World War II marketing: Then and now
Listen to this article:
World War II advertising: When government and corporate America began a beautiful friendship
Do you feel it’s your patriotic duty to pay for the costs of the pandemic?
Probably not—but not because you’re a monster. You’re but a humble citizen of your nation who’s trying to get through it as much as the next person. You’re doing what you can with the resources you have.
Also the American government would never ask you to pay—at least not directly.
You can understand why they wouldn’t. Amidst all the sickness and death, roughly 9.6 million Americans lost their jobs. Since the pandemic started, 400,000 more women than men have stopped working, largely because their kids couldn’t go to school or daycare, and they picked up the slack.
While the economy teeter-tottered in 2020, more than 3,600 healthcare workers in the U.S. died, mostly because of a shortage of personal protective equipment. Still, not once did the American government ask citizens to chip in for PPE supplies for healthcare workers … probably because hospitals are the ones who pay for PPE in the first place.
Keep reading to find out more about a bygone era: World War II, when the government had no qualms about asking for some extra help.
World War II: When it was normal for the government to ask for more than taxes
What seems unheard of now—regular folks giving more than taxes to pay for a national crisis—was common during World War II.
In the 1940s, wars were expensive. One P-51 Mustang war plane built in 1945 cost $50,985—$745,000 in today money. When the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they needed cash fast.
To raise money for the war, the U.S. government introduced the income tax and borrowed (reluctantly) from other governments and organizations.
One example of this was Life Savers.
The Armed Forces packed some 23 million boxes' worth of Life Savers into ration kits as a sweet taste of home. However Life Savers was haivng a very hard time keeping up with the demand. Due to rationing, they were running out of sugar. So what did the government do? Encourage other candy manufacturers to give up their supplies of sugar to Life Savers in order to send the troops a taste of home, and it worked.
But still, they needed more money and help—and they got it by pushing war bonds.
A war bond, also known as a defense bond, is a loan to the U.S. government from its own citizens. When someone buys a war bond, they’re buying a debt security at a discounted price of 50%–75%, with a promise that they’ll get the full price back after a period of maturity.
The government wanted to make sure anyone could buy a war bond, so they were available at denominations ranging from $10 to $1,000. Kids could even buy special stamps to “save up” for a war bond.
“Sure, Uncle Sam, I’d be happy to buy more stamps.”
When they first started, war bonds had a 10-year maturity, which meant a 2.9% return for the buyer. But during World War II, the government extended the interest people could earn. Bonds sold between 1941–1965 accrued interest for 40 years.
Talk about HODL, right? 🤡
How to convince people to buy garbage stockwar bonds
A 2.9% return over 10 years? Waiting 40 years to cash in?
War bonds … sucked.
And the U.S. government knew it. So the secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., partnered with propaganda expert Peter Odegard to hatch a plan to convince Americans to buy war bonds. What they came up with was an appeal to patriotism and personal sacrifice for the greater good.
Generally speaking, people had the cash to spend—the war had stimulated the economy out of the Depression, unemployment rates had plummeted, and suddenly people had disposable income.
But they couldn’t buy much. Rationing and shortages on goods limited spending, all while the Nazis posed an existential threat that was (sort of?) on par with what climate change threatens today. This was the U.S. government’s cue to step in and capitalize on their citizens’ newfound influx of cash by redirecting their spending toward fighting the war.
At first they kept the messaging simple. Check out this first appeal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking people to buy the first Series E war bond:
“Fellow Americans, I ask you to demonstrate again your faith in America by joining me in investing in the new defense savings funds and stamps. And I know that you will help.”
The government positioned your duty to your country as similar to your duty to your own spouse—as demonstrated by this case study in subtle messaging, “To Have and to Hold!”
But even back then, people didn’t like it when the government talked at them too aggressively. After a while, direct appeals to patriotism got old.
When patriotism fails, turn to guilt
As one loan turned into two, two turned into three, and three turned into four, endless calls to help your country weren’t working as they once did. People were sick of the goods shortages and just wanted to buy themselves a damn dress.
Check out this ad, aptly named “What If They Quit”, in which a stranger shames another stranger for wanting to buy a new suit instead of more war bonds:
If you don’t want to watch the full video, here are some key guilt trip lines:
- “You’ve been a good guy up until now, but you’re quitting. … You’re quitting right in the middle of the fight.”
