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.

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.


“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.)

“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.