Marketing Degree Guide: WWII Poster Art Propaganda
The media is a powerful tool when it comes to spreading ideas. In the 1940s, the Office of War Information (OWI) was established by President Roosevelt to accomplish the task of spreading messages about the necessity of United States involvement in World War II, despite public disapproval. Reigning ideas such as patriotism, preserving the American life and its ideals, spreading democracy and freedom throughout the world were just a few of the ideas the government sought to instill in the public. A massive campaign using posters to illustrate the ideas that the government wanted the public to embrace changed America forever. Ideas such as recycling, conservation, the enlistment of women as nurses and joining the workforce were heavily steeped in patriotism and the duty of free citizens to protect liberty. This resource is a part of a collection of marketing sources, providing information about the poster art used to promote propaganda during World War II by the United States government. It is useful information for history enthusiasts and marketing students.
Use of Propaganda in World War II
Participation in World War II, which began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, was unwelcome by the general American public. On the heels of the end of the Great War in 1919 and a still floundering economy (the Great Depression spanned from the market crash of 1929 until 1941), most Americans believed that precious resources should be poured into bolstering the domestic economy and not another foreign war. While German armies and Japanese forces invaded European countries, the United States stayed resolutely uninvolved, apart from providing support to the Allies by supplying war materials. On December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and crippled the naval forces thought to protect the U.S. from Japanese invasion, the U.S. declared war.
The Office of War Information (OWI) was established in 1942 to bridge the gap between the government and the media. The OWI was involved in creating posters that promoted ideas and behavior recommended by the government to the citizens in order to garner support needed for the war effort. Other media efforts included involvement of celebrities performing shows for the United Service Organization (USO), radio, cinema, and cartoons. Emblazoned sentiments of patriotism included joining the war effort by enlisting in the military, women taking work in factories to manufacture war equipment or take over jobs for men who were enlisting, conserving resources such as gasoline, food and rubber, purchasing war bonds to economically support the war and not speaking out loud about war tactics of any kind. Dramatic images of bombed ships, men dying on the front lines, gun barrels poised for action with the flags of the allied nations, innocent women and children in perilous danger from the Third Reich or the Japanese punctuated these ideas.
Inspiring Women to Join the Workforce
The United States entering combat after the devastation of Pearl Harbor handicapped the workforce.
- Rosie the Riveter is a fictional character that was invented to inspire women to join the workforce to either replace men that enlisted in the military or to work in factories that were building military supplies such as bombs. Rosie portrayed a new kind of femininity: a strong, capable and willing support to the war effort.
- A shortage of nurses prompted the Cadet Nurse program, in which women were promised a free education and a future as a professional. These ideals were embodied in the ads promoting the Cadet program, which were glamorized by women that looked like models wearing nursing and military uniforms.
- Women were encouraged to deviate from the traditional role of housewife by promoting the idea that husbands were supportive of the transition as a patriotic gesture.
Loose Lips Sink Ships
As a measure to protect military intelligence, a massive campaign was introduced to prevent people from sharing information. This information could be inadvertently passed to citizens from military personnel and overheard by espionage operatives.
- A hand extending from a sleeve in red-and-white stripes and a blue star covers a man’s mouth with the slogan, “Quiet! Know Your Place Shut Your Face!”
- A ship erupting in flames as a crew desperate tries to escape in a rowboat illustrates the potential for military losses in “A Careless Word . . . A Needless Sinking.”
- A lone soldier dead in a field illustrated the perceived consequences of discussing anything potentially related to the military in “A Careless Word . . . A Needless Loss.”.
- A forlorn-looking dog atop a military-style dressed coffin evokes an image of the harsh consequences of not keeping one’s mouth shut in “…because somebody talked.”
War Bonds & Conservation
The United States was still reeling from more than a decade of economic paucity when World War II broke out in 1939. It is ironic that joining the war stimulated the U.S. economy, but because many resources were still scarce, the government waged a campaign of conservation, recycling, selling War Bonds as a means of patriotic duty and protection against foreign invasion.
- The looming shadow of a swastika over three obviously patriotic children evokes the imagery of the Third Reich taking over America with the slogan: “Don’t Let This Shadow Touch Them! Buy War Bonds.”
- The slogan “Aim To Win: Buy War Bonds” promotes giving a percentage of each paycheck, which will sustain the momentum of victory in the war.
- War bonds were promoted as a fool-proof investment, for protecting the future of the country and the future of each citizen.
- Conservation of materials such as rubber, gasoline, heating fuel and aluminum were illustrated as patriotic endeavors. Lack of participating was considered tantamount to helping the enemy.
- Fuel conservation was heavily promoted with the insistence that a shortage for the military would cost lives.
- Citizens were prompted to grow and can their own food. Food supply shortages were countered with rationing programs for canned goods, sugar, meats and coffee.
Patriotism & Promoting Enlistment
In addition to garnering public support for the war, the United States government required the enlistment of soldiers to wage the battle itself. The core concepts of patriotism, taking action, avenging the losses on December 7th in Pearl Harbor and protecting liberty were employed by the OWI.
- The flags of the Alliance prominently displayed on the barrel of weaponry illustrated the unity of other nations with the United States with the logo “United We Are Strong.”
- A caricature of German soldiers proclaiming they will take over the world in German is met with the retort: “Oh, Yeah?”, signifying American resolve to defeat the enemy.
- In a poster pinpointing specific enemy action against the U.S. military, the question: “What Are YOU Going To Do About It?” is posed to elicit a personal response.
- Using the visual of a man holding up his fist, the attack on Pearl Harbor as a point of reference is used to elicit support for the war.
- Soldiers in the heat of combat are illustrated as taking action against the enemy. Options of different ways to serve the military and the age a man can be to enlist are displayed beneath the poster.
- The United States promotes its military as defenders of Liberty, with half of the poster illustrating the soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the other half in military uniform in the 40s.
The German, Italian and Japanese made up the Axis Alliance in World War II. Posters were illustrated with caricatures of the foreign leaders, promoting an external picture of what the enemy looked like. A counterbalance of propaganda also illustrated what the soldiers of U.S. allies looked like.
- The Japanese were illustrated with large teeth with almost animal-like evil expressions, performing acts such as trying to harm or capture innocent women.
- German and Japanese soldiers are illustrated as bloodthirsty monsters crushing the Statue of Liberty.
Film, Radio and Cartoons
Use of film in promoting World War II propaganda was enormously successful. Examples of these films are the series of films called Why We Fight by Frank Capra, who is most famously known for the cinematic seasonal favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life. Cartoons developed by Warner Bros. illustrated the Nazis as the enemy and promoted the war fought by the Allies. Popular songs about the war further steeped patriotic support.
- Films developed by Frank Capra for World War II are part of the Internet archive. Archive includes other films released by the United States government for the same purpose.
- Foreign Correspondent, Casablanca, and The Great Dictator were among the films that promoted patriotism and participation in the war.
- Cartoons were released by Disney adorning airplanes in support of the war, and a series of cartoon films were released by Warner Bros. in support of the war.
- This Playlist includes mp3 files of favorite songs during World War II.