Doctors tell us nothing is better than fresh air. Get a Bicycle & enjoy the Great Outdoors
This declaration appeared in The Roanoke Times on Oct. 6, 1918, in an advertisement for the Roanoke Cycle Co. The advertisement, like many others published in American newspapers, used widespread reports about the Spanish flu epidemic to market products to consumers.
In this case, the Roanoke Cycle Co. invoked the recommendations of medical experts to seek fresh air in order to sell a new bicycle.
Advertisements served as an important means for spreading news during the influenza epidemic. The purpose of advertising — to sell products or services — shaped the kinds of information distributed through this medium, yet the content of these advertisements was often consistent with public health statements, news reports and editorials that also filled newspapers. Historians who have written about the Spanish flu, including studies of Roanoke by Nelson Harris and Nancy Bristow, have criticized advertisements as deceptive or manipulative, as they took advantage of people’s fears to push products that were usually ineffective at preventing or curing the flu.
Yet a careful analysis of advertisements suggests that they performed a more complicated role in shaping the flow of information. Advertisements provided guidance on maintaining individual and community well-being, illustrated the social impact of this deadly epidemic and heightened awareness about daily health practices, even as their content reflected their primarily commercial purpose.