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The Great Poster Disaster

Discussion in 'History of Britain during World War II' started by Jim, Nov 1, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Few printed documents are as remarkable as the posters reproduced here. At a cost of £44,000, the British government launched them as a rallying call to a nation when war began. They were on hoardings, on buses, in trains, on delivery vans.

    The effect was almost total, unmitigated disaster. As a propaganda exercise it has gone down in history as one of the biggest backfires of all time. An organization known as Mass-Observation, whose impartial observers kept a watchful eye on public morale through the War years, made a detailed study of the reaction of ordinary men and women to the posters. Their report and findings make plain the huge division between the rulers and the ruled, these first stuttering months of the war.

    'Need a Bloody Dictionary'

    To begin with, the Mass-Observation interviewers asked how many people had actually read the posters blanketing the country-and if they could remember what the posters said.

    The first astonishing fact to come to light was the greater ability of women to withstand such bombardment: 33% of women, as against 11% of men, had failed to notice the posters at all. As an attempt to get through to ordinary people it was obviously missing on all cylinders.

    The posters reproduced on this page were supposed to rally the nation; their effect was just the opposite.

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    'Some people will need a bloody dictionary' was one comment. When asked what they thought the word resolution meant, many associated it with good intentions made on New Year's Eve. As for the word might-many knew the word only as a verb. The notion that freedom is in peril carried little weight with working people; in their lives 'freedom' (whether in war or peace) had never figured largely. To thoughtful readers of the posters the feelings roused by this phrase-and the backfiring nature of the whole campaign-were summed up by one city housewife: The freedom in peril one annoys me intensely, in view of the daily increase, in restrictions on one's freedom here. I think each time I see it: "I'll say it's in peril!"

    But the main gaffe of the 'victory' poster lay elsewhere. In one single stroke, by one little word, the poster seemed to admit an attitude suspected by many as being the true attitude of their government: your courage will bring us victory. ‘Who are us, I'd like to know? They don't say "Bring YOU victory" commented one housewife. 'Your and us', added a young worker. 'Never thought of it like that before, but unconsciously that's how I've felt all along: YOUR and US.'

    [​IMG]

    Graffiti on the Posters.

    Sixty one percent of all men on Mass-Observation's national panel of respondents felt against the poster. And despite vigorous official campaigns against fifth columnists and negative thinkers, the British made their feelings felt: they scribbled inventively and 'rudely on them. The brewers John Courage put out a poster in which the crown was replaced by their cock trademark and the words: 'Your cheerfulness, Your resolution, Your courage will add 1 penny a pint to the Exchequer. Strength and quality maintained'. And there were many others.

    From the government's point of view, it was very depressing in the early months. The British people, despite the war, seemed determined to be their usual bloody minded, suspicious and cynical selves. What a contrast to the fervently patriotic Germans, whose emotions were so well played upon by that master of propaganda, Dr. Goebbels, a man who could tune the masses to a pitch of hysteria.

    Britain's Ministry of Information lacked a Dr. Goebbels on its staff. And the British lacked that kind of public fervour. Fortunately.
     

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