14 January 2012

Billboards and World War I

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order establishing a Committee on Public Information [CPI], headed by progressive-minded journalist and muckraker George Creel, to rally Americans to war and to use the most modern means of mass persuasion to do so. The CPI was a propaganda bureau aimed to reach all Americans and to infiltrate all arenas of their lives. Its very existence testified to the recognition by America’s political and business leaders of the importance of public opinion and the techniques of manipulating it through images, text, and moving pictures.

World War I thus served as a massive and comprehensive promotional campaign for the field of advertising at large, and for outdoor advertising especially. No event contributed more to the selling of advertising as a legitimate profession and a public service than World War I, which allowed them to prove the value of advertising as a centralized force in mass persuasion that could sell the idea of democracy. Most important, the wartime activities of advertisers granted them entry into the most exclusive fraternity – the federal government – and no more authoritative endorsement for legitimacy could be had than that. What better way to send the masses the message than with advertising?

Some twenty-eight million posters selling five series of Liberty Bonds were distributed to cities and towns across the United States, while combined campaigns for the war effort, including the Food Savings campaign, the Red Cross campaign, and others reached upwards of forty million posters. Both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy made liberal use of outdoor advertising for recruitment purposes.

For outdoor advertisers, wartime use of their medium meant more than a boost in legitimacy. It meant a reversal of losses they had experienced at the hands of reformers and municipal lawmakers who, in the preceding few years, had succeeded in galvanizing opposition to billboard advertising and passing ordinances in several cities restricting billboards to industrial and commercial areas.

The approach exemplified by the war poster was what would define the coming decades of advertising production, in which thinking was subordinated to sentiment, and reasoning became but a lowly misfit to the instinctual appeal.

Joan of Arc used to sell War Bonds

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