The Administrative Context: The Ministry of Information and Social Surveys

Propaganda was under much closer government control in the Second World War than in the First World War, when there was a variety of “agencies which – constantly merging and splitting – discharged the various functions related to morale, news, censorship and propaganda”. [Footnote 1] Not until 1918 was a Ministry of Information created, under newspaper owner Lord Beaverbrook, to try and instil some order into the chaos, but its chief function appeared to be little more than as a circulator of propaganda to neutral countries, and it was disbanded very soon after the war ended.

In 1935, after recognising the success of Goebbels’ propaganda machine, the MoI was resurrected, but planners were unable to profit from the precedents set in the First World War as records were unable to be found, and one official had to resort to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in order to obtain a definition of ‘propaganda’. [Footnote 2] In the Second World War, the MoI was aiming for an entirely different audience to that of the First, when posters were largely used for recruitment to the armed services, and so such examples were not necessarily helpful anyway. Such posters tended to appeal to values of fair play, good sportsmanship, and a sense of shame in avoidance of duty, rather than to inspire devotion to ideals. Such posters were criticised as being rather drab in colour, short on humour and sex appeal, and with a tendency towards wordiness and over-full explanations. [Footnote 3]

MoI planners were already in full-time government jobs, [Footnote 4] and were therefore unable to devote their full attention to the MoI. [Footnote 5] They included R.W. Leeper, from the News Department of the Foreign Office, who had been very influential in setting up the British Council as a forum for ‘cultural propaganda’. [Footnote 6] The Ministry was disadvantaged as it underwent severe organisational changes, frequent shifts of senior personnel, and a steady erosion of its powers [Footnote 7] in its efforts to imitate existing Whitehall departments of state, although these had evolved pragmatically over time. Civil servants outnumbered public relations and advertising experts, producing an amateurish climate which sprung from the desire by the government to be seen not to be using German methods of propaganda, [Footnote 8] although some saw this as an advantage, producing propagandists with “fresh, open minds”. [Footnote 9]

As a consequence, when war broke out the MoI still had no clear cut objectives; Lord MacMillan, Minister of Information at the time, claimed that:

Not many people feel the urgency and importance of this fourth armament and recognise the severe and practical preparation which its effective use involve. [Footnote 10]

Even Reith, with a media background as director-general of the BBC, when appointed Minister in January, 1940 admitted that he did not know what the purpose of the job was. [Footnote 11] This was possibly because

ample lip service was paid to the importance of propaganda in wartime but behind the scenes… the spirit of scepticism is vocal … hence also the omission to define its functions or to endow it with a recognised authority in its own field. [Footnote 12]

As the war progressed, the government appeared to realise the importance of advertising the war, and it became possible for advertising experts “to obtain exemption from military service on the grounds of work of national importance”. [Footnote 13]

It was not until June 1941, when Churchill instructed all public relations officers to work as a team under the MoI, [Footnote 14] that the object of the Ministry was defined as:

not only the planning of general government information policy, but also the provision of common services for the public relations activities of other departments, who remained directly in control of their own information policy. [Footnote 15]

For instance, if the Ministry of Food wished to dissuade people from using certain foods, they would be required to finance the campaign, but if there was a general campaign against wastage it would be financed by the MoI. [Footnote 16] ‘Government posters’, therefore, cannot be regarded as though they were a singular unit, and conclusions drawn may not be applicable in all cases.

Sir John Reith replaced Lord MacMillan as Minister of Information on 5 January 1940, but was replaced by Duff Cooper on 12 May. It was not until 20 July 1941, when Brendan Bracken became Minister of Information, that the department began to achieve any real recognition.

