Ads of the Week – World War I recruitment posters

by Stratton Craig

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August 4 marked 100 years since the outbreak of World War One, and during the commemorative events we saw many messages designed to honour those who fought for and inform new generations.
Naturally (as copywriters), this got us thinking about the language used a century ago, leading us to explore recruitment posters which you can view on the Imperial War Museum (IWM) website.
The aim of a recruitment poster isn’t dissimilar to a sales message, as each hopes to encourage the reader to take action. What’s interesting is how the enlistment posters approached the task: some using pride, others focusing on the incentives, and some using guilt to elicit the desired response.
Number three on the IWM website uses classic British imagery of the lion to inspire young men to sign up. It leads with “The Empire needs men!”, and beneath the visual of a pride of lions it continues: “All answer the call. Helped by the young lions the old lion defies his foes. Enlist now.” The poster was released in 1915, yet speaks as though victory is a foregone conclusion as long as all men enlist, and in not doing so you’d be letting the ‘old lion’ – Britain – down.
Number six is from India, and it asks the question: “Who will take this uniform, money and rifle? The one who will join the army.” The rhetoric here encourages a mental response from the reader through a question, and then provides the answer to direct them towards action. The image of a military uniform, weapon, and money strengthens the message by adding an incentive and aspirational element.
Number seven also caught our eye, as it addresses the mothers and partners of eligible males directly. “Women of Lancashire. Do you realise that if you keep back a son or sweetheart you are prolonging the War and adding to the peril of those who have gone?” it reads. Guilt is a powerful tool here, and by influencing the women in the lives of fighting-age men it prompts the message to be spread by word of mouth – an influential method used by today’s marketers.
Used correctly, words have the ability to influence the reader however the writer intends, as the World War One posters demonstrate. For businesses, they can not only encourage an action but turn readers into loyal brand champions.
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