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"Careless talk. . . got there first"

Careless Talk
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of David and Zelda Silberman
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tags: censorship propaganda US armed forces visual art

type: Poster

During World War II, the US government drew on the expertise of the advertising industry to help craft messages for the American public. In early 1942, representatives of Washington's newly-created propaganda agency, the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF), asked a Madison Avenue advertising agency to help create effective posters for the war effort. The advertising agency commissioned a report that it shared with the OFF. Among the crucial questions the ad men addressed was whether the posters had emotional appeal for the audience. Underscoring what German propagandists and others had already discovered, the report concluded:

"THE MOST EFFECTIVE war posters appeal to the emotions. No matter how beautiful the art work, how striking the colors, how clever the idea, unless a war poster appeals to a basic human emotion in both picture and text, it is not likely to make a deep impression."1

To effectively motivate viewers, the poster needed to rely on realism instead of an abstract or symbolic style. Abstract art could be misinterpreted or not understood at all.

The firm Young & Rubicam carried out user testing by surveying audiences in Toronto and gauging their responses to the posters.2 A majority of the 11 most effective posters appealed to emotions, while the least effective were done in either in an abstract style or were cartoons. They discovered that viewers did not like humorous war posters. The key finding of the report notes:

"War posters that make a purely emotional appeal are by far the best. In this study, such war posters definitely attracted the most attention and made the most favorable impression among men and women alike."3

Appealing to the public’s emotions proved to be critical in changing American behavior. One of the most important tasks in any war is to prevent the enemy from acquiring vital information that could harm the nation’s war effort. Every power in World War II produced posters aimed at getting the populace not to spread news of troop movements, the dates of a particular attack, or other sensitive information. 

The Office of War Information and other government agencies produced and distributed a variety of dramatic images on these themes, accompanied by simple slogans like "Loose lips sink ships" and "Careless talk costs lives." These popular posters implied that casual remarks could be overheard and exploited by traitors, spies, and foreign agents. The featured poster invoked this fear with a grisly portrayal of a dying American serviceman.4 What emotional responses might such a poster evoke?

William L. Bird, Jr. and Harry. L. Rubinstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 27-28.

Young & Rubicam Inc., How to Make Posters That Will Help Win the War, 1942. A copy of this report can be found in Archives of American Art, Ben Shahn papers, 1879-1990, bulk 1933-1970, Series 2, Letters, 1929-1990, US Office of War Information, 1942-1943.

See page devoted to four basic findings in Young & Rubicam, Inc., How to Make Posters That Will Help Win the War, 1942-1943.

The artist responsible for the striking and richly colorful image, Herbert Martin Stroops, went on to become an illustrator for popular magazines—Liberty, Collier's, and The Ladies' Home Journal—after the war.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Gift of David and Zelda Silberman
Accession Number 1988.42.17
Date Created
Author / Creator
Office of War Information
Washington, DC, USA
Document Type Poster
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