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A fly poster

Andrew Steeds

This advertisement is over 40 years old, so it can be forgiven for looking a bit long in the tooth. That plate of food – is it intended as the acme of gastronomic sophistication, or an example of the kind of food most likely to be infested by flies? Clearly, but bizarrely from this distance of time, the former.

But the whole advertisement is still a great illustration of the benefits of leaving well alone at times.

The writer of the copy is unknown: it was originally written for a government pamphlet, where it was discovered by the advertising agency used by the Health Education Council to promote food hygiene. You would have expected the agency to have taken the copy and refashioned it for the purposes of this poster ad, but they decided that the copy had enough impact to carry the ad on its own. In the end all they added was the final sentence.

Those of us who work on other people’s writing like to feel that all writing is improved by our intervention. So it’s sobering to see how effective this advertisement is, left to its own devices. The black-and-white presentation, common though it was at the time, underscores the stark simplicity of the message.

Would this kind of approach work today? It’s longer than most advertisements these days, and its lack of obvious visual appeal would mean that it would fail to register with our media-savvy contemporaries. But it would be interesting to see how well the same approach of telling it as it is would go down now. Perhaps, in our current austere times, we’re more receptive to its bleak realism than we might think.