How PR – not carrots – helped you see in the dark

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I honestly never imagined that the story of the carrot could evoke such vivid emotions in me. I’m sorry, I’m a sinner, I’ve been drawn to history ever since I was a kid. So, tell me, am I not the only one who didn’t know that all the talk about the incredible benefits of carrots helping you see in the dark is just a myth dating back to World War II?  

Oh, you, too?  

Well, the legend that carrots, with their vitamin A content, dramatically improved your eyesight, was born in the UK – specifically, born in the imagination of Lord Woolton. It has proved so resilient that many believe it to this day. So where do the roots of this carrot come from? 

For the United Kingdom, the main events of the Second World War involved the confrontation between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe. To break the population of the country and force Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make peace on their terms, the Nazis unleashed the full force of German aviation on the British. One way of resisting the attacks was a so-called blackout. After sunset, almost all illumination was forbidden. During the six years from 1 September 1939, the British spent half their lives in darkness. 

From Dusk till Dawn 

It was difficult for people to come to terms with the darkness. In the early part of 1940, while the war was going on somewhere out there on the continent, it seemed to people that lack of light was a bigger danger to them than bombs. People were killed driving cars, they fell off bridges, drowned in rivers and lakes, stumbled and broke their necks. Posters were put up in public places that read: ‘Wait! Slowly count to 15 before you move in a blackout’. The implication was that the eyes needed time to adjust to the dark after going outside. 

These were the days when propaganda was launched urging the British to eat as many carrots as possible to better navigate in the dark. Since then, there has been a strong popular belief that the beta-carotene in the vegetable improves eyesight. Carrots are indeed considered an important element of the diet for hen blindness (a disease in which the eyes do not adapt well to changes in light). “If we include plenty of carrots in our diet, we can overcome this ailment,” said a Ministry of Agriculture statement issued in December 1940. 

The official discourse turned the carrot into a powerful secret weapon. “Lord Woolton is trying to move the population from courgettes and Brussels sprouts to carrots,” wrote Raymond Daniell, head of the New York Times’ London office. “Of this vegetable he speaks as if it could make a mole see down a mine.” Lord Woolton himself used to say: “One carrot a day, and the cloak of light is gone”. 

Frederick James Marquis, Lord Woolton, made a colossal contribution to the twentieth-century British economy, but went down in history as a pie man. He was appointed Food Minister in April 1940. His mission was to provide food for all the population as food supplies plummeted with the outbreak of war and the government was forced to introduce a card system. According to accounts of veterans, the underprivileged even benefited by being provided with a modest but steady ration. The idea was not just to save food; it was even more about bringing the nation together. 

How to cook a PR campaign 

Lord Woolton was truly a grand PR man. Every week he radioed every housewife in the country as if they were his own daughters and sisters. He urged them to be creative and cook in a tasteful, interesting way. The housewives adored him. Even a modern history textbook for English schools uses a popular saying from the war years: “If the war you want to win, / Eat potatoes in their skin. / Because you know the sight of peelings / Deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings.” 

Another reason to promote carrots was the British authorities’ attempt to hide an important innovative technology from the Nazis. Namely radar, which could pinpoint the location of enemy planes with a high degree of accuracy. On 19 November 1940, a young RAF pilot, John Cunningham, became the first to shoot down a German bomber using radar. He shot down a total of 20 opponents, 19 of them in the dark.  

To mislead German intelligence, the UK government, using the media, attributed Cunningham’s success to the fact that the hero consumed an inordinate number of carrots. I don’t know if other versions of the explanation were considered and why it was the carrot version that won the tender. Nevertheless, the role of speaker went to the Lord Woolton, who promised fellow citizens that their eyesight would be as good as Cunningham’s if they gorged on carrots. 

Thus began the grand PR campaign with Doctor Carrot, launched by the UK Food Ministry. Everyone knew the likable character who protects people from ailments. The carrot became one of the main characters in campaign materials. One of the ministerial issues of the Military Cookery Booklet featured recipes for carrot pudding, carrot cake, carrot marmalade and carrot cake. Later, the vegetable celebrity of the UK propaganda was noticed by artists from Disney Studios, and several animated carrots also appeared in American cartoons. At the same time, another popular cartoon character, Bugs Bunny, who was a great admirer of carrots, waged an on-screen fight against Hitler. 

Mission: is possible 

The campaign also had another important role: improving Britain’s diet.  Top chefs were brought in to create recipes for carrot dishes. Lord Woolton sent cooks to every corner of the island to teach people how to prepare dishes from wartime ration ingredients. Lord Woolton himself ate exclusively these dishes during the war, believing that a servant of the people has no right to live otherwise. Woolton is considered a national hero; don’t forget, years later Jamie Oliver named his TV programme, Ministry of Food. And many British families still make Woolton’s Vegetable Pie at least once a year, a recipe developed by the François Latry, the “maître chef” of the Savoy Hotel in London. 

Lord Woolton’s mission proved possible! By the end of the war the UK was healthier than ever. Through forced dietary restrictions people ate less fat, eggs, sugar, and meat and at the same time consumed lots of vegetables. There were fewer problems caused by excess weight and sedentary lifestyles. Thanks to rationing, many people had better nutrition during the war than in pre-war years, which had an impact on public health. Infant mortality was reduced and life expectancy increased. 

Thus, the belief in the magical effect of carrots became one of the important mythologies in post-war Europe and USA, worthy of PR technology textbooks. It was perfect PR campaign!  

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