I recently moved and one of the things that attracted me to my new address was the church at the end of the street. It’s a white, wooden structure, with a narrow spire: classic Americana, like something out of a movie. Best of all is the message board outside the entrance, which reads:
One out of every one will die.
Life is a terminal illness.
Where are you going?
Now some individuals might object to being confronted daily with this bleak message, but I was delighted. It’s good to be reminded of your mortality, even- or perhaps especially- when you’re nipping down the shops to buy toilet paper.
Threatening church message boards are still commonplace in Texas. I like to take pictures of the more creative examples. One of my favorites, which I spotted en route to the Mexican border, had an almost haiku like quality, encouraging paranoid terror of the Creator via terse, understated humor:
God and germs are everywhere
Wash your hands and pray often.
I admire the elemental terror of these messages. There’s none of the mealy-mouthed equivocation of European churches, which these days prefer to disguise themselves as social work organizations.
Are these theological roadside warnings unique to America? I haven’t seen anything like them anywhere else. The closest analogy I can think of is social advertising, those crude instruments of social engineering, so beloved of statist governments everywhere. Like church signs, social advertising is not designed to sell a product but rather to reshape consciousness, or indeed, save souls. The USSR did nothing but social advertising, as the government hoped that by sticking up big signs featuring such inspiring messages as:
GLORY TO THE HERO-WORKERS OF THE ULYANOVSK BICYCLE FACTORY!
…it would inspire loyalty to the socialist cause, thus nudging the USSR ever so slightly closer to Communism.
When I came to Russia in early 1997, such comically wooden propaganda was a thing of the past, although old signs could still be seen rotting atop apartment buildings on Leningradskoye Schosse in Moscow, proclaiming the virtues of a dead system. Ten years later, however, social advertising made a tentative return, albeit in a much less utopian form, and targeted at alleviating serious social problems instead.
In particular I remember a billboard campaign urging Russians to adopt more children. While the principle was admirable, I doubted that a lack of encouragement from the government was the root cause of the crisis in the country’s orphanages. Rather I thought many Russians were reluctant to adopt due to low wages, already crowded living conditions, inefficient bureaucracy, and a general distrust for government institutions. For instance, could the orphanages be trusted to tell prospective adoptive parents the truth about a child’s behavioral problems?
A big poster on the street is unlikely to have any impact on a complex cluster of social issues like that. But that doesn’t stop governments around the world from hoping that if only they tell their citizens what to do, then the people will obey and much happiness will result.
A few years ago in Scotland we revived our national parliament after a three-century hiatus. The country’s new leaders immediately started blowing lots of cash on huge billboards proclaiming our cosmic superiority: SCOTLAND: THE BEST (SMALL) COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. In spite of this apparent self-confidence however, Scottish men continued to enjoy the shortest life expectancy in Western Europe (I believe even the men of Belarus, who suffered the worst effects of Chernobyl and are governed by a baldy tyrant with a comedy moustache, live longer).
The Scottish death spiral is brought on by too much drinking and smoking, too many drugs, casual violence and the unhealthiest diet in Europe. These habits in turn are inspired by a mixture of despair, boredom, poverty, dreary weather and an almost Dostoyevskian pleasure in self-annihilation- not to mention the fact that many of these vices are intensely pleasurable, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, the Scottish Parliament got straight to work paying for enormous billboards with giant pictures of fruit on them that were posted around the country. You know when you’ve been mango’d said one, echoing the slogan for a popular fizzy drink, thus insulting the intelligence of millions.
Naturally the campaign had no effect whatsoever. I suspect this is the case with most social advertising, although it does create the comforting illusion in the minds of the elected and unelected bureaucrats organizing it that they are doing something. Given that such expensive campaigns are completely useless, we might at least ask that they be beautiful; which is why I always opt for the terse, apocalyptic poetry of a Texas church message board over the bland nostrums of a socially conscious bureaucrat, however well-intentioned he or she may be.
First published 26/11/2010