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Advertising and Propaganda in World War II

Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit


David Clampin


International Library of Twentieth Century History, vol. 69

London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

Hardcover. xix+269 p. ISBN 978-1780764344. £59.50


Reviewed by Lesley Whitworth

University of Brighton


It has been interesting to read Advertising and Propaganda in World War II : Cultural Identity and the Blitz Spirit in a period following the intense commercial appropriation of the wartime Keep Calm and Carry On motif, in a wide range of home and gift-ware contexts prevalent in the UK, if not further afield. The book’s publication coincides with a moment of popular re-appraisal of Second World War themes, and of renewed momentum in this scholarly field.

In the Introduction, Clampin makes short work of any distinction between advertising and propaganda, saying that any such distinction ‘appears arbitrary and false’ [14]. His central premise, an investigation of the parameters of the Blitz spirit and ‘the mindset of the average Briton’, places him squarely in the wake of those who have already done much to unsettle the notion of a consistently stoic public [22]. His claim to a thorough-going engagement with questions of cultural identity is poorly anchored, though – and weakly carried through: for example, the first reference to Stuart Hall comes in the Conclusion. Clampin seldom looks in depth at the reception of ideas propagated through advertisements, sometimes seeming to present advertisers’ use of ‘popular idiom’ (his claim) as proof of lived reality – a dangerously circular argument. The key contention is that by responding to the content of commercial advertising it was possible for people to ‘engage in the war “directly” with minimum effort’ [129]. This gives a primacy to advertising messages of the period that they have not hitherto received, and some readers may feel is unwarranted.

The book is at its best when dealing with two core concerns. Firstly, the surprising extent to which advertising was permitted to continue ‘in a nation engaged in total war’ [19], and the mundane reasons for this: the fact that manufacturers engaged in the war effort had to be kept on-side; that the survival of the press needed to be ensured and the press needed advertising revenue; and government’s need of conventional advertising to off-set the content of its own rather more serious bulletins and declarations which were co-located in newspapers. And secondly [21], the role attributed by Clampin to advertising in creating an illusion of continuity in everyday practices ‘to some extent’ [29], and hence its importance to the maintenance of morale.

Underlying the book’s development is the author’s database of advertising material from every wartime issue of Picture Post, in which the kinds and quantities of advertising material were recorded. Notwithstanding the particular status of this publication, one might reasonably query the reliance on a single source. It is a peculiarity that the ‘rigorous statistical underpinning’ made possible by the database [25] only really manifests in the chapter on Gender, where numbers of illustrations of men in uniform are quantified. One hopes that the data accrued in it may be susceptible to – or have already received – other permutations of analysis that may yet give rise to fresh commentaries.

This reviewer would like to have learned much more about the context within which this kind of advertising took place. Chapter 4 is the strongest of the chapters and the one that gets closest to these issues. Here we gain some sense of the wartime bargain government made with manufacturers [136], a group who are – to all intents and purposes – absent from the rest of the discussion. The nature of manufacturers’ arrangements with their chosen advertising agency is never explained, and the types of contracts and engagements that structured their extended working relationships is not addressed. In so far as we understand it, the agreement between manufacturers, advertisers and government seems like a straightforward enough deal made between players with some equivalency of power. However, given the number of instances cited by Clampin when parliamentary outcries about the perceived outrage of wartime advertising needed to be firmly deflected, one wonders whether there was disagreement behind the scenes, say at cabinet level, about the policy of laissez-faire? If we accept that this was a mutually-beneficial arrangement, and are not wholly persuaded by the book’s argument, then shopkeepers and the general public could be characterised as the disenfranchised and one might say disadvantaged parties. The author’s habit of invoking ‘evidence’ without providing sources, allows doubt to creep in concerning the resolution of the central question – whether customers were ‘shaped’ and informed by advertising, or infuriated by it?

Clampin draws attention to the placement of relevant advertising content when changes in rationing regime were announced, so that we may infer close contact between advertisers and government departments, but the mechanisms underpinning this relationship remain frustratingly elusive. Nor is there any suggestion of the tension between departments that undoubtedly existed, although different Ministries are mentioned. We miss too the nature of any stand-off between the nascent Ministry of Information and other message-purveyors like the press and advertising community, whilst advertising’s greater agility, compared to the leaden-footed MoI, is dealt with only briefly.

It is not only ‘the government’ that is presented throughout as somewhat monolithic, but also ‘the people’, advertisers, and ‘men’ and ‘women’: in this account society remains strangely undifferentiated and unstratified. The progressive impacts of rationing as it developed – both of products and paper – also remain somewhat opaque. At the end of the book, many incidental questions remain unanswered. Did any ad men go to work for the MoI? How many advertising practitioners were laid off? How many were called up? Did any companies close? By now it is probably clear that this reader’s sympathies were not fully engaged by the miasmic question of wartime cultural identity, and would have relished a more nuanced business history of the sector during these challenging years, with suitable attention given to its social impacts where evidence allowed.



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