Canadians were physically and psychologically
unprepared for war in 1939 - inadequate military preparations were matched
by a psychological reticence. The country had just begun to recover from
the trauma of a severe ten-year Depression which had strained the its religious,
social and political institutions and bred widespread cynicism and anger.
Because of this, Canadians were reticent to assume the responsibilities
and sacrifices they knew would be demanded by the war. Although they were
aware of the deteriorating situation in Europe, many Canadians continued
to hope that a full-scale conflict could be averted.
This lack of preparation and enthusiasm, coupled with
the nation-wide large-scale sacrifices required of the war made it imperative
that the government mobilize public opinion to support the war effort and
defuse discontent. After a shaky and indecisive start, the government,
through the Bureau of Public Information and later the Wartime Information
Board (WIB), undertook an extensive propaganda campaign "to dampen cynicism"
and stimulate support for the war. Posters quickly became an essential
element in this programme, in part because of their physical properties:
they were relatively inexpensive to produce; they could be created, printed
and distributed in a relatively short period of time; and they enjoyed
a broad, sustained exposure.
Relying on posters' impact, immediacy, emotional appeal
and sustained exposure, federal government ministries and agencies, under
the guidance of the WIB, produced approximately 700 propaganda posters
that were printed in a wide variety of sizes that appeared on everything
from billboards, shop windows and theaters, to buses and streetcars and
even matchbox covers. Because of their variety and distribution system,
posters saturated the nation's cities and towns, and quickly became familiar
to most Canadians.
The popularity of posters as a propaganda tool, however,
was also a consequence of the manner in which they sent their messages.
By using images as a form of visual shorthand, they implied much more than
was actually stated or shown. As one of the poster artists pointed out
years later, successful posters made this shorthand graphic through "vigorous
composition, eloquent colour, an unambiguous theme [and] impassioned execution,"
and in that way they communicated complex, highly emotional messages "in
the blink of an eye." And the powerful messages they transmitted tend to
be instantly internalized rather than analyzed. Because of this, the posters
had a strikingly immediate impact on people's values, attitudes and aspirations.
While it is difficult to gauge the impact of these posters,
there are a number of indirect measures historians can use. In the first
place, the government's campaigns to mobilize support for the war effort--campaigns
that relied heavily on posters for propagating their messages--were largely
successful. During the war, 1,086,343 men and women performed full-time
duty in the three services while 1,239,327 worked in the war industries.
Financial contributions were equally impressive: the eleven Victory Bond
campaigns raised more than $8,000,000,000 in support of the war. Another
indication of the important role posters played comes from the advertising
men whose livelihood depended on their understanding of how to reach and
persuade people. These men were convinced of the central role posters played
in this "war of the mind and spirit" and even toward the end of the war
when paper was scarce and production increasingly sparse and uninteresting,
they steadfastly refused to mount even a medium-sized campaign without
extensive poster support.
What can historians learn from these posters? As cultural
artifacts, they can provide unique entry points into Canadian society during
the war. Unlike diaries, newspapers or government records, posters do not
purport to record the facts, figures or events of the past. Instead, they
provide us with oblique glimpses into the contemporary psychological climate.
Since the success of each poster depends on tapping into and successfully
exploiting commonly-held values and viewpoints, posters reveal preconceptions
and attitudes. As such, successful posters are invaluable in illuminating
the mentalite that prevailed during World War II.
Ref: Engendering Consent: World War II
Posters and the Home Front -
UBC ~ http://web.arts.ubc.ca/history/ww2prop