M-O claimed that we can divide official propaganda into two main types, the first of which involved appeals for direct action, dealing with practicalities, which would have an immediate effect, such as giving up a saucepan for salvage. The second type was more hypothetical, such as gas mask campaigns, where it would not make any immediate difference to the citizen whether he/she carried his/her gas mask, but would simply be preparing him/her for the coming crises. [Footnote 1]
Unlike in the First World War, when the government had felt that those at home should not ask questions, as they had not truly been involved, in the Second World War, with ‘total war’, the entire population was fully involved. The population needed to be made aware that their actions had direct consequences upon the war effort, and consequently needed far more understanding of government policies; as warfare became more technologically advanced, the armed forces depended proportionately upon the organisational and industrial efforts of those at home. The role of the civilian was crucial in such a conflict, and they were “exhorted to think of themselves as front-line troops” [Footnote 2]. There was
a vivid awareness that the serviceman was a citizen in uniform and the civilian … was perforce another kind of fighter. The list of reserved occupations made explicit what was implicit: in cold military terms the man who made the gun was as vital as the man who fired it [Footnote 3]. ( Figure 31 )
We saw some examples in the last chapter of the relationship between the soldier and the worker, and we can also see in the ‘Dig on for Victory’ poster ( Figure 32 ) the cheerful English worker represented in a soldierly stance, with a pitchfork held in the style of a rifle.
In 1914, the best known British poster of the First World War, Lord Kitchener declaring that ‘Your Country Needs You’, ( Figure 1 ) was produced; “From ten thousand hoardings the compelling finger of Kitchener pointed straight to the passer-by. There was no escaping it.” [Footnote 4] It was much imitated, and later “the public figure directly addressing the viewer became a significant device” [Footnote 5]. The development of this direct appeal was important. It meant that the passer-by would feel that he/she was personally involved in any appeal as the poster would engage directly with his/her eyes [Footnote 6].
One of the most obvious copies of the Kitchener style is Bert Thomas’ ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’, ( Figure 33 ) produced by the Railway Executive Committee, making use of an ordinary soldier, who could be anyone’s brother or friend, rather than an illustration of someone in authority. This appears to have become a characteristic of Second World War posters, with the people asking each other to help out, rather than those in charge asking, or producing guilt feelings, although Churchill adopted the Kitchener stance in Figure 34 which challenged people to ‘Deserve Victory’.
An M-O report claimed there was a difference between ‘You’ and ‘Your’; ‘You’ was directed at the viewer and required action, whilst ‘Your’ did not provide any stimulation to improve [Footnote 7]. For instance, a campaign with the slogan ‘COUGHS AND SNEEZES SPREAD DISEASES. TRAP THE GERMS BY USING YOUR HANDKERCHIEF’ ( Figure 35 ), which although raising awareness of colds and ‘flu, did not “produce appreciable action” as people looked to the posters as ways of avoiding colds themselves, rather than the need to avoid giving colds to other people [Footnote 8].
Another instance when people felt that the message did not apply to themselves was on the August Bank Holiday, 1941. The government had asked people to stay put, and whilst most people felt that it was reasonable for the government to do so, they did not feel that the request imposed any duty upon themselves to do anything about it, consequently record numbers of people took the trains away that day, claiming that if it was essential that they stayed at home, the government would have done more than request [Footnote 9], as there is “no need to plead when you can convince” [Footnote 10]. The campaign was felt to be a waste as the government worked against its own publicity by laying on extra trains [Footnote 11]. M-O summed up a proper propaganda technique as: “The need, plus the need understood, plus instruction, simply stated, equals results.” [Footnote 12]
In many salvage posters we can see the direct effect of contributing salvage, although Figure 36 , along with many other such posters, appears to over-do what could be done with people’s salvage, as three small piles of salvage become shining piles of armoury, when much of the salvage that was collected was not really economical. A particularly first-class example which demonstrated how ordinary objects could contribute to the war effort is a poster by Fougasse ( Figure 37 ), which show various objects of rubbish turning into useful military objects.
Fougasse believed that posters should not be too direct, that they should leave something to the viewer to decide, and so flatter their imagination; he believed that they would remember the message better as they had taken part in decoding the message [Footnote 13]. He used ‘formula figures’ as he felt that photos depicted only one person, whilst he believed that everyone could see themselves in his illustrations [Footnote 14]. Fougasse believed that the use of humour was important as realism states a fact “if you do this it leads to that”, whereas humour suggested that if you “behave like this…”. He felt that realism often bordered on horror, and did not induce people to look at a poster more than once [Footnote 15]. Compare this with the Norman Wilkinson poster ‘A FEW CARELESS WORDS MAY END IN THIS’, ( Figure 38 ) where a graphic realistic picture showed the direct consequence of discussing troop movements.
Another dramatic depiction of the direct effect is ‘They Talked… this happened’ series ( Figures 39 , 40 & 41 ) where one can see the result of a few thoughtless words in the bottom half of each poster, where, in a misty atmosphere, a sombre image of wrecked military equipment is presented.
Having looked at several of the ways in which the government stressed the peoples’ role generally, we will now look specifically at some of the ways in which they used images of, and appealed to, women.
- M-O A: Change No. 2, Home Propaganda for The Advertising Services Guild, , p6
- McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p2
- Chamberlin, E.R. Life in Wartime Britain, 1972, p120
- Daily Mail, 7/2/40, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the IWM
- Hollis, R. Graphic Design: A Concise History, 1994, p34
- See Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, 1996, pp122-3 for more details on the mechanics involved in this strategy.
- M-O A: TC Posters 1/A, T.H. and G.B. ‘War Posters: Difference between You and Your’, 6/10/39
- M-O A: Change No. 2, Op. Cit., p14
- Ibid., p61
- Ibid., p66
- McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p254
- M-O A: Change No. 2, Op. Cit., p66
- Fougasse A School of Purposes: Fougasse Posters, 1939-45, 1946, p30
- Ibid., 1946, p35
- Ibid., p38
If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:
Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 6: The Direct Appeal in Posters, Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War’, <URL>, 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.