What are ‘propaganda’ and ‘poster’?

If we are to discuss the efficiency of government Home Front propaganda, specifically as regards the posters that the government produced, it is important that we have a clear idea of what is meant by a ‘poster’, and by ‘propaganda’. This chapter will aim to give some idea of the definitions of these words, with reference to how they have been regarded in the past, and since the Second World War, and how this affected attitudes to them.

Propaganda is the attempt to influence opinions and attitudes, or to reinforce existing ideas and beliefs, through suggestion and persuasion, rather than by physical or financial inducement. It “is ethically neutral and it is the values of those using it that make it either good or bad”. [Footnote 1] Nowadays, the word ‘propaganda’ generally holds negative connotations, signifying “a bundle of lies propagated by devious methods and irrational appeals”. [Footnote 2] However, in “its origins ‘propaganda’ is an ancient and honourable word. … It was in later times that the word came to have a selfish, dishonest, or subversive association.” [Footnote 3] Yet even during the war the word ‘propaganda’ held negative connotations in Britain: “Propaganda was something in which the enemy engaged, while one’s own propaganda was regarded as ‘information’ or ‘publicity’.” [Footnote 4] Note that whilst totalitarian Germany had a Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, democratic Britain and America had a Ministry of Information and an Office of War Information respectively, although all appeared to serve basically the same function: the manipulation and control of information that was spread to the public. [Footnote 5]

The ‘poster’ was one means by which such information was spread to the public. Although at first it appears that everyone must know what a poster is, according to Rickards “In the late 1960s the word ‘poster’ was being applied to any single visual presentation printed on a fair-sized sheet of paper” [Footnote 6] and therefore, defining exactly what a poster is is far more difficult:

Firstly… the poster is a separate sheet, affixed to an existing surface (as opposed to those markings and images rendered directly on the surface). Secondly, it must embody a message; a mere decorative image is not enough. Thirdly, it must be publicly displayed. Finally, it must have been multiply produced; a single hand-done notice is not a poster. [Footnote 7]

However, even this definition is not entirely comprehensive: it does not exclude such things as printed notices which cannot really be regarded as posters, nor does it explain what the purpose of a poster may be. Susan Sontag added a further definition: “A public notice aims to inform or command. A poster aims to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal”, [Footnote 8] which although still not an exhaustive definition, as many public displays including government posters, overlap both areas, gives a good working definition.

Official proclamations could perhaps be seen to be the forerunner to posters. Initially, they consisted merely of words, but by the fifteenth century, after Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, began to include pictures. [Footnote 9] The pictorial element was gradually to change from mere decoration to a major ingredient, until in 1871, in Frederick Walker’s design The Woman in White, the picture became the most important element. As the work of the artist became more and more important, the wording and the image begun to be treated separately, a trend that continued until the 1920s and 1930s.

“By the 1890s designers had learned how to convey messages in a manner that, however complex its aesthetic elements, spoke clearly and was easily understood even from a distance”, [Footnote 10] and the poster became almost a cult object, with serious collectors, and collectors’ magazines. With industrialisation, and mass production, producers fought for bill board space, and plagiarism of designs became rife. With the First World War the poster “turned from selling the comforts of peace to pressing the demands of war”. [Footnote 11] The Germans expressed doubts: “Should an army be raised by the same means as customers for jam?” [Footnote 12] Over the course of the war the poster became an acceptable means of selling, or recruiting for, the war. Although the Germans believed that “British propaganda in World War I… [had] set a new standard for effectiveness”, [Footnote 13] organisation for poster campaigns had been very poor as campaigns were only developed if an idea for one occurred to someone in a government department, and was then approved.

With better communications during the 1920s and 1930s, poster designers had been able to gain ideas from one another, and many graphic techniques had been experimented with and circulated. The ideas of the Constructivist movement were spread from the USSR by El Lissitsky (Figure 2), and by refugees after 1935, when Socialist Realism (Figure 3) became the official art form in the USSR. Constructivism was a movement which had devised photo-montage and experimented with “spatial dynamics, geometric forms and flat, bright colours”. [Footnote 14] Ludwig Hohlwein, a German poster designer, was an important influence upon European poster design, believing that art work should not be merely ‘artistic’, that it was the message that was important, able to be absorbed with the briefest of glances. (Figure 4) [Footnote 15] New ideas were also spread by refugees escaping Nazism, including Moholy-Nagy (Figure 5), who arrived in Britain in 1935, a pioneer of the Bauhaus movement, [Footnote 16] which stressed that the typeface should be regarded as an important and integral part of poster design (Figure 6).

