Poster Inspiration Design: Propaganda vs. Propaganda

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You say Propaganda, I say Influential Marketing

"The principal battleground of the war is not the South Pacific. It is not the Middle East. It is not England, or Norway, or the Russian Steppes. It is American opinion." –Archibald MacLeish, Director of the Office of Facts and Figures. 1942


Propaganda is such an ugly word, and yet some of the best posters I’ve ever seen have been given that label. There is, however, a science to propaganda and a formula that not only influences using images and words, it connects on a very emotional level, inciting people to engage in a number of activities including protests and violence.

The image above was produced by the Kroger Grocery and Baking Company "in the interest of the war effort" in 1942. World War II (WWII) was given unlimited support from the government and large companies around the U.S. encouraging participation that would most certainly lead to victory.


"The function of the war poster is to make coherent and acceptable a basically incoherent and irrational ordeal of killing, suffering, and destruction that violate every accepted principle of morality and decent living." – O.W. Riegal, propaganda analyst for the Office of War Information via the National WWII Museum archives.

Perhaps the most famous WWII propaganda poster is "Rosie the Riveter," although she wasn’t called Rosie until much later and the poster wasn’t done for the war effort. Instead, graphic designer, J. Howard Miller, was hired to create worker morale posters for the Westinghouse Company in 1943. Because of the timeline and its production during the war, it has been associated with propaganda posters of that era. It actually didn’t get attention until four decades later when it was discovered and became a mantra for women everywhere.


According to the National WWII Museum, the Office of War Information (OWI) created under FDR used "specific types of propaganda. The most common types used were fear, the bandwagon, name-calling, euphemism, glittering generalities, transfer, and the testimonial."Propaganda posters included graphic illustrations and painful content that elicited fear and anxiety – a purposeful goal, buy not appreciated by everyone. The OWI lasted only three years (1942-1945) with former CBS news correspondent, Elmer Davis, leading the organization. As it grew, the staff appeared to become more dictatorial and paranoid. By the end of its short run, OWI had whittled its way into all Hollywood studios, sans Paramount, and was given access to all movie scripts to determine if a potential movie would assist in the war effort, or affect America’s public opinion about it. That kind of power was not welcome, especially by Hollywood. Under pressure, congress cut all funding and OWI dissolved in August 1945.


Propaganda’s Good SideYes, somewhere along the line propaganda got lumped in with sleaze, lies, and undue influence. Peel away the strategy behind it and you may get some inspiration for creating powerful designs.

Stephen Heller and Mirko Ilić have taken the complex subject of propaganda and made it easier to understand in terms of design, art and politics. Posters that appeared nearly 70 years ago would not translate as powerfully today, in fact there would probably be a backlash. Still, it shouldn’t be dismissed. Read Inside Print’s Guide to Political & Propaganda Design, to understand ways design and copy can influence others through emotional triggers and even change the world – or at least change what customers are buying. Learn More.