The First Posters

In May 1940, a MoI memorandum had stated that “the best available brains should be conscripted at once. Big advertising agencies should be called into conference”. [Footnote 1] Although it was claimed that selling toothpaste involved ‘selling an idea’ as much as official propaganda did, [Footnote 2] M-O felt that not enough new thinking had been done about the different function of official propaganda; [Footnote 3] that established commercial practices were not necessarily suitable. Government propaganda was intended to produce a quicker result than commercial campaigns, which tend to have a slow, gradual impact, and, whilst commercial campaigns are judged to be effective if they achieve any upturn in sales, government campaigns were intended to reach everyone.

Commercial campaigns tend to “involve something new and supposedly useful or pleasant in return for reacting”, whilst official propaganda tended to ask people to make some kind of sacrifice, the benefits of which were not necessarily immediately obvious. [Footnote 4] Commercial propaganda also tends to use ‘polite solicitation’, a technique that was not considered appropriate for government campaigns, when many people felt that if the situation was urgent enough, the government would demand, not ask, that they do something. [Footnote 5]

A more positive difference was that whilst commercial advertisers were required to make the public conscious of, then build up positive attitudes towards, their product in order to achieve sales, the government already had its ‘product’ accepted and consumed. It was felt that the MoI was not taking enough advantage of this, although it was recognised that many people regarded the MoI as suspect. [Footnote 6]

Once it became obvious that war was inevitable, the MoI began making preparations for, amongst other things, the first poster to be produced. The poster was expected to:

i) attract immediate attention and evoke a spontaneous reaction.

ii) exert a steadying influence, i.e. the idea of tenacity and vigour.

iii) incite to action.

iv) harmonise with general preconceived ideas among the public.

v) be short.

vi) be universal in appeal. [Footnote 7]

These aims were very ambitious by any standards, but even at the time there were dissenting voices. Although the “danger of broad humour as a poster medium” [Footnote 8] was emphasised, one of the propagandists, E.M. Nicholson, tried to persuade his colleagues that the British people would respond much more readily to defiant and colloquial humour, rather than the high flown sentiments such as “We are fighting evil things. Against brute force and bad faith. Right will Prevail” [Footnote 9] which they were putting forward. He believed that a stress upon ‘attitude of mind’ was far more important than such solemn declarations, as “the British public were suspicious of lofty sentiment and reasoned argument”. [Footnote 10]

A.P. Ryan felt that “Parliament and Whitehall stand today, in their attitude towards news, publicity, advertising and propaganda, where business stood twenty years ago”. [Footnote 11] When business had accepted the necessity of advertising, it had believed that portraits of managing directors at the head of a letter press, written without regard to the public to which it was intended to appeal, were sufficient. [Footnote 12] The government believed that the working classes would best accept important information from those at the top, but McLaine argues that those in the Ministry were over-occupied with the question of class; rather than asking themselves what they would wish to hear in a given situation, “they proceeded on the assumption that the mass of their fellow citizens would need to be cajoled and wheedled into an acceptance of their obligations”. [Footnote 13] He believed that the emphasis upon good spirits and obedience, and the belief in a need for the oblique shepherding of public opinion, pointed to the Oxbridge background of many of the planners. [Footnote 14]

When war was actually declared the government had to act quickly in order to produce a series of posters and “Of necessity, the wording and design had to be simple, for prompt reproduction and quick absorption.” [Footnote 15] The series were designed to have a corporate identity, with a new and distinctive typeface, which, coincidentally, would make it difficult for the enemy to forge, [Footnote 16] with the only pictorial element a crown. Almost immediately, newspapers complained that the posters were both dull and egregious, [Footnote 17] with one reporter maintaining that although he passed them six times a day, he could not remember the slogan. [Footnote 18]

M-O published a major study into these first posters of war, [Footnote 19] their results tempered by the provisos that it was difficult to analyse such posters as little theory had been done on the topic before; that commercial posters take months or years to have an effect, whilst M-O were trying to measure effects after only a few weeks; that M-O had been unable to collect data prior to the study and so had nothing to compare it with. [Footnote 20]

The poster that has become the most well known of the series was intended to convey a “statement of duty of the individual citizen”. [Footnote 21] The wording for ‘YOUR COURAGE, YOUR RESOLUTION, WILL BRING US VICTORY’. ( Figure 9 ) was put forward by A.P. Waterfield, a career civil servant with no credibility in the field of publishing. [Footnote 22] Much is made of a distinction between ‘You’ and ‘Us’, implying that the people were fighting only for the government, and not for themselves. The MoI had used ‘your’ rather than ‘our’ as they believed that otherwise people would feel that they had a loophole to get out, that other people could cope. [Footnote 23] It is interesting to note is that the MoI had considered some First World War posters, including one with the words ‘THE GERMANS SAID YOU WERE NOT IN EARNEST. WE KNEW YOU’D COME AND GIVE THEM THE LIE’, and it was noted “in any future publicity of a similar nature the implied distinction between You and We … should be carefully avoided.” [Footnote 24]

The other poster proclaimed ‘FREEDOM IS IN PERIL, DEFEND IT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT’, which even during the planning stages raised the criticism that ‘Freedom’ is rather an abstract concept and was “likely to be too academic and too alien to the British habit of thought”. [Footnote 25] M-O reported that people felt that they could not defend ‘freedom’ because they cannot feel that they are being attacked. [Footnote 26] The final poster ‘KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON’ was never used.