During the war, the aim of ‘propaganda posters’, according to Kenneth Bird, otherwise known as Fougasse, was to overcome three obstacles:

Firstly, a general aversion to reading any notice of any sort; secondly a general disinclination to believe that any notice, even if it was read, can possibly be addressed to oneself; thirdly, a general unwillingness, even so, to remember the message long enough to do anything about it. [Footnote 17]

However, during the war the poster played a lesser role than in the First World War, as, with advances in technology, the radio was seen as a better means for disseminating more immediate information, although many people had lost their radio sets as dealers cancelled H.P. terms, or ran out of battery sets. [Footnote 18] Large numbers of posters were produced, but their use was mainly reserved for long term campaigns as they took a long time to prepare. [Footnote 19] Posters gave information about such subjects as rationing and petrol restrictions, and advice on such subjects as health and diet.

In the 1950s the poster, as defined by Dart, became chiefly an accessory to the television image, and has largely remained so, although for those without access to television size budgets, such as protesters and small companies, the poster has always remained an important medium. Since the 1960s poster reprints have become popular, a category in which we could include the posters reprinted by the IWM, although there were also designs which were specifically made for the reprint market.

We are now bombarded with such quantities of commercial, social and political propaganda, that picture posters today appear to be relatively harmless, through visual media whose persuasiveness and effectiveness make it seem so, [Footnote 20] the poster will probably always be regarded as important as it can take “arguments directly to the man on the street”. [Footnote 21] It is regarded as particularly important for election campaigns, as a poster can express in a nutshell a specific party policy, either complimentary towards one’s own party, or derogatory to an opposing party, for instance “New Labour, Euro Danger”.

Having considered some of the different techniques of, and uses for, posters through history, we will now look at the organisation behind many of the posters produced in the Second World War.


  1. Marshall Cavendish Images of War: The Real Story of World War II Vol. 4, No. 64, 1996, p1767
  2. Collier, P.F. Collier’s Encyclopaedia CDRom
  3. American Historical Association ‘What is Propaganda?’ (1944) in Boehm, E. Behind Enemy Lines: WWII Allied/Axis Propaganda 1989 p19
  4. Marshall Cavendish Op. Cit. p1766
  5. See Jowett, G. and O’Donnell, V. Propaganda and Persuasion, 1987 for further details of the methods of propagandists, and what to look for when studying propaganda.
  6. Rickards, M. The Rise and Fall of the Poster 1971 p39
  7. Adams, Dart ‘Posters of Protest and Revolution’ (1970) Quoted in Rickards, M. The Rise and Fall of the Poster 1971 p7 (emphasis in original)
  8. Quoted in Rickards, M. Op. Cit., p8
  9. McQuiston, L. Graphic Agitation, 1993, p14
  10. Paret, P., Lewis, B.I. and Paret, P. Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution 1992 p2
  11. Rickards, M. Op. Cit., p25
  12. Ibid., p25
  13. Campbell, J. (ed) The Experience of World War II 1989 p196
  14. McQuiston, L. Op. Cit., p18
  15. Hollis, R. Graphic Design: A Concise History, 1994, p31
  16. Ibid., p95
  17. Fougasse A School of Purposes: Fougasse Posters, 1939-45, 1946, p11
  18. M-O A: FR 1, ‘Channels of Publicity’, 11/10/39
  19. Home Publicity: Government Announcement, October 1939, PRO, INF 1/343
  20. Harper, P. War, Revolution and Peace, Propaganda Posters from the Hoover Institution Archives 1914-1945, [1969], p5
  21. McQuiston, L. Op. Cit., p31

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

Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 2: What are ‘poster’ and ‘propaganda’?, 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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