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  • Jenna Burtch

20th Century War Posters to Modern Day Infographics: Artistic Media to Control a Nation

Since the first World War, Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter have taken their place as house-hold names in many American homes. Their message, to promote a duty to your country, “We need you!” World War I was the first widespread use of war and nationalist propaganda seen in global history, however the United States was the most consistent and largest user of nationalist propaganda. Chromolithography, a process derived from lithography, allowed for vibrant colors and mass production of war posters to be distributed. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson, worried for a reluctant America, hesitated to join their first major war in the 20th century. To combat this he created the Committee of Public Information to paint a different picture of war. A highly censored media storm told a different story, which was no longer a horrific grab for power run by the elites of the world at the expense of their citizens. During this era, war was for glory, for protecting your freedom, your country-men, and your God. Going to war was no death sentence, but an honorable show of bravery. There were no war movies, no one to warn you; the young men of America left to protect their country with smiles and returned with PTSD and shell-shock if they even returned at all. This was due largely in part to the ideologies and incentives pushed through physical government propaganda spread to Americans in the form of artistic posters.

Poster themes differed greatly for the message being pushed but all fit a general idea of a duty to one's country and a hatred of the enemy. In the United States, war bonds, funding, food scarcity were all topics illustrated with posters requesting Americans to cash in on the war and assist their troops overseas. This shifted responsibility onto the American people, since war was not a faraway problem but one they encountered in their everyday lives, due greatly to the eventual 4.7 million men and women who served in different capacities in the war. They weren't just protecting their troops but now it was their mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers.

Not only did these posters act as ways to send messages to citizens of the United States about their part in the war. They also acted as ways to send a message to other countries as well, during the first and second World Wars, American media presented anti-German, anti-Japanese, anti-communist/anti-USSR and many more oppositions to enemy countries. These followed events such as Pearl Harbor and the rise of the Nazi party, which all lead to different caricatures of the United States’ enemies in a negative perception. These posters depicted racist stereotypes of Japanese and Chinese people especially, exaggerating their features so far as to make them caricatures of the American perception of these people. Anti-German and USSR was also heavily prevalent in regards to communist ideas which were far stretched beyond real world definitions of such political theories. Some may even say that these historical untruths and blatant racism towards different nationalities, races, and cultures, has led to modern day attacks against these groups.

When looking at the styles of the posters, they had some differing stylistic elements to them but many followed a similar aesthetic. They were generally cartoonish in style, but ranged in how realistic the subjects of each poster were depicted. Some prevalent American artists at the time were Norman Rockwell, Micah Ian Wright, and Brian Lane Winfield Moore who also provided artistic war posters for the United States government to use for promotion of war efforts.

Some artists today use these stylistic elements in creating posters that we’ve seen used in the past for war-propaganda. A highly popular poster in these historic styles is Shepard Fairey’s “Hope”, whose image was used to promote Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and features Obama in a high contrast red and blue stencil style with “Hope” written below him. This poster was sensational not only as a campaign image but also as just a piece of artwork itself, and has been commonly compared to the depiction of Uncle Sam himself in the early 1900s.

Propaganda as a whole acts as ways to influence thoughts, push agendas and spread opinions, whose use is still demonstrated in the modern era. With the rise of social media, the Internet and mass communication, it has never been easier to spread information, whether it be truth or lies. COVID-19 has acted as a driving force the past three-years, causing many people around the world ,especially Americans, to have struggled with an onslaught of scientific misinformation and conflicting opinions. Nowadays, you don't see much war poster-esq propaganda, but social media has promoted infographic content and news outlets that play a similar if not the same role as posters did in the 20th century.

Social media and infographics are some of the main forms of media being spread that are the most similar to war posters in history. The bright colors, simple words, and expressive images and icons all allow users to easily digest the information being presented. Edward Tufte, an American statistician, wrote his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Data. Tufte’s work delved into the best methods for expressing and displaying media to get across an idea. He writes, “Graphical excellence consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency” (Tufte, 51). This book, published in 1983, has acted as a highly-referenced understanding of infographic media for the modern era, and his methods and strategies for creating understandable information are consistent in today's infographics.

War posters and social media infographics alike have acted in the past and in the modern day as forms of propaganda. Whether spreading truth or falsehoods, it's always important to recall the intentional choices of a piece of informational media, what is to be understood? And is it the truth?


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