This was posted on my original blog on August 5th, 2014.
What exactly is propaganda? Propaganda is often defined as any form of communication, usually in the form of posters and other visual aids such as news print, that promotes a certain belief or cause and is often biased. Propaganda is aimed to influence a general population towards a belief, organization, person, or cause. While the idea of propaganda has a strong connection with negativity (mostly due to manipulative uses by Nazi Germany to justify their horrific actions during the Holocaust), propaganda throughout most of history was more often for overall neutral and positive gain. Some examples of positive propaganda would be encouragement for public health, crime stoppers advertisements, and even election banners. In synopsis, propaganda is any encouragement in the form of communication that is used to force an opinion down a population’s throat — whether it be subtle or not.
It is incredibly easy to make your own propaganda poster design too. I spent less than fifteen minutes on one to prove my point. Here’s my own propaganda poster that I, an amateur, made.
I’ve spent a couple days researching some of the best examples of propaganda, and I’ve put together this list containing ten of my favorite ones that really show how propaganda can be used, both for good and for bad.
#10: Uncle Sam Wants You
This iconic poster was originally published as a the cover for Leslie’s Weekly on July 6th, 1916. This portrait of good old “Uncle Sam”, accompanied with the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?”, became the most famous poster in the world. Over four million copies were printed between January 1917 and January 1918, which boosted nationalism across the states as America entered the Great War. This piece of propaganda, obviously, showcased the United States of America’s version of “Mother Russia”, “Britannia”, and “Yellow Emperor” (the national personifications of Russia, Britain, and China respectively) encouraging (or even pushing) a growing American population to join the efforts of the upcoming (and then ongoing) war. The poster’s creator and designer, James Montgomery-Flagg, contributed almost fifty designs afterwards to support World War 1, and because of it’s overwhelming popularity across military branches and the general public, the image of Uncle Sam was eventually adapted to be used as propaganda yet again during the second World War. Uncle Sam is perhaps one of the most popular and most recognized personification of the world power known as America, standing tall besides Lady Liberty, Columbia, Johnny Rebel (the former characteristic icon used by the South, which has since been removed from its once iconic status), and Billy Yank (the former characteristic icon used by the North, which has since been removed from its once iconic status). The story behind Uncle Sam belongs to a meat packer named Samuel Wilson who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812. Samuel Wilson lived between 1766 and 1854, and was known for being reliable, honest, and devoted to the American dream. These same qualities were inherited by the depiction of Uncle Sam during two world wars. And although Samuel Wilson died in 1854, and the original designer of Uncle Sam’s twentieth century revival died in 1960, the ideas standing behind the iconic poster remain and continue to affect the world’s military recruitment tactics.
#9: Down With Religious Holidays
During the early days of the Russian Revolution, a large amount of atheistic propaganda began to surface. These pieces of propaganda stated that religion was an enemy against the government and class.. Anti-religious newspaper articles containing these images shocked the deeply religious Russian population, backfiring almost immediately. Eventually, these lurid and atheistic posters vanished from the streets, and were instead replaced by lengthy lectures and intellectual methods of transforming the religious population (which can still be counted as massive propaganda). Atheistic education was regarded as a central task in Soviet schools, and many popular magazines such as “Bezbozhnik”) promoted and endorsed the ideas behind atheistic propaganda posters. However, the ideas given to eliminate illiteracy in Russia were thwarted by the attempts to combine it with this new atheistic education. Peasants in Russia stayed away from this new combination, and it was eventually reduced in order to move further towards both goals: to liquidate illiteracy in the area and to keep atheistic education popular. By 1929, nearly all forms of education revolving around or including religion was banned, as the state declared it as religious propaganda. The right to anti-religious propaganda continued. Eventually, Russian anti-religious propaganda succeeded as it reduced public demonstrations. Some can argue that this act of removing all forms of religion helped unify the large country, while others can claim it further separated the people of Russia apart. This specific poster, titled “Down With Religious Holidays!”, blames the church (which is clearly visible in the background) for the drunkenness of plundering men during religious protests across Russia.
#8: Pyramid of Capitalist System
This propaganda poster here shows the “pyramid of the capitalist system” in America. On the bottom sits the working class, holding up the rest of the pyramid while chanting “we feed all; we work for all” and waving shovels and flags to show their commitment to the people above. And the first level of the pyramid, directly above the average working citizen, sits the richer classes. These men and women are wearing expensive clothing, sitting around a fine table eating good food and drinking what can be assumed to be imported wine. As they sit, they raise their classes in a toast and chant, “we eat for you.” Above them stands soldiers, armed with bayonets and cannons. In charging position, they cant “we shoot at you.” Above them stand preachers, pastors, and church officials. They stand calmly as they chant “we fool you.” This is getting quite repetitive, but above them stand the obvious depictions of rulers — monarchs, presidencies, and republics. They chant, “we rule you.” And finally, at the top of this mighty pyramid, rests a massive sack of money. This poster attempts to show the biased hierarchy of a capitalist nation, with the average worker on the bottom supporting everyone above. It does it’s case well. If you could guess where this poster was made, a good majority of you would think of Russia or China. But, no. This poster, titled the “Pyramid of Capitalist System” was designed and printed in the United States of America in Washington. It was copyrighted in 1911 in the American city of Cleveland, Ohio.
