The Art of Propaganda


By Johan Liebenberg

Before me is a pretty young woman with the wholesome air of a country girl, exuding a kind of sweet innocence. Her hair is neatly coiffed, and on her lips plays a slightly secretive smile which I find appealing—perhaps because it reminds me, somehow, of the Mona Lisa. As one tends to do, when coming across a nice picture, I smile too. But my smile freezes when I read the caption below the picture: “She may look clean, but ... Good time girls, prostitutes, pick-up girls spread gonorrhoea, syphilis.”  

The second image is equally disturbing. It features another attractive but older woman, with an ample head of dark hair, neatly piled up on her head.  But once again the shocking caption belies the expectation. Splashed across the poster is the word:  “WANTED.” Followed by: “FOR MURDER.” Puzzled, I carry on reading. Then, in red script, as though the pen had been dipped in blood, comes the explanation: “Her careless talk cost lives.”

These are, of course, British propaganda posters from WWII. It was a time when sexual diseases such as the above were common, and German spies were active in England. These are just two examples of the successful propaganda posters used during this time. There were many more. The question is, why were propaganda posters used? And why were they successful? 

The fact that the propaganda poster makes use of graphic rather than photographic techniques is one of its keys to success. Photographic images have specificity, whereas graphics are non-specific, making it easier for the viewer to identify with the character depicted. The poster also allows the artist to emphasise or shift elements around to achieve greater impact. The use of vibrant colours is also important. They allow the posters to stand out from the clutter, and the striking colours and the message remain ingrained in your mind, even if you are rushing past the image.  

The point is that poster propaganda taps deeply into our psyches where there lurks a seemingly infinite desire for fantasy, a desire to dream, and a desire for idealism. Individuals, trapped in a mundane existence, long to transcend the everyday-ness of things and to escape to some vague, undefined place ‘elsewhere’. The ideas are usually utopian. An Asian propaganda poster advocating ‘the joys of labour’ shows peasant women harvesting impossibly large melons in the fields, smiling happily. They might as well be in heaven.

But poster propaganda is also a monster that feeds on our insecurities, suspicions and baser instincts, especially in tense situations, such as wars or political upheaval.

A propaganda poster from the Soviet Union is disturbing.  “Fascist Beast” the poster reads, depicting a grotesque German officer drooling over the body of a murdered woman, with the words “The Fascist beast kills.” 

The Germans responded with propaganda posters of their own that were as hard-hitting, if not more so. In fact, it is generally believed the German propaganda machine was the most effective of all propagandists during WWII. It was important to Adolf Hitler. Every morning he met with his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, for a briefing. Goebbels was quite brilliant at what he did. Apparently after brief overtures between the Russians and the Germans, relations crumbled, and Germany invaded its erstwhile ally. Goebbels’s propaganda machine immediately went into action, and posters appeared depicting Russians as cockroaches. 

A propaganda poster aimed at Allied troops, which might easily have been created by the German artist George Grosz, shows a lurid scene in a night club with a lissom woman dancing on a table, surrounded by a group of lascivious-looking gentlemen drooling over her. She’s wearing a Yankee helmet and the caption reads: “How will you die on the battlefield? Will you be maimed or blinded? The war marches on!” The idea was, obviously, to undermine the morale of enemy soldiers. And depicting women was a highly effective way of doing this.

Another poster shows a naked woman seated on her bed, hitching up her stockings, while an American soldier, already dressed, smugly glances towards the woman he has just slept with. The caption reads: “While you were away.” The idea was to sow dissent between the British and American troops stationed in Great Britain at the time. Raising the suspicion that their wives and sweethearts were being unfaithful to them was the soft underbelly of every soldier at the front who had someone waiting back home for him. 

Whenever a great shift of consciousness was required in the war effort, propaganda posters were among the most effective means of achieving this.  For instance, the allies and the enemy became more desperate as the war dragged. Both sides realised that they had to replace the millions of soldiers who had already been lost on the battlefield. In Germany, women were exhorted to work in the armaments and munitions factories, while boys as young as 12 were being recruited for the Wehrmacht. Posters showing members of the Hitler Youth, blond Aryan boys in brown shirts, staring into the far distance with an idealistic gleam in their eyes, are well known, and embody the twin enchantments of German romanticism: “Love and Death ... for the Fatherland.”

Similarly, in England, another shift of consciousness came about as women’s traditional roles began to change. Increasingly, women were being drafted into the armed forces, while extensive use was made of recruitment posters exhorting women to enlist or to join the armaments and manufacturing industries. Rosie the Riveter: “We Can Do It!” is a famous poster, where a woman rolls up her sleeve to show off not her feminine beauty, but her biceps. 

Many women became economically independent during the World War II era, and it certainly liberated them from the proverbial kitchen to which they had been fettered. Propaganda posters played a huge role in achieving this.  

Recently, in Switzerland, a conservative party employed the same type of techniques to warn the electorate against the ‘dangers’ of allowing mosques to be built; their posters showed minarets made to look like missiles, and next to these, a woman glowering at the world from inside her niqab.  

The campaign was successful enough for the Swiss to vote against the building of mosques in their country. When quizzed in an interview with the the New York Times, the man responsible for creating the posters said the message went straight to the stomach, not to the brain, and “connected with specific emotions involving fear, health, money, safety”.

A poster can be a supremely powerful medium. I am amazed it’s not used more—for the common good. A song called “Shout”, protesting the high crime rate, as laudable as the effort is, seems ineffectual. Radio ads urging us to save water, equally, get lost in the general ‘noise’ of the medium. Why not take a leaf out of those poster campaigns, and employ the same methods to get across very simple but crucial messages? Such as the importance of learning in getting ahead in life, why crime doesn’t pay, why we shouldn’t smoke, the importance of saving the planet, recycling, and so on.