What is propaganda?

Propaganda is ‘a message designed to influence – aimed at persuading a group or individual to behave or think in certain ways’.

For the first time war in the 20th century could be ‘total war’ - a war where whole populations were affected by conflict and mobilised for action.

Propaganda targeted at civilian populations therefore became an important weapon in winning wars.

Wartime propaganda attempted to make people adjust to abnormal conditions and to adapt their priorities and moral standards to accommodate the needs of war.

Governments believed that if they controlled or guided the public’s access to information they could also ensure that popular opinion supported the war.

The point at which a message stops being simple ‘information’ and becomes ‘propaganda’ depends on your point of view. As Walter Lippmann, an American journalist and political commentator said -

'We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.'

She Helps her Boy to Save Ships. (RNM)
She Helps her Boy to Save Ships. (RNM)

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The Use of Posters as Propaganda

Posters attract attention and convey a message. Using slogans, art work, photographs and text they can be a powerful means of communication

The turn of the 20th century was the ‘golden age’ of poster design and it was during World War One that the poster reached its peak importance as a medium of communication.

British governments used posters to -

Beware. By G Lacoste, c.1939. (RNM)
Beware. By G Lacoste, c.1939. (RNM)

The Government used the poster as a method of propaganda even more widely in World War Two. But there were some notable changes in design styles and messages - for example German and Japanese forces were less directly criticised than in World War One.

At the start of the War in September 1939 the Government formed the Ministry of Information (MOI). This acted as the central government department responsible for publicity and propaganda.

It controlled news and press censorship and home and overseas publicity. Under the direction of the MOI, designers and artists produced many now famous posters to support even more campaigns than in the previous conflict.

Memorable slogans such as ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ and ‘Dig for Victory’ entered the public consciousness.

Watch Your Talk For His Sake. 1939. (RNM)
Watch Your Talk For His Sake. 1939. (RNM)

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Interpreting Propaganda Posters

Posters can be studied as objects in themselves because they reflect the aesthetic style of their time. The images used in posters give an idea of lifestyles, fashions and everyday objects that were in use.

Tell Nobody - not even HER, WW2. (RNM)
Tell Nobody - not even HER, WW2. (RNM)

They can also be used to -


74 000 TONS OF COAL MAKE A BATTLESHIP. Make a habit of taking only one hot bath a week in 5ins of water, c.1940. (RNM)
74 000 TONS OF COAL MAKE A BATTLESHIP. Make a habit of taking only one hot bath a week in 5ins of water, c.1940. (RNM)


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The Royal Navy in Propaganda

The Royal Navy featured significantly in propaganda posters from both wars.

Posters were needed, for example, to stimulate recruitment, emphasise the Navy’s role in securing the country’s food supply, to assist in raising money for the government in the form of War Savings, etc.

Thank God and the Sailors for My Good Breakfast. c.WW1. (RNM)
Thank God and the Sailors for My Good Breakfast. c.WW1. (RNM)

Select the links to explore in detail three themes dealing with propaganda and the Royal Navy - patriotism and shared values, industrial production and intelligence.

Put Your Trust in the Navy. c. 1940. (RNM)
Put Your Trust in the Navy. c. 1940. (RNM)

Looking at the posters it is also important to consider what is not shown. There were many parts of the Navy’s operations that did not feature. For example, there are many images of convoy escorts and the Battle Fleet, but few of the contribution of minesweepers or naval aviation.