Commercialising Public Health During the 1918-19 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Britain

O'Hagan, Lauren Alex (2021). Commercialising Public Health During the 1918-19 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Britain. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, 13(3/4) pp. 161–187.



This paper aims to use the advertisements of three major brands – Chymol, Formamint and Lifebuoy Soap – to examine how advertisers responded to the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Great Britain influenza pandemic. It looks particularly at the ways in which marketing strategies changed and how these strategies were enacted in the lexical and semiotic choices (e.g. language, image, colour, typography, texture, materiality, composition and layout) of advertisements.

A total of 120 advertisements for the three brands were collected from the British Newspaper Archive and analysed using the theory and analytical tools of multimodal critical discourse analysis. The general themes and semiotic structures of the advertisements were identified, with the aim of deconstructing the meaning potentials of verbal and visual resources used to convey ideas about the pandemic, and how they work to shape public understanding of the products and make them appear as effective and credible.

Each brand rapidly changed their marketing strategy in response to the influenza pandemic, using such techniques as testimonials, hyperbole, scaremongering and pseudoscientific claims to persuade consumers that their products offered protection. Whilst these strategies may appear manipulative, they also had the function of fostering reassurance and sympathy amongst the general public in a moment of turmoil, indicating the important role of brands in building consumer trust and promoting a sense of authority in early twentieth-century Britain.

Exploring the way in which advertisers responded to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic reminds us of the challenges of distinguishing legitimate and illegitimate medical advice in a fast-moving pandemic and highlights the need to cast a critical eye to the public health information, particularly when it comes from unofficial sources with vested interests.

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