David Clampin / History

Advertising the Present, Reflecting the Past

How commercial advertising frequently offers a frank and honest representation of everyday life during the Second World War.

Advertising the Present, Reflecting the Past

In 1897, the American magazine Harper’s Weekly observed how advertisements were,

now part of the humanities, a true mirror of life, a sort of fossil history from which the future chronicler, if all other historical monuments were to be lost, might fully and graphically rewrite the history of our time (cited in Printers’ Ink, 25 August 1897, p. 42).

Whilst that may be something of a fanciful claim, it has to be said that it is not entirely without merit and, in the modern epoch, much is to be learnt from an informed reading of such ephemeral articles as commercial advertisements. The rich tapestry that is woven by commercial concerns in trying to reach and connect with a specific constituency serves to offer a recreation of the culture of a past society. The very success of many businesses is determined by their ability to present a proposition to the public that is both relevant and timely: these advertisements absolutely have to speak in the language and idiom of the time in an effort to achieve sales of their products. Since advertisers, from the twentieth-century at least, went to great lengths to inveigle their way into the minds of their customers, a reading of historic advertising can offer a rewarding path towards the mind-set of the public of the past.

Horlicks in Picture Post

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

Whilst there are many prepared to vilify advertising per se, and indeed historians who would turn up their nose at the prospect of using such an unconventional and unseemly source, it has to be acknowledged that commercial advertising is not an aberration of modern society but is instead an integral part of it. In drawing on historic advertisements, a reflection is offered of the prevalent concerns, interests and preoccupations of the people of that time and at the level of the day-to-day life of the common man. This is especially valuable in relation to a ‘big event’ such as the Second World War.

The history of the Second World War is obscured by a complex web woven around that experience, frequently packaged up under the convenient moniker of ‘People’s War’. Such shorthand and labels often serve to mask the ‘true’ experience, a situation best captured in Angus Calder’s landmark text, The Myth of the Blitz (1991). Both at the time, and subsequently, the experience of the ‘People’s War’ became mythologized as a way to cope with the harsh realities of being at war and in an effort to preserve that great legacy. In an effort to escape from the ‘official’ story and the over-arching meta-narrative, commercial advertising frequently offers a frank and honest representation that unlocks the history of everyday life through the war. Thus, at a time when the Ministry of Information implored, ‘Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution, will bring us Victory’, Horlicks (figure 1) portrayed the reality of a nation ‘fagged and worn out’ with war taking a ‘toll… on our nervous energy’.

It can be argued that the portrait offered in these representations is accurate and authentic precisely because these were voices active at the time which had to speak honestly and frankly to their constituency.

Ryvita in The Times

Figure 2 (click to enlarge)

However, this is a theoretical model of how advertising might operate within society. It presupposes an almost complete autonomy on the part of commercial advertisers to do as they please alongside a perfect connection with the target audience and an exclusive focus on selling product. Yet such assumptions in relation to the Second World War are partially flawed: many wartime advertisers were making deliberate efforts to be seen to be doing the right thing. Certainly there are elements of that in this situation as the advertising industry was held in a taut alliance drawing together the government, industry and the media. Each was held in abeyance and a state of mutual dependency. Yet, as far as the advertising industry was concerned, this afforded them a degree of liberty as it was acknowledged that they were helping to fund a ‘free and independent’ press, which was deemed to be crucial to the war effort and as a vital sign of British democracy, via their purchase of advertising space. Certainly there were instances where advertisers were willing to oblige the government by incorporating messages suggested by the Ministry of Information into their own advertisements but generally speaking they pretty much did as they pleased. Thus, whilst it is important to acknowledge that, on occasion what we witness in historic advertising of this period may be contrived, overall we find a full and frank appraisal of the situation. Whether in concert with the government, or merely seeking to reflect changes in society that forced new commercial realities onto producers, advertisers were responsive and quick to adapt their approach according to whatever happened to be the key message of the time.

Commercial advertising of the Second World War offers a convincing set of images, widely prevalent at the time, which were frequently turned to by the British public for help and advice, by virtue of which they were active in shaping wartime culture (see figure 2).

Parker Pens in Picture Post

Figure 3 (click to enlarge)

These advertisements reflected day-to-day experiences, as opposed to the idealism and lofty rhetoric of the government, and thereby had great resonance with the people. What mattered most through the ‘people’s war’ were practical references to the everyday life of the average British citizen, much of which was concerned with consumption. The nature of shopping and food in particular was radically changed during wartime and people craved instruction on how to adjust to this new lifestyle. Advertisements, representing tried and tested brands, were there for the people, reassuring in their familiarity and heritage in a way in which the new bodies such as the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Food could not be. The success of the advertiser depends on the credibility of their message: it is a relationship built on trust rather than sanction. Commercial advertisers offered an explicit appraisal of how the war was affecting the average citizen so whilst the government were planning to tell the population to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ (this poster, part of a series of three, never actually appeared during the war) advertisers offered a more downbeat impression of the first days of war, ‘a tragic reality, with the anguish of partings and the absence of loved ones’ (see figure 3).

Commercial advertising offers a rich field to the historian, not just in terms of the representation of popular attitudes, concerns and interests, but also as an unwitting source that displays contemporary dress and fashion, social mores, environments and settings. Applied to the Second World War in Britain, such commercial advertising assumes an even greater significance by offering representations and reflections often denied elsewhere by not fitting into the ‘official’ discourse. ■

Advertising and Propaganda in World War IIDavid Clampin is Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University, and his new book, Advertising and Propaganda in World War II, is out in October.

Figure 1: Horlicks in Picture Post, 18 November 1939, p. 54. By kind permission of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare.
Figure 2: Ryvita in The Times, 8 January 1940, p. 4.
Figure 3: Parker Pens in Picture Post, 14 October 1939, p. 52.


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