Propaganda during the World War: the marketing angle (an essay)


I wrote this piece originally in first-year of university as part of an introductory communications course. I am sharing it here today because the use of advertising as a form of propaganda is still as relevant and as powerful today as it was at the time of the World Wars. At that time, cities, counties, entire nations were geared towards aiding the war effort — and what better way to get this message across than to use mass media?

This paper covers the various ‘advertising’ methods used and the psycho-analysis that goes into building these campaigns to target a very particular audience (at that time, the young men who could enlist to fight in the war, as well as families of the soldiers who could support the war effort at home).

Today, new forms of media have evolved but the principle remains the same: we are exposed to advertising in our daily lives on a regular basis. It’s almost a part of who we are. We reference TV commercials in our stories that we tell our friends, we use examples from ads, we ‘Photoshop’ friends into posters and magazine ads for a giggle here and there. Ads shared on Facebook get thousands of clicks within hours, and ads on YouTube without the “Skip Ad” button infuriate us by delaying our viewing of the music video we want to see. Certain brands and themesongs remind us of our childhoods. Some commercials are short films that tug at our heartstrings and leave us crying.

Advertising is everywhere, it is everything, it is a part of our daily lives. Whether or not it is propaganda… is open to discussion…

Yours Truly, AJ

Full title: Propagation of Dominant Ideologies in Society: Examining the Use of Advertising in the Context of War Propaganda to Perpetuate Dominant Ideologies in Canada

Advertising, since the beginning of all civilization and society, has taken many different forms over time (Johnston, 2010, p. 104). Even today, advertising plays a key role in the functioning of market systems around the world. For the purpose of culture studies, advertising is defined as “a system of communication through which goods and services are brought to the attention of the general public” (Johnston, 2010, p. 104). In current times, there numerous advertising venues for marketers to use, ranging from print to electronic media. Businesses utilize these venues to reach their desired audiences to promote goods and services that fit the social, economic, emotional and other needs of their target market. Although it is a powerful tool for businesses and organizations to reach their potential consumers, advertising itself has numerous pitfalls: analysts argue that advertising induces the creation of false needs, facilitates over-consumption, and encourages the propagation of dominant ideologies. Although all of these are valid concerns, the most significant and potentially dangerous of these is the notion that advertising encourages dominant ideologies to be continually reinforced. Advertising in this context poses potential threats to consumers and to society as a whole by reinforcing existing, possibly outdated and inaccurate, dominant ideologies. One of the most noteworthy examples of the propagation of dominant ideologies through advertising in Canada is regarding the propaganda of war prior to and during both World Wars in the 20th century.

Encyclopedia Britannica (2004) expands the previous definition of advertising to being inclusive of all “…the techniques and practices used to bring products, services, opinions, or causes to public notice for the purpose of persuading the public to respond in a certain way toward what is advertised.” If it can be deemed that “the language of advertising is basically persuasive,” then propaganda fits this definition most appropriately (Wang, 2007, p. 55). Propaganda, defined as “the manipulation of collective attitudes,” was used to encourage all Canadians to participate in the war efforts, beginning in the pre-1914 era, in one way or another (Nagler, 2000, p. 486 in Webb, 2011, p. 32). The aim was to mobilize the citizens of Canada to think positively and romantically of the war so that they would contribute all that they could to the war cause.

Throughout the duration of both World Wars, initial versions of propaganda posters were an obvious example of war-related advertising, which encouraged men to enlist in the army (appendix A, figure 1). In addition to this, various other posters outlined how women and children could contribute to the war effort (appendix A, figure 2), why rationing of goods was important (appendix A, figure 3), as well as numerous other related messages. A number of posters illustrated men’s families being threatened (appendix A, figure 4), creating an emotional hook in the poster to captivate and empower the men to fight for their country and more so for their own families. Often, these propaganda posters ignored the moral and ethical standards of advertising that are required today. Propagandist media of the World Wars “employed truth, half-truths, and sometimes outright lies, [and] used symbols and persuasive words to sway entire populations… Every movie house, school, newspaper and radio became a forum for persuasion and manipulation” (“Love, hate and propaganda,” 2010).

Essentially, propaganda was all about “the art of mass persuasion” which, during the war times, effectively conjured up “powerful passions [such as] love, devotion, anger and hatred,” all concepts whose psychological bases were used to aid the war effort (“Love, hate and propaganda,” 2010). Studies of media around the time of the World Wars “presupposed media to have direct effects on human behaviour and attitudes” and those with power “subscribed to the mass society thesis of vulnerability” to take advantage of this (Gasher, M. et al., 2012, p. 123). This tactic, although extremely clever on the part of the organization implementing it–in this case, the government–can be detrimental to the consumer as it takes advantage of the consumer’s emotions; presence of strong emotions has “irrational influences on judgments, decisions, and behaviors… it [influences] people’s reasoning processes, the accuracy of their beliefs, their ability to exert self-control, and their tendency to take risks (Pham, 2007, p. 157). With the ability to impair reasoning processes and judgements, it is no doubt that advertising has the capacity to be extremely dangerous for the consumer.