#7: Love It or Leave It
This nationalist slogan was often used during the Brazilian military dictatorship, which controlled the country of Brazil between the years of 1964 and 1985. I’ve talked about this very government before in my debate on whether or not every country in the world deserves to have the rights belonging to nuclear weapons. The slogan, “Brasil: Ame-o ou Deixe-o”, translates into “Brazil: Love It or Leave It.” A slogan used in propaganda is usually a brief, striking phrase that supports reasoned ideas and emotional appeals. This slogan did just that, and spread the word across Brazil that they should either love the country they were born in (and fight for it to the death if required), or leave to go elsewhere. Psychology and nationalism immediately block and deflect the second option. Another example of nationalistic slogans would be the “blood for oil” campaign used by anti-American Invasions/Occupations of Iraq. Slogans are often used around to world to create stereotypical and controversial claims against opponents and enemies; but in cases like this, a slogan could easily be used to play with the emotions and feelings of a natural born citizen. Phrases like “Love it or Leave it” could easily keep a population under control and happy during times of great distress. But there is always the chance that psychology and nationalism wouldn’t work out in favor for the government, and the population might take up that second offer. In corrupt governments, that is often when tanks and closed borders start to pop up.
#6 Come Unto Me, Ye Opprest!
This twentieth century depiction of a “European anarchist” attempting to destroy Lady Liberty herself further supports three developments of political importance and dominance of the century. The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of propaganda that could protect corporate power against democracy. Yes, it gets a tad confusing after that. As Germany would eventually take on entirely too conservative fascism and Russia would fall to entirely too liberal communism, the idea of democracy soon became threatened. Europe, a war zone during not one but two world wars during this century, went back and forth between the ideals of good and evil. And, for the most part, America wanted nothing to do with it until they definitely had to dive in face first close to the end. Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eight president of America and president during World War One, even won a second term due to the campaign slogan “he kept us out of war.” Quite ironically, one of the first things Wilson did close to the start of his second term was asking Congress for permission to declare war. Even Franklin Roosevelt, thirty-second president of the United States, did not wish to enter World War Two blindly like many European countries. This poster shows an anarchist and threat to democratic ways attempting to tear down the gates of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And for quite some time, the average stereotype of this man was living in Europe.
#5 Abolitionist Propaganda
This piece of propaganda was used by Union abolitionists during the American Civil War. It was nothing more than a famous picture of a former slave with keloid scars all over his back due to severe whipping. No caption was needed to spark the emotions and opinions of Union soldiers and citizens, although it did have its own caption attached to the bottom at one point. This technically counts as propaganda as it affected people’s ideas and beliefs on the concepts of slavery. The world continued to watch carefully as America fought its own war, and the people in the country itself watched the Union attempt to sew up what the Confederacy had ripped away. These scars on a former Mississippi slave were forever engraved into the people’s mind as the photo was taken on April 2nd, 1863 in Baton Rogue, Louisiana. The original caption read, and quote, “Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.” Eventually, the Emancipation Proclamation would occur in America, and the idea of slavery was thrown to the ground. It would take a century more until the remnants of civil war evolved into civil rights.
#4 Children, What Do You Know of The Fuhrer?
This piece of Nazi propaganda, titled “Children, what do you know of The Fuhrer?” basically brainwashed the Hitler Youth. In this poster, the sternly portrayed Austrian-born German dictator Adolf Hitler is seen as an approachable, yet still an authoritative figure. Yes, this poster depicted Adolf Hitler, the man who ordered the deaths of millions, as a man who loved children and was friendly towards everyone. Hitler, although a man stricken with personal and mental issues, understood that the power of the Fuhrer depended on every German citizen, including the next generations. Notice that in the picture there is not one, not two, but three swastikas. The smiling faces, the friendly aura towards children. This propaganda poster swayed many kids and teens to join the Hitler Youth, and to stay as well. Yes, there are thousands of Nazi propaganda to choose from. But this poster showed true brainwashing, with the abundance of Nazi pride and Hitler personification. It showed a true example of brainwashing and forced nationalism at its finest — a poster directly aimed towards younger generations. Perhaps a poster that began the long staircase of turning innocent German boys into heartless racists.
#3 Go Ahead, Please Take Day Off
This one is perhaps my favorite out of all the ones I saw during my research. Printed and designed by Texaco, an American oil company, it depicts the idea that if an American worked less, it helped the Axis powers, which at the time included Japan. It shows Hideki Tojo, the Japanese emperor’s top advisor, practically begging the average American worker to take the day off because, as mentioned above, it would give Japan an advantage during this time of war. This incredibly racist and anti-Japanese poster was accepted by not only one of the largest American oil tycoons, but by the US Department of Defense and the US Office for War Information as well. In my personal opinion, it shows a darker side to American humor during the era, especially since America is “the melting pot” of the world. Sure, it knocked down Imperialist Japan’s door, but it also took the depiction of a race against America due to their government’s decisions and beat it into the minds of the average American worker that they were the enemy. That they were the spawn of something against their way of life. Yes, even though it does depict a Japanese leader, it still attempted to beat this racism into the land of equality.
