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Propaganda posters

Posters can be powerful tools for persuasion, whether in advertising, state-led public information, propaganda campaigns or in social or political movements. Posters are public and the format requires that they get their message across quickly, simply and clearly. To attract and keep attention they must also be innovative or skilled, or otherwise make use of a range of techniques including satire, shocking or surprising their intended audience. In Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, you will see examples of propaganda posters from around the world using many different styles, reflecting these needs and demonstrating the power of posters.

The origins of propaganda posters

The use of posters in a form that we recognise today originated in France during the mid 19th century, drawing on cultural and artistic styles developed in mural paintings and also in advertisements for circuses. The technological development of lithographic printing allowed for mass production of printed sheets, also incorporating the use of colour. Initially associated with art and advertising, from the First World War posters increasingly came to be used also for political purposes. The recruitment and war savings posters of the First World War made use of styles developed for advertising. Although many war propaganda posters were mainly text-based, the power of simple images became clear through the success of UK and US recruitment posters featuring Kitchener and Uncle Sam.

Artistry and innovation in visual communication

Following the First World War, the use of propaganda posters became more sophisticated and incorporated new artistic styles. Poster art in general had drawn on, and influenced, developments in art from the later 19th century onwards. Equally important had been the influence of folk art. Both could be used for propaganda purposes, to represent innovation and dynamism or to present an image of the “ordinary people”. Popular and folk art styles in particular could be effective in communicating images of mass consent or contentment in a way that appeared authentic. Examples of propaganda posters using these styles could be seen across Europe, for example in the early Soviet Union, Spain during the Civil War, Italy under Mussolini, and in Nazi Germany. In Britain, the short-lived Empire Marketing Board (1926-1933) used leading commercial artists to create posters promoting trade with the British Empire, and more-generally maintaining British support for the Empire.

World War Two propaganda posters

Throughout the Second World War, posters remained significant, and designs continued to show innovation, particularly in the use of humour. However, the popularity of cinema, and especially radio, meant that other media became seen as more important in the struggle to win support and maintain morale. Posters remained important, but increasingly as part of a wider campaign that included radio broadcasts, films, pamphlets and other ephemera.

Impact on modern society

Posters remain a powerful and artistically-vibrant form of communication. In advertising and state communications, they form an important part of campaigns that also incorporate adverts in broadcast and print media, online campaigning, increasingly using social media, and staged events. The relatively simple technology needed to mass produce and circulate posters also means that they can be used effectively in campaigns against authority, as could be seen in the recent Occupy protests across the world. Finally, the impact of poster art can be seen in the development of street art more generally, with artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey using simple and powerful images that communicate clearly and directly with the public.

To find out more about propaganda posters and how they have played their part in history, visit the British Library and explore our fascinating exhibition ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’. Check out our upcoming events and book your tickets now to avoid disappointment.