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During the World Wars in the twentieth century, often a simple poster with a powerful message was enough to persuade people to do their patriotic and moral duty. Here are a few key advertisements that made history and could have tipped the scales towards victory.
While data can’t tell us what Uncle Sam’s impact might have been, the U.S. printed more than four million Uncle Sam posters between 1917 and 1918. A print job of that size indicated something must have been working. Uncle Sam’s piercing gaze and pointing finger inspired many young men to take up the mantle of war.
If you thought Uncle Sam was history’s most important pointing finger, you might want to skip to the next section. British war minister Lord Kitchener’s pointing finger galvanized enlistments across Great Britain during the First World War. British authorities rolled a whopping 5.7 million Lord Kitchener posters off the presses. Like Uncle Sam, Lord Kitchener must have made a powerful impact.
Rosie the Riveter
We’re all familiar with the flexed bicep of the uncharacteristically strong woman that inspired women to step up when the boys were at war. During the Second World War, Rosie the Riveter posters sent women streaming to factories to fill men’s shoes. Did the campaign work? The percentage of females in the workforce spiked from 27% to 37% from 1940-1945. Industries that would have otherwise shut down were able to flourish, confirming that Rosie the Riveter played a major part in the war.
These posters made very personal appeals to very broad audiences, inspiring actions that enabled victories.
Winning political campaigns by wielding the power of planned persuasion has older roots than you might expect. While possibly uncalculated, Andrew Jackson’s supporters solidified his “old hickory” brand by toting hickory branches to his speeches to parade their loyalty. William Henry Harrison’s campaign benefitted from the catchy slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” before slogans were commonplace. His followers connected him with the pioneer spirit by painting log cabins on campaign signs and badges.
Still, it wasn’t until new technologies emerged, especially radio and television, that we started to analyze how much advertising could sway an election. When these technologies first entered the political scene, they empowered communications tactics with the ability to make or break elections, as evidenced by these ad-empowered presidential campaigns.
Eisenhower vs. Stevenson
The 1952 presidential race between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson solidified how important television advertising and promotions had become for politics. While both campaigners used the new medium, Eisenhower’s campaign embraced television more, where Stevenson’s placed emphasis on traditional speeches.9 Slogans also came into play, with Eisenhower’s catchy “I like Ike” dominating over Stevenson’s hefty “America needs Stevenson for President.” Eisenhower took the election, toppling Stevenson by about 11 percentage points.
*Click here to view Eisenhower’s campaign ad. Notice how long it plays as compared to today’s 20 seconds or less ads.
Nixon vs. Kennedy
The 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon proved that simply using TV was no longer as important as using it well. John F. Kennedy captivated throngs of TV watching supporters with his casual charm while Nixon appeared awkward and uncomfortable. Kennedy’s campaign also tread new ground on innovative targeting tactics, with specific television spots targeted towards an African American audience.
*Click here to see one of the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Observe how telegenic Kennedy was (even before that word had meaning) and how famously Nixon perspired having refused any make-up powder on the set prior to the debate.
Johnson vs. Goldwater
The 1964 presidential race between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater was one of the first campaigns to use fear tactics as an effective mode of persuasion, setting a precedent for presidential campaigns for years to come. In one spot, known as “Daisy,” a little girl’s petal counting transforms into a countdown towards devastating nuclear war. The ad moved many audiences who had never been exposed to similar tactics before. However, an immediate outcry by political opponents and others outraged by the ad’s perceived fearmongering resulted in it only being shown once. Nevertheless, Johnson led Goldwater in the final count by about 22 percentage points.
*Click here to view the “Daisy” commercial.
Americans owe their love for a bacon and egg breakfast to a public relations mastermind. In the 1920s, Beech-Nut Packing Company enlisted Edward Bernays, PR expert, to create a whole new strategy around selling bacon to American consumers. At the time, Americans preferred a lighter breakfast of grains, orange juice, and coffee, but Bernays set out to change that. He recognized the value of creating a psychological need and decided to go for a health angle. He sought out a doctor who confirmed the possible benefits of a bigger breakfast in the morning as the body needed energy to run throughout the day. That doctor wrote to thousands of other doctors who reiterated the possible health benefits of a bigger breakfast. The final campaign featured this medical consensus as a research point. The idea made headlines across the country and people jumped at the chance to eat bacon for breakfast, adding eggs to the mix to balance out the plate. The delectable idea spread quickly and easily, but the idea itself originated from advertising.
A part of our story
Today, many people stand in Times Square and feel nothing. The messages bead up on our hardened shells like water on a well-waxed car. The proliferation of messages has robbed each one of its meaning. Despite this, the past shows that advertising had prolific power to sway opinions on even the most important matters. Only time will tell how much more of the story advertising will influence, but we can be sure it’s here to stay. The website eMarketer predicts ad spending will reach a whopping $220.55 annually by 2018. Just like the ancient people who etched immortal messages to sell wheels, persuading people will always be a task worth some thought and elbow grease.
Author: Ashley Bell is a full time nonprofit outreach and program manager and part time history detective. She likes to look to the past to explain where we are today.
 “The Most Famous Poster,” American Treasures of the Library of Congress, Library of Congress. Retrieved from: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm015.html
 “Kitchener: The most famous pointing finger,” BBC News, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28642846
 “Rosie the Riveter,” History.com, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/rosie-the-riveter
 Jamieson, K. and Waldman, P. “Political advertising,” Encyclopedia of international media and communications, Elsevier Science & Technology, 2003. Retrieved from http://public.credoreference.com/content/entry/estimc/political_advertising/0
 “Election of 1952,” The American Presidency Project, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1952
 “Election of 1964,” The American Presidency Project, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1964
 Colleary, Eric, “How “bacon and eggs” became the American breakfast,” The American Table, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.americantable.org/2012/07/how-bacon-and-eggs-became-the-american-breakfast/
 “Total US Ad Spending to See Largest Increase Since 2004,” eMarketer, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.emarketer.com/Article/Total-US-Ad-Spending-See-Largest-Increase-Since-2004/1010982#sthash.WT3okupt.dpuf