#2 Side By Side!
This poster showed the British personification of Britannia in arms with the American personification of Uncle Sam. It was propaganda between two allies during the Great War. Not only this, it depicts the two nation’s national flags, animals, and iconic weapons. This propaganda strengthened the Britain-American alliance during the first World War and further popularized the already famous Uncle Sam portrayal, who now stood by Britain’s side during a European (and soon to be World) crisis. This poster stood to encourage British citizens to be more involved in the war and to be more satisfied with the conditions they were in. However, it could easily have doubled over (if the poster’s words were to be changed) to allow Americans to feel equally as nationalistic and accepting to the idea of the alliance. The war itself wasn’t the only war going on in BOTH world wars, as this psychological “warfare” plagued posters negatively (as seen by numbers 3 and 4 of this list) and positively (as seen by numbers 10 and 8). Nevertheless, the dying world power Britain and reborn world power America stood side by side, arm in arm, nationality to nationality, to take down the forces of “evil” across the globe during World War One, and eventually again with the help of France and Russia during World War Two (but that’s a different post).
Before I get to number 1, here’s some honorable mentions that just didn’t make it to the list.
Honorable Mention: Give Me Four More Years
Adolf Hitler wanted four more years of power “to complete the tasks ahead In the greater Reich.” This piece of propaganda showed Hitler standing at a podium, in front of three Nazi Swastika banners, claiming to bring prosperity and power to Germany once more, and he claims he can do it in four years. Posters like this are even seen in today’s politics, such as Barack Obama’s “CHANGE” banners. It didn’t quite make my top ten pieces of propaganda because it seems to be casual political campaigning. If I put this on the top ten, it would be equally as “politically correct” to put innocent campaigning and political advertising on it as well. Also, compared to the Nazi’s Hitler Youth Campaigns, this one just didn’t seem as threatening. Out of all the Nazi propaganda I looked through to research, this one did catch my eye though. It showed (as several others did) not one, not two, but three swastikas, and it pictured the stern and authoritarian figure of Hitler standing above ground. The psychological and political basis behind it stands, but it doesn’t progress it into this top ten.
Honorable Mention: This is The Enemy
Yes, another peace of Nazi propaganda. This one depicting an Aryan Nazi Soldier piercing a dagger through a Jewish Hebrew bible. Yes, it attacked religion along with lifestyle and race. Notice the swastika, notice the action. But most importantly, notice the caption. This is the enemy. This piece of propaganda was used to burn the image into the minds of German people. It was literally telling and explaining through a visual image that the enemy of the German people were Jewish. Jewish culture, Jewish religion, non-Aryan people. The cold image speaks alongside the deliberate caption. The reason this only makes my honorable mentions is because I only saw this image, not it’s actual back story. And knowing the crazy side of the Internet, I have to assume it is probably a form of fan art or reproduction, although it wouldn’t surprise me that the idea of this poster existed in some form or another. It speaks on two levels — both clearly saying the same thing.
Honorable Mention: We Promise Workers and Peasants
Vladimir Lenin, stands firm and tall behind the Soviet symbol. The red and white colors of Communism, the look in his eyes as he stares back at whoever is looking at him. “We promise workers and peasants to do everything for peace, and we will do it.” A personal promise to the average Russian citizen. I’ve talked about Leninism and Communism before, and if you want to learn more about Lenin, Stalin, and other Russian leaders, go ahead and click this link. It’s obvious that this piece of propaganda was used to calm and reassure the average man. The average citizen. The average worker. Someone who mattered most to the man in power, the new government needed support. And these people were what they needed to hold a firm grip on. And with posters similar to this, the average worker would have no chance.
#1 Beloved Stalin – People’s Happiness!
Yes, the number one spot goes to Joseph Stalin. And yes, there are thousands of great propaganda pieces involving Stalin and Communist Russia. But this one shows it all. The multiple red flags symbolizing the communist regime, the military outfit symbolizing Stalin’s authoritarian status, the massive amount of smiling people listening and watching their leader. And at the bottom sits a caption, in Russian of course. “Beloved Stalin – People’s Happiness!” It portrays the millions of Russian citizens as happy, even though Joseph Stalin has gone down in history as one of the most evil, tyrannical dictators the world has ever seen. More often than not he’s considered higher on the list of evil men history has seen, even higher than Adolf Hitler. His regime in Russia made future political leaders ashamed of their past, with the burial of Stalin himself, a decade of political instability, and destalinization. Their happiness was often times faked and unrealistic, yet according to the posters and propaganda, they were to be happy. Happy because of Stalin. Their beloved Stalin.
And that concludes my top ten propaganda posters. As I said at the beginning of the post, it can be used for either good or evil. To promote nationalism for good or bad. From wars to elections, propaganda can be seen in everyday life. And it doesn’t just stop at posters, your average newspaper is probably full of political propaganda as well. Are you being brainwashed like the people of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia? In some way or another, the evidence points to yes.