This study of the administrative context, content, and reception of these posters allows us to make a number of conclusions on the issue of World War II propaganda. These relate to the way that the government appeared not to have learnt any lessons from the First World War, although over the course of the war appeared to learn from its own failures. The government learnt to listen to the people, although they still seemed to be rather over-optimistic about how much posters could achieve.
When the MoI was set up, it appears to have been regarded as very unimportant by many of those in a position to influence it, although this seems to have changed later when attempts were made to recall advertising experts. The MoI seemed largely to model itself upon First World War experiences, with little regard for the cultural changes in the intervening twenty years, partly because there had been no MoI in those years. After the First World War, the MoI had been disbanded far too quickly, and it appears that the government intended to repeat this mistake as ministers, including Bracken, did not seem to appreciate the range of roles that the MoI could encompass.
It remains difficult to generalise about government posters as a large number were produced. For instance, initially, the MoI appeared to rely largely upon dull and wordy First World War examples, but soon seemed to realise that these were not appropriate for the Second World War. However, one cannot say that the MoI did not produce purely ‘word’ posters after the first failures, as it is possible that these simply did not survive as people did not think them worth saving.
From the start of the war the MoI had to decide “whether to exhort the population to take the action desired by the Government or to focus publicity on explaining and backing up government measures” [Footnote 1]. To begin with, exhortation was the preferred method, but it was realised that “exhortations are useless without commands; commands are useless without organisation” [Footnote 2] and such methods had largely been abandoned by July 1940 [Footnote 3].
An impression which is echoed in a contemporary Fougasse cartoon (Figure 63) is that
In the absence of a smoothly functioning intelligence division the Ministry adopted the blunderbuss technique of domestic propaganda, firing as much material as possible in the hope of hitting something [Footnote 4].
The cartoon, reproduced in a newspaper article, complained that one could not tell what the government wished the people to do, as one could not tell the essential instructions from the peripheral, less urgent, campaigns. Peace-time department stores usually devoted its entire advertising to a single sales message, “It did not confuse the issue by including … exhortations to buy the wares of a dozen different other departments.” [Footnote 5]
M-O suggested that government campaigns might have been more successful:
|a)||if there weren’t so many of them – if you could tell the wood from the trees, the should from the must;|
|b)||if similar kinds were clearly and intelligently related to the whole plan;|
|c)||if there was less pleading, more leading;|
|d)||If the background to needs and resistances were pre-studied and post-checked more factually and dealt with on a sounder psychology. [Footnote 6]|
The war had prompted a “thorough examination among the nations elites of what constituted British national identity” [Footnote 7]. It was recognised that new techniques needed to be adopted to increase the effectiveness of propaganda, and the government went to considerable expense to set up, and maintain, the Home Intelligence Division, to discover whether posters would be effective, and if so, how to target them better. The government appeared to recognise, if rather belatedly, the importance of providing accurate information to the people, realising that if people understood the reasons for restrictions, they were far more likely to accept them.
Although we have gained an impression of a government that was out of touch with its people, we have to bear in mind that the large majority of sources available about reactions to posters were designed to provide constructive criticism, and were not really concerned with praising any posters. As such, we cannot really gain a balanced view on the success of government posters.
The very fact that so many posters were needed, aside from the other means by which campaigns were disseminated, begging people to do various activities, is indicative of a lack of ‘pulling together’. However, we need to note that the Government did not appear to feel the need to legislate; persuasion was perceived to be enough. The Emergency Powers Act of 22 May 1944 allowed the government unlimited power over its citizens, but it appears that they chose not to use such power [Footnote 8]. Although the State had more involvement with the people than ever before, there was felt a need to be careful as it was claiming to fight a war on behalf of democracy, against totalitarianism, and could not appear to be totalitarian.
When planning a post-war campaign, criticisms were made about the use the government had made of propaganda in the war:
propaganda can operate efficiently only as part of a balanced plan … its real function lies in speeding up and supporting organised effort, focusing on a particular target … It performs the ‘softening up’ process without which other action would be less effective [Footnote 9].
It appeared that the government expected far more from propaganda than propaganda was able to deliver, and that:
the attempt to use propaganda as an easy way of avoiding legislation is a waste of energy, time and money: the role of propaganda more properly being that of explaining to the public the reason for legislation and their part in the altered situation [Footnote 10].
Whilst art historians look for the aesthetic merits in art, the historian looks upon it’s historical merits [Footnote 11] . Posters are culturally relative, they give us an idea of the problems that the government faced in World War Two, and how it dealt with them. Posters could be considered to have exaggerated importance as copies are so easily obtainable, unlike radio broadcasts, where the general public would have to go to great lengths to hear one. Posters are regarded as accessible art by many, but are seen, in art history terms, as poor quality and therefore undeserved of study. However, poster images can be seen as a reflection of the government’s hopes and fears about the wartime population, and in this study we have looked behind the images at these worries. If an image recurred over time, we could assume that such an image appeared to produced the required action.
There is much more that could be done with this subject, including further case studies into areas such as the use of humour, which has been touched upon, or the characterisation of inanimate objects such as potatoes and bombs. It is also conceivable that, through a study of the surrounding legislation, it would be possible to date further posters, and to understand to what extent the government relied solely upon encouragement, or used posters to back up legislation. Further study into the extent to which posters were used nationally or locally would also help us to understand whether the government was in touch with its people. However, within these limitations, this study has uncovered and analysed a number of key features of World War II propaganda.
- H.M.S.O. Persuading the People, 1995, p17
- Report of Planning Committee on a Home Morale Campaign, undated, PRO, INF 1/533
- Hunt, J. and Watson, S. Britain and the Two World Wars, 1990, p122
- McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p54
- Unidentified, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the Imperial War Museum
- M-O A: Change No. 2, Home Propaganda for The Advertising Services Guild, , p16
- Weight, R. ‘State, Intelligentsia and the Promotion of National Culture in Britain, 1939-45’, Historical Research Vol. 69, No. 168, February 1996, p83
- Pearce, M. and Stewart, G. British Political History 1867-1990, 1992, p427
- Road Safety Committee: Notes on Propaganda (RSC (44) 58) for Propaganda Sub Committee, [February 1944], PRO, INF 1/687, p1
- McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p253
- Gaskell, I. ‘History of Images’ in Burke, P. (ed) New Perspectives on Historical Writing, 1991, p188
If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:
Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 8, Conclusion, 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.