Bracken possessed everything his predecessors had lacked: excellent press relations, a very close friendship with the Prime Minister, bustling confidence in tackling the Ministry’s adversaries, and a scorn for the exhortation of the British public. [Footnote 17]

Further details about the MoI have already been sufficiently discussed by McLaine. [Footnote 18]

M-O claimed that the government needed to control its channels of information, and develop a better listening-in system. In this first month of the war the Home Publicity section put “out propaganda on a basis of guess-work about effects, symbols, slogans, mass-reaction”, having no means for measuring or studying morale. [Footnote 19]

During the inter-war years, social sciences grew in popularity, with psycho-analysis becoming popular throughout society. The government had an awareness of the need to study the psychology of the masses in order to target their propaganda, although it would not countenance its use in decisions about poster designs [Footnote 20] and the “British Psychological Foundation was roundly rebuffed, although it provided the Ministry with a register of willing, largely Freudian-trained workers”. [Footnote 21] Generally information collected by the government was inaccurate; traditionally ‘public opinion’ had been deduced by studying the content of newspapers, and gauging how popular the opinions expressed in them were by the number of readers of each paper. However, it is very unlikely that many readers read every article, nor agreed with all the opinions expressed in the paper they were reading. During the 1930s two new organisations, which ostensibly made use of more systematic techniques to discover ‘popular’ opinion, were set up; these organisations were the Gallup poll, and M-O. [Footnote 22]

Although the government used the Gallup poll [Footnote 23] to provide statistics about various issues, we are more concerned with M-O as it made specific studies of government posters. M-O was founded in 1937, by Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist; Charles Madge, a poet (also an ‘inactive Communist’); and Humphrey Jennings, a documentary film maker. [Footnote 24] The aims of M-O were to “supply accurate observations of everyday life and real … public moods, an anthropology and a mass documentation” [Footnote 25] about the ‘masses’ whom, it was felt, should have interested the media and politicians more. Some information was gained from a panel of part-time observers, which provided “subjective private opinion”. [Footnote 26] It was felt that “too much attention has been paid in recent years to the method of direct questioning”, [Footnote 27] and emphasis was laid upon “seen behaviour or overheard conversation”. [Footnote 28] During the war, to survive, methods had to be adapted to produce more immediate results, such as a survey about gas mask posters, when visible results, such as an increased number of people wearing gas masks were taken to indicate success. [Footnote 29] (See Figures 7 and 8)

Although M-O was used by the government, as it could investigate a wide range of events at short notice, it was regarded as suspect as it was thought to be ‘on the left’, [Footnote 30] whilst Mary Adams claimed that reliance “on guess-work and partial surveys, or on information lodged by interested bodies can be misleading and dangerous”. [Footnote 31] She argued that there was a need for a continuous flow of regulated information on public thinking in order to formulate publicity measures and test their effectiveness. [Footnote 32] In 1940 it was determined that there was a need to “decide what we want people to do and believe, then to find out what they are thinking and doing now. This calls for the most up to date market research”. [Footnote 33] In consequence, the government set up a Home Intelligence Division of its own to investigate public morale.

The Home Intelligence Division had two distinct functions. The Home Intelligence Unit prepared reports on the morale of the home population, initially daily, later weekly, to be used not only by the MoI in planning its publicity, but also by any other departments. In June 1941, panels of correspondents were recruited to make reports on the state of public opinion in various regions, with action taken upon grievances that were revealed. The Wartime Social Survey was designed to produce regular quantitative results, [Footnote 34] to supplement the qualitative data provided by the Home Intelligence Unit, to make daily reports of facts likely to affect morale, and weekly reports into changes in public opinion and habits. Relevant information was to be sent to other government departments, [Footnote 35] although when asked for their reaction to a test study, [Footnote 36] only the Ministry of Food and Board of Trade had felt that they could make any use of the kind of information that was to be collected, with other ministries claiming that they had no need for the kind of results that would be produced. [Footnote 37]

The development of such an organisation was important as it meant the government had realised that it could not take public feeling and reactions to the war for granted, that it needed to ask the people, not the MPs. Orwell claimed that “the government has done extraordinarily little to preserve morale; it has merely drawn on existing measures of goodwill”, [Footnote 38] but this missed the point that the very fact that the MoI had come to realise that such goodwill existed, and that people were ready to accept restrictions “so long as they were seen as useful to the war effort and equitable in application”. [Footnote 39] Calder, however, claims that the government was not particularly concerned about their relationship with the ordinary people as:

