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

“Nobody had ever fought this kind of war,” McCarthy continued. “There’d been entrenchments in the American Civil War, surely, and people digging in goes back a long way, but nothing quite like the First World War, where people on both sides of the trenches had to overcome barbed wire, machine guns, and high explosives. A wall of people just sitting around in trenches working out what on earth to do—how do we get past all of this—led very quickly to people thinking of how to improvise. For instance, the British army was not issued with hand grenades at the beginning of the war, so the soldiers would improvise them out of the empty tins that the jam came in. They’d put in bits of nuts and bolts, attach a fuse, and throw those at the Germans.”

These standoffs also contributed to agonizing stretches of downtime, which corporations sought to occupy with new products. The title of Huns, appropriately enough, is derived from an advertisement for Decca portable gramophones that appeared in Tatler in 1918. (Because the amplifiers ran on vibration and required no electricity, gramophones were an indispensable part of life in the dug-outs, and provided comfort to the “nerve-shattered wounded” whose brains were “teeming with the screech of shells and the noise of bombs,” as one officer in charge of a hospital wrote in a letter to The Times.) The Tatler ad, which has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality, highlights a soldier’s remarks printed in the Evening Standard about the loss of personal belongings following a German onrush. “Worst of all,” he says, “the cussed Huns have got my gramophone.”

“At this point in time, advertising was quite naïve and, in some respects, was almost an adjunct to the editorial,” Doran said. “There weren’t so much of a divide, and the advertisements were often tailor-made for the magazines.”

Despite this alliance, the frequency of ads for newfangled gadgets and time-killers led to the occasional ribbing in the press. To illustrate this point, McCarthy sent along a rarely seen satirical cartoon, published in Punch in September 1915, by “W. Bird,” a pseudonym for the Irish painter Jack Yeats, brother of W.B. Yeats. The cartoon features several panels of trench life enlivened by the arrival of postmarked luxuries from over-exuberant well-wishers. As bombs burst overhead, an entrenched officer idly paints flowerpots with his new paint kit and easel. Another tinkers with a “little pet vacuum cleaner” that “removes the dust from all corners.”

But it’s the most pointed panel in the strip that best summarizes the dead-end course of war, for which no product can provide a detour. A group of soldiers huddle around a package and fawn over the latest distraction from their months of confinement and torturous outbreaks of trench foot—the gift of roller skates.


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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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