Responsibility for the failure of campaigns was placed squarely with the government as it meant that, either the people had not been made to feel the urgency of the message, or that “the leaders have not spoken in a language which the people can understand and respond to.” [Footnote 27] The fact that “three-quarters of the population left school before they were fifteen” [Footnote 28] appeared to have been ignored. Minister of Supply, Herbert Morrison’s simple slogan ‘GO TO IT!’ ( Figure 10 ), echoed in posters, appears to have been far more positively received than “instructions in stiff and incomprehensible language”, [Footnote 29] although there was concern that this campaign would not mean anything once taken out of context of the speech in which it was made, [Footnote 30] a fear that appears to have been justified since ‘What is ‘it’?’ was scrawled upon posters. [Footnote 31]

Lord Ashley argued that posters should be pictorial as

a picture can convey its message more rapidly than words. There are only rare exceptions to this: some two or three words may be so pregnant with meaning that, used alone, they solve the problem better than pictures. Even then, to be really effective, they must be displayed in dramatic, pictorial form. [Footnote 32]

It was suggested that it should be the job of the designer to abstract forms of life to produce a striking and cogent language, such as flags, which would be relevant to the working classes. [Footnote 33] Yet the campaign that succeeded ‘GO TO IT!’, ‘MIGHTIER YET’ (Figure 11), although apparently in accord with these ideas, fell sadly flat under Blitz conditions as it was vaguely reassuring, rather than related specifically to activities in which people were engaged. [Footnote 34] A far more successful design was ‘Firebomb Fritz’ (Figure 12), an animated incendiary bomb with outstretched hands of flame, with an expression that was “comic rather than terrifying”, which was believed to reassure people that firebombs were harmless if dealt with in time. [Footnote 35]

In 1940, Lord Woolton became Minister of Food, and in order to ensure that shoppers played their part in the ‘battle for food’, he decided to change existing Ministry propaganda posters. He criticised ‘Let your shopping save our shipping’ ( Figure 13 ), asking:

What could that mean to any ordinary housewife? She could not repeat it unless she had been very fortunate, or very wise, in the preservation of her teeth. [Footnote 36]

More direct slogans such as ‘Don’t waste bread’ were substituted to attract more popular appeal. Also in 1940, the famous slogan ‘Dig for Victory’ was coined by a London evening paper: prior to that “the Government had promoted food production under the less catchy ‘Grow More Food Campaign'”, [Footnote 37] and within days the image of the foot on the spade became a nationally recognised symbol ( Figure 14 ). [Footnote 38]

In 1941, two gas mask posters came in for criticism from M-O. In Figure 7 it was not clear that the illustration was a gas mask, and although the second half contained the more important message, the red text in the first half meant that it was remembered more. Figure 8 came in for even more criticism, primarily because the best known fact was put first, and consequently people did not bother reading any further. The poster was felt to be too cluttered, with no punch, more in the style of a leaflet, and indeed leaflets containing the same information had only recently been sent out, with a consequence that people felt they had seen it all before. [Footnote 39] The behaviour contained in the pictures was criticised for being casual and un-chivalrous, and the green colouring was felt to indicate a lack of emergency as green is generally perceived to be a safety colour. The Mass-Observationalist felt that there was more of a need for shock propaganda, showing the effects of gas, [Footnote 40] although Fougasse would have argued against this as he felt that people would not look again at a poster which distressed them. [Footnote 41] The timing was also felt to be bad as, after twenty months of war, there were no real worries about gas attacks. [Footnote 42]

In peace, in a democracy, personal interests of citizens tend to come before State interests, but in a time of war, “when the existence of the State and of the individual are equally threatened, the individual interest must be reduced for the temporary benefit of all”, [Footnote 43] although the war “forced the government to make some concessions to retain the allegiance of soldiers, war workers and their families”. [Footnote 44] The Beveridge report of 1942 was regarded by many as a future hope to work towards. Post-war aims were needed as it was recognised that people needed to be fighting for improvements in their own lives, rather than just for the government, although the A.B.C.A. commissioned posters ‘Your Britain, Fight for it now’, both came under fire from Churchill as he did not wish to give people false hopes and expectations.[Footnote 45] Frank Newbould’s poster, (Figure 15) which depicted an idyllic country scene, was criticised as the majority lived in urban areas, although another in the series, by Abram Games’ (Figure 16) was set in an urban background. Games’ poster was criticised by Churchill because he felt that the child pictured with rickets in the background presented an unfair view of life under the Conservatives in recent years.

