World War Two propaganda posters – from art form to psychological science

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day – the end of the Second World War in Europe – we speak to a curator at the National Army Museum about campaign posters of the era, and showcase some key examples.

NAM. 1989-04-116-1016-1 (138721) A collage of typical posters of the era.  Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.

Throughout the world wars, campaign posters played a big part in not only encouraging people to enlist, but also in rousing support for the allies – and vehemence towards the enemy.

Robert Fleming, information and community outreach curator – and previous fine and decorative art curator – at the National Army Museum, explains that the key to effectiveness was inciting a sense of pride and patriotism in its audience.

“They showed that everyone was making an effort, and highlighted the basic message of: ‘You can beat Hitler and make a difference as an individual’,” he says.

Design played a key part in effectiveness of world war two propaganda, engaging civilians with a deliberate simplicity. “Strong, colourful” posters with “basic” design and two-colour patterns, influenced by art deco, complemented the equally “basic” messages they were trying to portray, Fleming says.

“They expanded the notion of belonging and patriotism with colourful, powerful symbology, such as the Union Jack flag – posters had gone from being an art form to a psychological science,” he says.

The graphics industry in the 1930s and 1940s used the theme of duty – and moved away from inducing guilt, which was a trend in world war one.

“Guilt posters – e.g. “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” – had been unpopular and unsuccessful. It became much more about contributing,” Fleming says. “They showed girls in munitions factories and working on farms – while still looking pretty, and so not sacrificing expectations of women, of course – and fresh-faced soldiers.”

The posters played on empire patriotism, as well as national patriotism, he adds, through showing those from other cultures serving among British soldiers.

“It was this idea of: ‘If somebody from Canada is coming to fight, then why aren’t you?’,” Fleming says.

Other posters were designed to “demonise the enemy”, through countering – and also mirroring – German propaganda, he adds. “The allies’ posters would portray war crimes and negative things the Germans were considered to be doing,” Fleming says. “They were trying to dehumanise them and oppose the propaganda that was coming out of occupied Europe.”

However, others were also designed to instil paranoia, with simple phrases asking for silence, such as “Careless talk costs lives”, accompanied by simple images. ”There was a real fear of German spies getting information – particularly in the lead up to D-Day,” he says.

All images reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.

NAM. 2000-07-3-1 (116251). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM. 2013-07-2-17 (139534). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM. 2013-07-2-9 (139553). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM. 2013-07-2-6 (139550). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM. 1989-04-116-1011-1 (138720). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM.1996-09-1-194-1214. Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
NAM. 1996-10-95-24 (137194). Reproduced courtesy of the council of the National Army Museum.
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  • Stuart Moss May 8, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Why wasn’t Abram Games mentioned in this article?

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