“It’s not considered alcoholism until after college.” “The Dangers of Underage Drinking and Other Historical Posters” at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library dispels this and other myths with lurid advertising from the 1950s to 1970s. Have you ever drunk alone? On the sly? Gulped down drink after drink? Does that sound like your Saturday night? Beware! These are the starting signs of alcohol addiction, the exhibition warns us. “The Dangers of Drinking” posters amplify just about everything associated with the ’70s: psychedelic typography, bright colors, opposite color wheel spectrum partnerships, a stringy moccasin leather jacket and a sense of over-the-top explicit suggestion coupled with a sense of overwhelming fear.
On the opposite side of the “Dangers of Drinking” posters are a series of informational comics exploring some of the things that (obviously) (inevitably) happen after too many nights of irresponsible drinking. A 1943 comic, “I Know All About Woman” features the inside of an army platoon hangout. One of the soldiers claims he can tell if a girl has syphilis just by looking at her, which of course the other soldiers challenge and just have to ask the army doctor about. After showing an informational pamphlet featuring a penis with a chancre (“sore,” the comic makes sure to clarify) and explaining the need of a microscope lens to actually see the syphilis bacterium, the doc puts Curley in his place. “If you can’t stay away from pickups or prostitutes, at least use a pro,” are Doc’s parting words. (I don’t know what a “pro” is.) Poor Curley. Go pro or go home!
From the Australian island comes an informational poster about the realities of AIDS. Namely, “You don’t have to be a queenie to get AIDS.” Yes, by today’s standards, pretty offensive to the queer population. The campaign does however attempt to destigmatize the disease by addressing it through a “normalized” heterosexual lens. “A man has sex … with someone who has AIDS. He goes back to his wife … who gets AIDS from him. They all get very sick.” A simple plot story that ends with a few gravestones and an impending sense of doom about your night out. What better way to inform people than to make them scared out of their wits? Most people would understandably choose a less painful, drawn-out death and the comic lays it on. Thick.
To isolate the drinking issue: When these posters were released, the legal drinking age in New York State was 18. There goes the argument of people binge drinking when they get to college because of the “exciting illegal factor.” By the late 1980s, traffic and adolescent studies would show that states with a minimum legal drinking age of 21 curtailed alcohol consumption and drinking-and-driving accidents. These results eventually prompted Congress to take action toward a uniform minimum legal drinking age of 21. Even so, the dangers of excessive and abusive drinking have remained on the forefront of many college campuses and administrative conversations. Maybe the real question here is how can we protect against something we don’t understand?
I wish I could say more modern advertisements of “Tobacco-Free Kids” or “D.A.R.E” escape the realm of finger-wagging paternalism to reach their target audience, but how many times have we all rolled our eyes when another one of those melodramatic voice-overs shows up on the television screen? Did these campaigns protect us? The posters from the 20th century don’t seem any less ridiculous and probably did as much (or as little) to protect adolescents as they do now. Something is missing here. Beyond the hilarity, beyond the sensationalism, if we really want to defend vulnerable populations, there needs to be a sense of true connection to what speaks to them. “The Dangers of Underage Drinking and Other Historical Posters” shows how campaigns might have always been missing their mark.