The word “Propaganda” is a very difficult word to define. It has a long history and its purpose, intention, connotation, effectiveness and even definition varies drastically according to the cultural and ideological system disseminating it and receiving it. Early propagandist posters were one of the only ways in which governments could communicate with the masses in a more visceral way than standard written word, especially given low levels of literacy in the early 20th century. Once the practice was recognized for its effectiveness, artists, writers, poets and painters were recruited to help in its design.

The Catholic Church is believed to be the first organized use of propaganda. It was the means by which church leaders influenced non-Catholics to join the church. At this time however the word didn’t carry quite the negative connotation that it does now. Richard Alan Nelson’s definition outlines the general pervasiveness of this type of communication, seeking to understand the uses, not judging the user.

“Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels. A propaganda organization employs propagandists who engage in propagandism—the applied creation and distribution of such forms of persuasion.”

Since the earliest use of propaganda by religious authorities, its application has been more often used by political parties/government and finally, consumerism. The 1917 October Socialist Revolution in the Soviet Union sparked a cultural revolution reverberating around the world. The challenge for the Bolsheviks was how to communicate the new ideals of the revolution. At a time when information didn’t travel well at all, they introduced to the world the revolutionary propaganda poster. The function wasn’t new, but the form was. The Bolsheviks needed to introduce a grand new ideology. They could not afford to be misunderstood by the people if a new way of life was really to be accomplished. Therefore they cleverly recruited the best painters, poets and typographers to create a new form of communication. The typography was designed by Kasimir Malevich, creator of the influential Suprematism movement. The artistic alphabet was designed based on the language of color and energy. Posters were designed for a mostly illiterate audience. Therefore, the most effective poster designs had easily graspable and accessible texts and artistic images that conveyed emotion and morality with coordinated use of certain colors and shapes. This influential poster is from El Lissitzky’s, “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1920”

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1920

The early political propaganda poster art were similar to this design and addressed many themes the Bolshevik revolution deemed important. They often explained who the enemy is, revolutionary ideology, the need for literacy and education, interest in books, public health promotion and new responsibilities for women.

The themes of the posters varied through time with the changing circumstances of the country. The designers of the posters experimented with texts, fonts, colors and geometry. Lissitzky’s poster above is an example of the “Constructivist” style, which applies art towards a social purpose, not merely an autonomous element in a vacuum. The influence of this style on countless other genres of art, design, architecture, film, dance, etc, the list goes on and on and can not be stressed enough.

militia army of workers

Soon, the designs of Gustav Klutsis gained wide popularity, known as the photomontage. He would combine artistic images with depictions of reality in the same image. They often combined the contrasting colors and shapes of old with depictions of “Past vs Future” in the economy, for instance. It used the language the early posters indoctrinated the public with and added very powerful scenes of real life that people immediately understood.

Contrary to many modern day impressions of Soviet era political propaganda posters, much of the themes were dedicated to positive and noble endeavors such as improved health, education, technical prowess, service to country and ethical behavior.

 

A campaign launched in 1931 encouraged young men and women to dedicate their lives to aviation. Future posters would introduce the most accomplished pilots to the nation, celebrating their contributions to the country and providing an example to others. Various industries and fields of study would get similar treatment in the posters, depending on the needs of the country.

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Where the propagandist posters really began to delve more intensely into what people would consider manipulative coercion, is in war time posters depicting the enemy or ideologies the party deemed dangerous. Certainly the military posters were very pervasive and played a very important role in supporting the war efforts. It’s very interesting that both the United States and the Soviet Union used very similar tactics in order to maintain popular public support of the military and war efforts. Propaganda in and of itself is simply a means of communicating a message to a very large audience. The means by which they achieve a sympathetic reaction to their goals can take any number of shapes, but some of the most often used tactics are: appeal to fear, demonizing the enemy, half-truths and flag-waving.

Once these deceptive and persuasive techniques are applied, they are much less about noble pursuits for the good of the populace like education and public health, than gaining the support of the populace at the expense of their understanding of the true nature of the relevant issues, leaving them even more vulnerable to manipulation. The further in time that we get from the birth of the revolutionary propaganda poster, the less and less we see of the noble farmers and workers and the more we see party founders and leaders depicted. These fall under a separate technique used to maintain loyalty, that is both “appeal to authority” and “dictat”, which uses the image of a respected authority figure to tell the audience what action to take, removing any appeal for practical decision making or perceived choices.