Propaganda & Mass Persuasion: Advertising and World War I

Monday, March 01, 2010

Advertising and World War I

When Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 it was mainly because he campaigned to keep the US out of World War I. The public felt like the conflict in Europe was none of their concern and many therefore wanted US to stay out of it. That did not stop the government that eventually entered the war.

According to Stuart Ewen, the propaganda ministry, CPI, was created by the president with George Creel as the director. Creel’s purpose was to convince the public that war was essential and the right thing to do, but also to make the enemy seem as horrible as possible. Creel did not believe that the newspapers were convincing enough to do this alone but that “an extensive fabric of persuasion would have to be knit.” They therefore started to turn to several other forms of communication tools, including advertising.

If advertising could be used to sell products it could also be used to sell “political and social ideas,” many believed. The advertisement division of CPI under the leadership of William H Johns (president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies) therefore spread their message on advertisements and billboards across the country. They also tried to get space in the newspapers and as a result pressured them to supply free advertisement space. (Stuart Ewen)

By mixing words and images loaded with emotion, the adverts awoke sympathy and appealed to people around the country. They constructed a “language of images” created by skilled designers, illustrators and cartoonists.

As we can see in our handout, the Red Cross created an effective campaign together with the CPI, to raise the funds required by the war. Slogans such as “All you need is a heart and a dollar” and “The Greatest Mother in the World” were featured together with illustrations of pleading nurses and Madonna-like figures looking up towards the sky while embracing wounded soldiers. They simultaneously played on sympathy and associated with religious values. The advertisement “The Greatest Mother in the World” also emphasized that she cared about everyone in need, regardless of race and religion, which was an attempt to appeal to groups in society that did not have that much interest in the war.

Other CPI advertisements, some of which are included in our handout, encouraged the public to look out for German spies that could be listening in on their conversations, for soldiers to keep their mouth shut, and for people to report any suspicious activity to the government. They also promoted enlisting in the navy and buying Liberty Bonds. Uncle Sam is perhaps the best known example of advertising for recruitment with the famous slogan; “Uncle Sam Wants You!”

But it was not only the CPI advertisements that used the war; private companies soon realized the power of the patriotic message and began to use it in ads. For example, the advertising for American Hammered Piston Rings, American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the YMCA. They all related to the war in one way or another and emphasized values and sympathy linked with patriotic messages and colors.

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