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Propaganda has been used by various nations combating one another for as long as conflict has existed, for the purpose of bolstering domestic support for war efforts or in attempts to dishearten enemies. It has traditionally been disseminated using posters or newsletters, but in the past century has been expanded to radio, television, and even the internet. The imagery associated with the conflicts, historical or contemporary, exists in our conscience due to propaganda’s pervasive nature. Just like any form of art that has preceded it, propaganda has been adapted and re-contextualized for the purposes of parody, political satire, and outright comedy.
Some of the most memorable pieces of propaganda art come from the First and Second World Wars, as they were the first conflicts to use propaganda art on a massive scale. Emerging forms of media such as cinema, radio and the introduction of the motorized printing press allowed governments to disseminate information among the populace on unprecedented scales. The artistic styles developed during these areas remain extremely recognizable, even today.
World War II propaganda tends to be more widely-recognized than World War I propaganda (with a few exceptions), and can be divided into four main categories: Allies (US, UK, French Resistance), Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Japan, each with its own distinct style, representative of the creators’ respective artistic traditions and goals. In addition, propaganda from the Korean and Cold Wars is common.
There has been a marked decline in still-life propaganda starting with the Vietnam War, simply due to the omnipresence of television and the internet, so most of the modern artistic adaptations use earlier posters for source material.
Since propaganda is so easily recognized, it was a natural target for early photoshopping and image macros on the internet. Unlike many other fads, propaganda has been so well-established in the national psyche that it has remained consistently popular throughout the history of the internet, and examples can be found on most, if not all, imageboards and forums.
One of the first sites on the web to prominently feature propaganda was Something Awful, which, on April 4, 2002, posted the results of a propaganda-themed Photoshop Phriday, which exploited images from both World Wars, and World War II in particular.
One major example of an internet culture generating its own propaganda was the Propaganda Contest, put on by Valve for Team Fortress 2’s WAR! update in 2009. The purpose of the contest was to create a propaganda poster for the battle between the RED Demoman and the BLU Soldier, and most entries were done in styles heavily influenced by WWII propaganda art.
I Want YOU to X
One of the most recognizable propaganda images is the famous I Want YOU for U.S. Army poster from World War I. The poster was created in 1917 by J. M. Flagg, and depicts Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer (ideally young men) and asking them to enlist at the nearest army recruiting station. The poster is based on a less famous English poster, created in 1914, showing Lord Kitchener in a similar setting.
Many derivatives of this poster exist, due to its easily-customizable nature. The first such derivatives predate the internet, and have found many applications during the Cold War and beyond. The internet has spread the image further, and today it remains arguably the most famous and influential propaganda poster.
Keep Calm and Carry On
One of the first World War II posters to achieve fame on the internet as an exploitable image is the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, printed by England’s short-lived Ministry of Information in 1939. It was created to boost the morale of British civilians under the constant threat of a Nazi invasion.
Its simple design and message have allowed it to be re-imagined countless times.
Obama “Hope” poster
Its design proved wildly popular and has spawned many derivatives. Although its creation during the internet age certainly accounted for most of its spread, some its derivatives have been used as propaganda themselves, most notably the Obama “Joker” poster, used by the Tea Party activists in 2009 to express their belief that Obama is a socialist.
Several sites exist to facilitate the creation of derivatives, most notably obamicon.me. These were very popular in 2008 and 2009, around the time of Obama’s election.
Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter, also known as “We Can Do It!”, is another very famous poster from WWII. It depicts a woman in overalls rolling up her sleeve and flexing her arm in a factory. It was created in 1942 for the War Production Coordinating Committee, and was based on a photo of a factory worker in Lansing, MI named Geraldine Doyle. During the war, women were employed as factory workers since all the men were fighting, and they were extremely productive and efficient. The poster represents the spirit of feminism and the power of women, and remains one of the most instantly-recognizable and widely-used propaganda posters today.
Its notoriety has spawned many derivatives, often playing up the “can-do” attitude represented in the image, as well as the imagery of strength and power.
During World War Two and the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China put out massive amounts of propaganda, all with a very distinctive style which has come to be associated with communist countries in general. They often feature prosperous workers or farmers, or armies marching victorious – usually with the colours red and gold prominently featured. They remain one of the more popular sources of parody material, because of their bold, simplistic designs. Many of the jokes in the posters are thematically similar to Soviet Reversal jokes.
Shut The Fuck Up
The original, untitled poster was created by the United States Office of War Information in 1943 to promote war time rationing in the US. It has since been adapted to tell the viewer to “Shut the Fuck Up,” and remains one of the most widespread macros, frequently being used on forums.
The Solo Regiment
The Solo Regiment, also known as the People’s Party of Loneliness, is a Korean slang phrase, originating in 2003, that refers to a generation of singletons who spend too much time online. They have adopted Korean War-era propaganda to represent their plight, using Southern (capitalist) and Northern (communist) posters. The added captions draw heavily from the patriotic morale-boosting messages distributed during wartime, but twist the messages to apply to their solitude. There even exists a mock South-North rivalry between the Solo Regiment and the People’s Party of Loneliness, with each side using its appropriate propaganda.
The following chart shows image search interest – note the peak in “obama hope” in late 2008 / early 2009. The interest in “propaganda” has remained more or less constant over the past several years. Interest in “keep calm and carry on” increased in 2011, and peaked in early 2012.