Advertising in World War I

Advertising in World War I

World War I played an important role in modernizing the advertising industry. Governmental use of advertising and propaganda to drum up sufficient support for the war effort enshrined the medium’s power. At the same time, shrinking discretionary spending encouraged more traditional advertisers to push the medium in new directions. In fact, with the exception of aviation, you’d be hard pressed to find an industry more changed by the war than advertising.

It is interesting, if not surprising, to note how crude and unoriginal the government produced propaganda was. For example, countries on both sides of the conflict used the now-familiar image of a man looking, and sometimes pointing, right at viewers. Take Lord Kitchener, the original English version, Uncle Sam, and this German poster (which reads “you too should enlist in the army of the reich”).

Lord Kitchener PosterUnclesamwantyoureichswehr

Though the propaganda wasn’t very inspired it was effective.  Years later, James Montgomery Flagg, who created Uncle Sam, said, “A number of us who were too old or too scared to fight prostituted our talents by making posters inciting a large mob of young men who had never done anything to us to hop over and get shot at… we sold the war to youth.”

It’s always interesting to examine propaganda, which seems to rely on people’s nobility or on a sense of obligation. This is particularly true of World War 1 propaganda, possibly because the war seems to be so senseless. In fact, if the war had happened a little earlier it might have been much harder for the volunteer armies to drum up support – the success of World War 1 propaganda relied on the use of emotional appeal which had only come into prominence a short while beforehand.

That emotional appeal translated very well into consumerist advertising of the time, as well. Newspaper’s were replete with calls to help soldiers at the front live in comfort or, like this Burberry ad, to provide them with extra protection:

There is another somewhat famous advertisement (which led to the title of this book) about a man who lost his gramophone. Of course, according to the gramophone manufacturer that was a travesty that needed to be remedied, but in reality it shows the budding consumerist culture more than anything else.

Another amusing ad comes from S.S. White Tooth Paste, which at the time was a market leader in the tooth paste industry. Interestingly is seems to play on a stereotype that is still prevalent today ( that the British have awful teeth) while also demonstrating the longevity of the appeal to the herd instinct.  

Taken from Duke University's Digital Collections.
Taken from Duke University’s Digital Collections.

Perhaps as the result of it’s effectiveness throughout the war, the advertising industry experienced tremendous growth just after it and until the Great Depression. In fact, many prominent brands got their start in between the wars. For instance, Young & Rubicam, Leo Burnett, JWT, and BBDO, all started in during that period. BBDO was actually created directly as the result of the First World War as it’s founders met during their work for the United War Work campaign.

Unfortunately, very little is written about this aspect of World War 1, especially in comparison to World War 2, but it is quite an interesting period nonetheless.

The man who changed advertising

The man who changed advertising

“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” – Bill Bernbach

Before Bill Bernbach advertising was a wasteland. It was WASPy, repetitive, and formulaic – imagine Mad Men without the sex appeal or nostalgia and the boring bits left over would be pretty close to what advertising was like. It was Bill Bernach and DDB, the agency he helped establish,  that started the creative revolution and gave advertising a more glamorous air.

Perhaps the best way to capture the effect they had on advertising is to compare their ads with other ads from the same time period. As Luke Sullivan says in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, VW’s iconic “Lemon” ad debuted when other ads said things like: “Chevrolet’s 3 new engines put new fun under your foot and a great big grin on your face!”

The ad that changed advertising
The ad that changed advertising

What a change it is! The Chevy ad’s substancelessness is somewhat typical of the time period, which alternated between an over-reliance on emotional appeal or on broadcasting the unique selling proposition. DDB, on the other hand, often used sparse artistry to attract attention and then followed it up with snappy copy. In this case, that copy prominently featured a defective product and turned it into a selling point – finishing with the memorable “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”

Noting the artistry of Bernbach’s creative revolution is important. As he put it, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” But the creative revolution wasn’t simply about making advertising more visually appealing. In fact, it was about making sure the art fit the ads. As odd as it would seem today, Bernbach was the first to pair copywriters and art directors on projects – ensuring that both aspects worked together rather than separately.

Other famous DDB ads from the period show this. Take Levy’s bread, VW’s Think small, and Chivas Regal’s Give dad an expensive belt. Most impressively, 50 years later they still feel current. They could probably still garner press and generate sales.

So what we mean to say when we talk the creative revolution isn’t just that Bernbach married the art and the copy, or that he found ways to advertise using negatives, or that he made great use of humor. It’s that he turned advertising into pop culture. Bernbach made ads that people talked about – that truly changed buying behaviors and consumer attitudes. In some way, you could say the creative revolution that Bernbach kicked off made ads a part of our culture rather than a reflection of it.

With that, I’ll leave you with the DDB’s Avis Tries Harder campaign. An excellent way to turn the number two position in a product category into a sales advantage.

An excellent ad repositioning Avis' second place into an advantage
An excellent ad repositioning Avis’ second place as an advantage