public information campaigns. (They were closed down by the coalition government.) In their latter years they became bone fide experts in knowing how to run persuasion campaigns like these. They had good studies and great data. They ‘succeeded’ with things like the anti-smoking and Kill Your Speed campaigns. And they would tell you just how hard this kind of thing is. It takes focused effort and lots of time, expertise and money. That’s not what’s happened here. These campaigns have been well-intentioned fig-leaves – they’re there because ‘something must be done’ and this is something. The additional sadness is that people in genuine fuel poverty often find it hardest to follow this kind of advice. It’s not easy. It can be expensive. ‘Awareness’ is often not the problem.

If we really want people to change their behaviour we have to make it easy and change the defaults. That means changing standards, regulations, taxation and incentives. So, if you’re working on a poster campaign, great, it’s fun. I’ve done it too. And, hopefully, it won’t hurt. But don’t get your hopes up. We’re going to need more than posters.

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