- “The Nazis won’t quit. … And you’d better not quit. That’s what you can’t afford.”
- “If we want to look those girls and boys in the eye when they come marching home, or if we want to look ourselves in the eye, we won’t quit.”
We’ll never know how much money the ad was responsible for raising—although some marketing experts think guilt in moderation can be a pretty effective tool—but it wasn’t necessarily part of a long-term strategy to encourage more war bond investment.
The government needed some advertising experts on their side, and as it turned out, the ad experts needed them just as much.
The War Advertising Council: The government and private companies scratch each other’s backs
In 1941, the U.S. economy was facing a strange dilemma.
After World War II kicked the country out of the Depression, unemployment was down and wages were up—great news, right? Sure, but not during an expensive, unpredictable war.
The U.S. government was terrified that too much spending would lead to inflation, and they wanted companies to focus on manufacturing goods for the war, not for the public. Rations had placed limits on what and how much people could buy, but the government wanted people to save their money—or spend it on war bonds—as the war raged on.
You can almost hear the government’s desperate pleas for people to stop spending their money. This ad, brought to you by the War Advertising Council.
As a result, many companies feared every marketer’s worst nightmare: their brand would be forgotten. They had no way of knowing how long the war would last … and to what degree they would need to build their brand from scratch after it was over.
The War Advertising Council was the solution to this problem. First incorporated as The Advertising Council in early 1942, it was renamed The War Advertising Council in 1943, solidifying a symbiotic relationship between the U.S. government and advertisers.
Unlike war bonds, the War Advertising Council presented a great offer. While participating companies didn’t get direct compensation from the government for their advertising costs, they could deduct such massive portions of those costs from their taxes that sometimes the government was subsidizing 80% of their ad bills.
And all they had to do was help the government make Americans feel good about rationing commodities, donating goods, and buying war bonds—all while positioning their own products as essential ingredients of a post-war era of peace and luxury.
Advertising post-war prosperity: Brand awareness on steroids
If you’ve ever been taught to minimize copy and calls to action in your ads, war council ads may frustrate you.
Companies that advertised as part of the war council had two goals, which often cluttered their ads:
- Help the government convince the public to buy war bonds and ration goods.
- Remain top of mind for consumers when the war was over.
The result was some cumbersome, if not wonky, ads. If advertisers couldn’t promote their current product line, they had to double-down on promoting a precarious future of prosperity that may never be realized.
And when brands don’t know exactly what their advertising, a few things can happen:
- Brand messaging is vague, not specific—not ideal when you need to sell people on benefits.
- Brand messaging is inconsistent—and customers may feel confused about what you’re trying to sell.
- Brands risk making promises they can’t keep to their customers.
Nonetheless, advertisers rolled up their sleeves and became as aspirational in their messaging as they could. Here are some examples:
1. Bell and Howell
Bell and Howell, maker of the Filmo projector that no one could buy, wanted people to know just how much they were contributing to the war effort.
Print ads were wordy back then, so the ad tells an entire story about how Bell and Howell projectors were boosting morale through movie nights on the front lines and how their cameras were filming the action itself.
“That’s what we are doing … to the very limits of our skill and energy … and other jobs must wait until the war is won!”
Oh, and they also wanted you to buy war bonds.
2. The General Tire
Have you ever seen an ad convincing you not to buy the product?
The General Tire refused to compete on price, even when no one could buy new tires. While acknowledging an acute tire crisis, the company pivoted to focus on promoting its repair service instead—to “conserve the tires you have.”
But some things never change … including the love of your partner back home and the value of great tires.
And don’t forget to buy those war bonds!
3. General Motors
General Motors was the U.S. military’s largest contractor during World War II. Without GM, the U.S. couldn’t have fought the war at all.
During World War II, GM made:
- 119,562,000 shells
- 206,000 aircraft engines
- 97,000 bombers
- 301,000 aircraft propellers
- 198,000 diesel engines
- 1,900,000 machine guns
- 854,000 military trucks
They also made Cadillac tanks, Oldsmobile bullets, and Buick airplane engines—and not a lot of cars that people could buy. But they knew the post-war era would trigger a massive demand for automobiles, and they wanted to be first in line to reap the benefits.
