How Advertisers Used World War I to Sell, Sell, Sell

Cigarettes, gramophones, even guard dogs. There was nothing that the Great War didn't provide a good excuse to buy.
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With Britain’s centenary of involvement in World War I having arrived this week, seemingly every facet of the Great War—its brutality, its cultural upheaval, its still-mystifying origins—has been chronicled in a fleet of new books and essays. One relatively uncharted area of study can be found in The Huns Have Got My Gramophone, a collection of advertisements published in British newspapers and illustrated weekly magazines during the war. (The book, already released by Bodleian Library in England, arrives in America in early fall.)

The ads compiled in Huns both capitalize on the allure of battle-tested products like Burberry trench coats and Pratt’s motor fuel, and make direct appeals to military families to keep their loved ones on the front well-stocked and occupied during downtime with new goods and services. 

“These were images that gave an intimate glimpse into people’s lives and their dreams and fantasies, just like advertising does now,” co-author Amanda-Jane Doran, an expert on Victorian publishing and illustration, explained by phone from Kent, England. “But this was a more naïve, more innocent time. Although advertisers were working hard to get people to part with their money, the whole science of sales and psychology wasn’t as advanced or as manipulative as it is now.”

Doran assembled the ads with Andrew McCarthy, a film director and military historian whose father served as a corporal in the Great War. (Of the diaries and letters the authors mined for real-time impressions from battle, which occasionally double as testimonials to a given product’s usefulness under fire, one of the voices is McCarthy’s father Reginald, born in 1896.)

Before television and radio, newspapers were a primary source of news from the front, though newsprint was insufficient to properly replicate the sights of war. “The illustrated weekly magazines had much better photographs and sketches,” McCarthy said by phone from London. “They could print on better-quality paper, and they weren’t tied to a daily schedule.”

The corporations and advertisers who packed the magazines with ads were quick to recognize emerging markets. A month after England declared war on Germany, on August 4th, 1914, the cigarette brand De Reszke had already placed an ad that featured a young woman bidding farewell to a naval officer with the gift of cigarettes.

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“During the First World War, advertisers seemed to be responding to people’s needs relatively quickly,” Doran says. “In Country Life, one of the things I noticed, being a woman, was that there were a lot of ads for guard dogs. It’s things like that that start appearing throughout the war—obvious and terribly poignant things, such as identity bracelets—that start to be advertised very widely, as casualty lists mounted.

"The interesting thing," she continued, "is that so many of the manufacturers who produced the most eye-catching ads are still in business today. The ads worked. It was an extraordinary time for the advertising industry, but it was an extraordinary time for illustrated magazines, as well, before photography really took over. It shows the power of graphic art.”

Equally striking is the direct and occasionally cunning approach to copywriting. A tagline for Lea & Perrins, for example, offers the promise of “Appetizing meals in the Trenches” and encourages families to send bottles of sauce to the front for a taste of home. “It makes Bully Beef appetizing,” the fine print reads, “and when mixed with jam is an excellent substitute for chutnee [sic].” Likewise, manufacturers of fountain pens seized on the emotional attachment to letter writing. At a time when nearly five million letters were sent from the front, advertisements stressed that it was their leak-proof products that supplied the lifeblood. “Would you not like to be the donor of such a treasure?” the makers of Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen implored.  

Though the majority of soldiers relied on items in their military-issued kits, store-bought armaments like barbed-wire gloves and wire-cutters also reached the frontlines by mail. “Minimise the Risk” reads the boldfaced claim in an ad for the “Crossman” body shield, a product intended to thwart shrapnel and bayonet thrusts to the midsection. The results in the field were often mixed. “Things like the body shield, sadly, fellow soldiers would laugh at,” McCarthy said, adding that metal used during the war years was substandard and somewhat disposable. (This calls to mind the U.S. Army’s decision, in 2006, to ban the use of commercial armor that had been sent by concerned citizens to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan after widespread complaints that military-issued armor was insufficient. The supplements were often equally problematic.)

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James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to SlateThe BelieverWax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint. 

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