Commercial posters were felt to be better designed and more colourful, and government posters were not considered to stand out amongst them. [Footnote 46] As the war went on little commercial material was being produced, and so the hoardings were deluged by government material, which although making the government poster more conspicuous, also made the “official message more wearisome because [it was] unrelieved”.[Footnote 47]

Hoarding sites used were those that could be obtained free-of charge, and

for economy reasons should only be fixed at points where there is a considerable amount of pedestrian traffic or large bodies gathered together … and all places where bodies of people are gathered together for special purposes. [Footnote 48]

For some campaigns, such as food, it was felt that posters of hoarding size were suitable only for long term programmes, but smaller sizes were prepared in anticipation and distributed to shopkeepers.[Footnote 49] Posters were produced in a range of different sizes, from small reminders in railway carriages and telephone booths, [Footnote 50] to hoarding size – the message repeated over and over again.

Although it is realised that we have only looked a few government posters, this chapter has given us an idea of the problems that the government faced when producing posters. In the following three chapters we will look at posters linked by three themes, restrictions and influence from foreign powers; the direct appeal; and women portrayed and appealed to in posters.


  1. Memorandum to Lord Davidson and M. Nicholson from M. Cowan, 22/5/40, PRO, INF 1/533
  2. Unidentified, 27/3/41, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the IWM (Hereafter, Embleton Collection, IWM)
  3. M-O A: Change No. 2, Home Propaganda for The Advertising Services Guild, [1942], p56
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid. p58
  6. M-O A: TC Posters, 3/G, ‘Letter from C.R. Casson to J.R.M. Brumwell :’Tom Harrison’s questions re: posters’, 14/8/41
  7. Home Publicity Enquiry Minutes, 04/05/39, PRO, INF 1/300
  8. Minutes of meeting held on 13/5/39, of the Home Section of International Propaganda and Broadcasting Enquiry, 16/5/39, p2, Ibid.
  9. McLaine, I. Ministry of Morale: Home Front Morale and the Ministry of Information in World War Two, 1979, p31
  10. Ibid.
  11. Memorandum from A.P. Ryan to the Minister of Information, 4 June 1941, PRO, INF 1/857
  12. Ibid.
  13. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p22
  14. Ibid.
  15. J.M. Beable, President of the London Poster Advertising Agency in The Times, September 1939, Embleton Collection, IWM
  16. Minutes of meeting of Home Section of International Propaganda and Broadcasting Enquiry, 20/5/39, PRO, INF 1/300, pp1-2
  17. Unidentified, 1939, Embleton Collection, IWM
  18. Daily Mail, 7/2/40, Ibid.
  19. M-O A: FR 2, ‘Government Posters in Wartime’, October 1939
  20. Ibid. p3
  21. Minutes of meeting held on 13/4/39, of the Home Section of International Propaganda and Broadcasting Enquiry, 24/4/39, PRO, INF 1/300
  22. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p31
  23. Balfour, M. Propaganda in the War 1939-45, Organisations, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany, 1979, p57
  24. International Propaganda and Broadcasting Enquiry: Home Section: Official British Publicity Material published during the Great War 1914-1918, 1/6/39, p3, PRO, INF 1/317 (emphasis in original)
  25. Minutes of meeting held on 11/5/39, of the Home Section of International Propaganda and Broadcasting Enquiry, 16/5/39, p8, PRO, INF 1/300
  26. M-O A: TC Posters, 1/A, 6/10/39.
  27. M-O A: Change No. 2, Op. Cit., p5
  28. Ibid. p17
  29. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p98
  30. Letter to Lord Davidson from John Rodgers, 27/05/40, PRO, INF 1/533
  31. Mr White, MP, Parliamentary Debates – Official Report, MoI, 3 July 1941, PRO, INF 1/857, p1561
  32. M-O A: TC Posters, 1/E, Havinden, A., ‘The Poster, The Public, The Designer, The Advertiser’ in Modern Publicity Yearbook 1939/40, p2
  33. Ibid, p3
  34. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., pp98-9
  35. Advertiser’s Weekly, 11/9/41, p206, Embleton Collection, IWM
  36. Davies, J. The Wartime Kitchen and Garden: The Home Front 1939-45, 1993, p35
  37. Ibid., p29
  38. Advertiser’s Weekly, 8/10/42, p48, Embleton Collection, IWM
  39. M-O A: FR 800, ‘Gas mask posters’, 21/07/41, p7
  40. Ibid.
  41. Fougasse A School of Purposes: Fougasse Posters, 1939-1945, 1946, p38
  42. M-O A: FR 800, Op. Cit., p14
  43. M-O A: Change No. 2, Op. Cit., p4
  44. Stevenson, J. British Society 1914-45, 1984, p457
  45. McLaine, I. Op. Cit., p182
  46. M-O A: FR 2, Op. Cit., pp33-4
  47. M-O A: Change No. 2, Op. Cit., p36
  48. Memorandum from Mr Galliano, Saward, Baker & Co. to Mr Hornsby, MoI, 19/5/42, PRO, INF 1/344
  49. Home Publicity Rationing Campaigns: Government announcement?, 29/10/39, p6, PRO, INF 1/343
  50. Advertiser’s Weekly, 10/12/42, p244, Embleton Collection, IWM

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Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 4: The First 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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