Having found out what people thought and how they behaved, the rulers of the country could manipulate them more efficiently, while simultaneously conforming themselves to the lowest common denominator of public opinion. [Footnote 40]

Bracken felt that the MoI should be dissolved as soon as the war ended, but others felt that there were lessons to learnt from the First World War, when the MoI had disbanded so quickly: “What we learned in the last war, and which our enemies made the most of, we have pooh-poohed and bungled.” [Footnote 41] They felt that it still had much to do, including the re-education of Germany, the presentation of Britain’s case abroad, and the advancement of propaganda techniques through the study of other methods, in order to keep democracy alive. [Footnote 42]

Having explored the organisation that was behind the posters, we now will look at the first posters that it produced, and see if there was anything to be learnt from commercial techniques which had advanced considerably during the 1920s and 1930s


  1. McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p12
  2. Ibid., p14
  3. Harper, P. War, Revolution and Peace, Propaganda Posters from the Hoover Institution Archives 1914-1945, [1969], p40
  4. See Taylor, P.M. The Projection of Britain: British Overseas Publicity and Propaganda 1919-1939, 1981, p263 for a full list of those on the sub-committee planning the MoI
  5. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p14
  6. Taylor, P.M. Op. Cit., p266
  7. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p3
  8. Weight, R. ‘State, Intelligentsia and the Promotion of National Culture in Britain, 1939-45’ in Historical Research Vol. 69, No. 168, February 1996, p85
  9. Zemen, Z. Selling the War: Art and Propaganda in World War II, 1978, p20
  10. Quoted in McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p15
  11. Ibid., p18
  12. Memorandum from A.P. Ryan to the Minister of Information, 4 June 1941, PRO, INF 1/857
  13. Begley, G. Keep Mum: Advertising Goes to War, 1975, p16
  14. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p252
  15. Cantwell, J.D. The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office, 1993, p114
  16. Memorandum from C.C.A. to Mr R.W. Harris, 9/11/39, PRO, INF 1/343
  17. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p7
  18. See McLaine, I. Op. Cit. for further details on the organisation of the MoI or Lysaght, C.E. Brendan Bracken, 1979 for further details of Bracken’s involvement.
  19. M-O A: FR 1, ‘Channels of Publicity’, 11/10/39
  20. Stevenson, J. British Society 1914-45, 1984, p429
  21. Harper, S. ‘The years of total war: propaganda and entertainment’ in Gledhill, C. and Swanson, G. (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War, 1996, p194
  22. Addison, P. The Road to 1945, 1975, p15
  23. See Gallup, G.H. The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls: Great Britain 1937-1975 Vol. 1: 1937-1964, 1976 for details of questions asked, and results obtained.
  24. Calder, A. and Sheridan, D. Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-49, 1984, pp4-5
  25. Harrisson, T. Living Through the Blitz, 1976, p13 (emphasis in original)
  26. M-O A: FR 2, ‘Government Posters in Wartime’, October 1939, p3
  27. Ibid. (emphasis in original)
  28. Harrisson, T. Op. Cit., p13
  29. M-O A: FR 2, Op. Cit., p3
  30. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p53
  31. Memorandum by Mary Adams, 26/01/40, PRO, INF 1/261
  32. Ibid.
  33. Memorandum from John Rodgers to John Davidson, 27/05/40, PRO, INF 1/533
  34. Letter to Mr Macadam from Mrs Adams, 29/6/40, PRO, INF 1/273
  35. Home Intelligence – Decisions taken by Director General, 27/9/40, Ibid.
  36. Survey of Public Opinion – Minute Sheet, 13/5/40, Ibid.
  37. Wartime Social Survey – Minutes of Meeting, 17/9/40, Ibid
  38. Quoted in Pope, R. War and Society in Britain, 1991, p40
  39. Ibid..
  40. Calder, A .The People’s War 1939-1945, 1969, p471
  41. Unidentified, 27/3/41, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the IWM
  42. Barmas, J., a letter to Advertiser’s Weekly, undated, Ibid.

If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:

Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 3: The Administrative Context, the Ministry of Information and Social Surveys’, Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War’, <IURL>, written April 1997, accessed Enter Date Here

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Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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