In this ad, Chevrolet / General Motors doesn’t advertise a car at all. The goal of the ad is instead to show people just how much they were contributing to the war effort, with pictures of tanks, arms, boats, planes, and trucks. They wanted people to know they were running the war.
And if the U.S. won, they were well-positioned to take center stage as one of the many reasons why the Allied forces were successful at beating back the Nazis. The fuzzy feelings toward the GM brand would radiate across the nation.
4. Four Roses
World War II was not the time for subtlety in advertising. The government wanted you to buy war bonds before anything else … and so did Four Roses?
In 1942, the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) was in charge of controlling inflation. One way to do this was through price ceilings on certain goods, including alcohol.
This ad by Four Roses whiskey is … aggressive in promoting war bonds, but they also embraced price transparency and printed their ceiling for everyone to see. The company’s obvious partnership with the government was a signal that its prices were “fair” and that they wouldn’t try to charge above the ceiling.
Celebrity influencers and the war bond bandwagon
Influencers aren’t new—it’s just the channels that have changed.
In the 1940s, television was still a new technology. In April 1942, there were only 5,000 televisions in operation. But radio and movies, however, were in full swing, and celebrity culture had been born.
The government knew about the power of celebrity influence long before the existence of Instagram. Here are some celebrities who encouraged their fans to—you guessed it—buy war bonds.
Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore
Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore were among many celebrities recruited to help promote the sale of war bonds, even devoting entire songs to the cause. Listen to some of the lyrics in these samples:
Bing Crosby sings, “I’m saving a dime out of every dollar for the family and me to share someday … I’m buying bonds, I mean war bonds, with 10% of my pay.”
Dinah Shore is a little more clever. “I’ll never be a millionaire, but you could call me a civilian-aire…”
Bette Davis toured the country to promote war bonds. Known as the "Stars Over America" bond blitz, she was one of 337 celebrities who traveled to more than 300 cities to raise $838,540,000 in war bonds.
More in line with the influencer marketing we know today, Bette Davis also filmed this ad, in which she plays a mom giving her kids war bonds for Christmas instead of a bicycle (spoiler alert: one kid is grateful, the other complains):
After the ad itself, Davis takes a moment to be herself—to reinforce the “Christmas blessing” of the war bond.
Norman Rockwell may not have used his face or voice to sell war bonds, but he did use his talent. He created several paintings to help promote war bonds, and his style was so unmistakable that it was in and of itself an influencing factor.
“Save Freedom of Speech” is one of a four-poster series that was inspired by President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The work was commissioned by the Office of War Information (OWI), an arm of the U.S. government that controlled war messaging and imagery.
At first the government wasn’t interested in using the posters, but then they were published by the Saturday Evening Post. This inspired the OWI to launch a nationwide tour with the paintings, which raised $130 million dollars in war bonds.
Post-war advertising: Futuristic promises, kept and unkept
After the Depression and World War II, people were exhausted. They wanted stability. They wanted recovery, at home.
They wanted to buy stuff that would help their future be better than their past.
After the war, companies that made unsexy wartime goods read the room and rebranded themselves as sleek, modern, and futuristic. Not only that, they knew that people would want to invest in their homes as their sanctuaries (sort of like how we were forced to do so during the pandemic).
Motorola, for instance, ran this ad in The Saturday Evening Post as part of their “House of the Future” campaign. Can you guess what the ad is for?
Hi-fi systems and televisions. (No, not an … indoor aquarium?)
At least Motorola’s products as advertised were real. Hughes Aircraft Company, on the other hand, may have overpromised when they asked the question, “How soon will you be able to see over the phone?”
As it turns out, the answer would be “decades” for mainstream adoption of video call technology, and the name “Hughes” wouldn’t be involved.
Now, as we live through the uncertainty of what might be the aftermath of a global crisis ourselves, it’s our responsibility to ask some specific questions: What’s the kind of future we’re buying now? Who’s selling it? Is it the future we want, or is it the future we need?
World War II was the existential threat to prepare us for an even larger one: climate change. After the war, people were tired—just like we are now. The difference between then and now is that the stakes are higher, and innovation needs to deliver where it matters most: our own survival.
The U.S. government and private industry should set partnership ambitions accordingly.