Propaganda was based on the concept of the “hypodermic needle theory of communication, built on the [belief] that media could inject ideas into people’s heads” (Gasher, M., Skinner, D., and Lorimer, R., 2012, p. 123). These rudimentary concepts of attraction and persuasion through advertising were used in both World Wars, but World War II, specifically, saw countries expanding the creative usage of numerous types of media for their own benefit.

World War II was known as “the first modern war in which all combatants bombarded their citizens with messages through newsreels and posters, radio addresses and songs, speeches and rallies” (“Love, hate and propaganda,” 2010). All these various types of media had the same goal: to stress the dominant ideology regarding the importance, for the sake of pride and nationalism, of fighting for Canada alongside Britain in WWII. Interestingly, using propaganda was not just limited to getting men to enlist and getting families to help with the war efforts at home; forms of related influential advertising were also used reversely off-shore.

During the Second World War, termed by Winston Churchill as a “wizard war,” leaders of forces “drew on the field of psychology… to win the minds and hearts of the homefront, [and more so] to convince the enemy that their cause was hopeless” (Szasz, 2009, p. 530). Armies, navies and air forces of many countries created a “barrage of pamphlets, films, leaflets, and booklets” to convince their enemies to stop fighting; in fact, on D-Day in June 1944, the Allied landings “were accompanied by… leaflets that contained: counterfeit money, ration cards, stamps, coupons and formal ‘surrender cards’ that promised fair treatment to all soldiers who gave up fighting” (Rhodes, 1987, 146-147 in Szasz, 2009, 530-531). In these cases, the dominant message seeking to be reinforced was opposite to what was being advertised at home; the men back home were being exposed to media that empowered and inspired them to enlist in the war, whereas men on the front were being given samples of media from the opposition that told them to give up fighting and return to their quiet lives back home, for the war was nothing like originally advertised. The contrast in the types of propaganda that these men faced shows that no matter the cause, advertising is an effective tool by which the party in power–during the wartime, the Allies; in today’s world, businesses–can manipulate the public.

Two alternative views of advertising exist, as mentioned previously. Both the creation of false needs and the idea of over-consumption are seemingly connected to each other, although neither of these poses a significant threat to the consumer, when compared to the issue of ideology propagation. The creation of false needs encourages the consumer to buy goods or services that he may not require, and the persistent predominance of false needs in the market leads to subsequent over-consumption for that good or service. Basically, the trend perpetuates in a cycle; creation of false needs leads to over-consumption, which gives rise to the false need for another comparable or completely unrelated product, which induces over-consumption for that product, and so on. In a competitive market, over-consumption need not hold much importance as market activity stabilizes itself through continual transactions between businesses and consumers.

Propaganda is a method of advertising that was very common in Canada during the two World Wars. By examining war propaganda as a form of advertising, it can be concluded that advertising has the irrevocable capacity to reinforce dominant ideologies in any given market. It does this by attacking the consumer psychologically and taking advantage of the consumer’s vulnerability. It is a clever tactic that businesses and other organizations use to market a product, service, or cause to a group of people or to the society at large. Alternative views of advertising raise concerns regarding the creation of false needs and over-consumption in the market, although neither of these is more detrimental and dangerous than the characteristic ability of advertising to perpetuate possibly outdated and inaccurate dominant ideologies in a given society, as illustrated with war propaganda in Canada.

Appendix A – Canadian Propaganda Posters of WWI and WWII

All the Canadian propaganda posters referenced in the original work can be found at:


Encyclopaedia Britannica: Advertising. (2004). Retrieved from

Gasher, M., Skinner, D., & Lorimer, R. (2012). Mass communication in Canada. (7th ed., pp. 123-124). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, R. (2010). Advertising in Canada. In L. Shade (Ed.), Mediscapes: New patterns in Canadian communication (3rd ed., pp. 104-120). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

 Love, hate and propaganda: A CBC documentary. (2010, August 23). Retrieved from

Pham, M. T. (2007). Emotion and rationality: A critical review and interpretation of empirical evidence. Review of general psychology11(2), 155-178. Retrieved from

Szasz, F. (2009). “Pamphlets away”: The Allied propaganda campaign over Japan during the last months of World War II. Journal of popular culture, 42(3), 530-540.

Webb, P. (2011). ‘A righteous cause’: War propaganda and Canadian fiction, 1915-1921. British journal of Canadian studies, 24(1), 31-48.

Wang, Y. (2007). Analysis of presupposition and its function in advertisement. Canadian social science, 3(4), 55-60.

Feature Image on this WordPress post is from:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s