The aim of this article is to provide a historical account of the many problems that arose in the making of large-scale health education campaigns in France, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, as well as the solution explored at that time. Fascination for the alleged influence of mass media on human behaviour prompted a government keen on anything “modern” to implement the first ever large-scale health education campaign on the risks of “excessive smoking.” However, the hyper-rationalistic approach to communication favoured by the French Committee for Health Education (FCHE), in charge of the campaign, prompted many questions concerning both the impact, and the political implications of their approach. The historical investigation described here is based on the study of various kinds of propaganda material; interviews with health education specialists and senior civil servants; and the systematic exploration of the archives produced by the FCHE. The analysis of the issues raised by this policy, as well as the answers provided by the protagonists themselves, sheds new light on pending questions in health education, such as the need to reconcile political acceptability and effectiveness, and the role that social sciences might play in this process.
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Competing interests: None.