A proper gander at propaganda

Japanese print of the Russo-Japanese War (1904) (Sp Coll e159)

Japanese print from the Russo-Japanese War (1904) (Sp Coll e159). For more examples see our web exhibition.

'A big punch by a Japanese torpedo boat' (1904) (Sp Coll e159)

‘A big punch by a Japanese torpedo boat’ (1904) (Sp Coll e159)

“Dig for victory”

“Your country needs YOU”

“Loose lips sink ships”

So far so familiar eh? Such simple and catchy slogans on brightly coloured posters are the sort of thing many of us (me at least!) think of when we hear the word ‘propaganda’. But not all propaganda takes the same form. Not all propaganda is quite so conspicuous.  An excellent new exhibition at the British Library (that I was lucky enough to visit earlier this week) explores some of the sophisticated, disputed and, above all, wide-ranging forms which propaganda has taken over the years. In the words of the curators:

“Propaganda is all around us. It is used to fight wars and fight disease, build unity and create division. Whether monumental or commonplace, sincere or insidious, propaganda is often surprising, sometimes horrific and occasionally humorous. While it’s never neutral, it can be difficult to define and identify.”

Election ballad for John Dennistoun, Glasgow, 1837 (Eph P/212)

Election ballad for John Dennistoun, Glasgow, 1837 (Eph P/212)

Difficult to define and identify it might be, but the BL have certainly created an exhibition which encourages visitors to engage with the concept and think about it for themselves. It starts by looking at early forms of propaganda, showing how it can be used constructively (minting coins depicting a ruler’s head) or destructively (Reformation era woodcuts portraying the Pope as an ass) before moving on to the 20th century, where the ‘dark arts’ take off in a big way! It focuses on a number of different uses of propaganda from the more familiar – wartime posters and slogans used positively (to boost national pride/the ‘war effort’) or negatively (to demonise the enemy) – down to more modern and sophisticated attempts at ‘national branding’ (as Alastair Campbell calls it!) through public architecture and sporting events (and their opening ceremonies). Thought provokingly, it even explores how propaganda is used for ‘good’ ends like public health campaigns discouraging smoking or encouraging healthy eating. Strangely we tend to think of these ‘legitimate’ uses as advertising rather than propaganda. But clearly, one person’s propaganda is another person’s ‘marketing tool’ – an ambiguity which has made propaganda such a rewarding subject for writers and artists to explore.

The Communist International (Sp Coll Trotsky Pers)

The Communist International (Sp Coll Trotsky Pers). For more examples see our web exhibition.

The lasting message that I took away from the exhibition (I’m quite sure each person’s will differ) is that propaganda is about far more than lies being peddled as truth. Successful propaganda has relied on tapping into an audience’s pre-existing ideas and prejudices, and manipulating them to one’s own ends. One of the most striking exhibits is a series of darkly-lit faceless black mannequins with quotations about propaganda written on their torsos. One torso bears a quotation by Aldous Huxley, which, for me, excellently sums up this idea:

“The propagandist is a man who canalizes an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain”.

On woman's suffrage from Punch, 13 June1910

On women’s suffrage from Punch, 13 June 1910. For more examples see our web exhibition.

On getting back to Glasgow I was eager to have a look through our collections to remind myself of the numerous examples of propaganda we hold in Special Collections. My blog includes some photos of just a few of the more obvious examples.

Have you come across any other interesting examples?

Why not reply and tell us about them?

Categories: Special Collections

Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I work in a collection of military artifacts from World War I. We’re surrounded by the posters from the period, which range from ham-fisted to extremely effective. It’s amazing how emotionally charged these recruiting posters remain, even after almost 100 years.

    • Thanks for the reply. Sounds like a fascinating place to work! Where is the Archive? In my experience posters, broadsides and other assorted ephemera can be some of the most interesting and evocative material you can come across. It can really transport you back to a particular moment and place. Thanks again for the reply. 🙂


  1. | Propaganda: Projecting power and persuading people! | | truthaholics
  2. Eficacia en los ataques de torpederos japoneses. | La Guerra Ruso-Japonesa (1904 - 1905)

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