The ability to influence large groups of people is a powerful skill. Today, media has become one of the preeminent tools of influence, where public figures, authors, actors, musicians and politicians alike can communicate directly with large groups of people. Following the royal wedding in April of 2011, the fashion choices of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, created a phenomenon deemed the “Kate Effect” in which anything she wore flew off retail shelves. In 2015 alone the Duchess’ fashion brought more than $205 million to the British economy, and her sister-in-law, Meghan Markle, is predicted to bring $677 million, an example of the power of influence, and media’s role in its proliferation.
Before the rise of the social media influencer, however, advertising and propaganda posters were some of the most powerful persuasion tools available. Propaganda posters have been used for decades to inspire, educate, and galvanize the public. Whether you are selling a product, a war, or an idea, advertising can be a powerful tool to inform and persuade your audience. Propaganda posters from the 19th and 20th centuries addressed topics ranging from patriotism to healthcare to feminism.
In 1984, persuasion expert Dr. Robert Cialdini first developed “The 6 Principles of Persuasion,” which has become a recognized framework for understanding the science behind persuasion and manipulation. In his book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Dr. Cialdini discusses this framework and the science behind persuasion across a variety of media. These tactics include reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus.
In this piece, we’ll examine six vintage propaganda posters and identify the principles of persuasion used in each to convey its message – from the call-to-action to the imagery selected by the artist.
1. ReciprocityThe first principle, reciprocity, is based on the idea that people often feel obliged to match or repay the behaviors and gifts they receive from others. When using the principle of reciprocity for persuasion, look for opportunities to be the first to give, and make your token unexpected and personal whenever possible. This tactic facilitates a relationship in which the recipient feels appreciative of your contributions and is likely to be more open to the message you share or the favor you ask for.
The propaganda poster “Remember Your First Thrill of American Liberty” is an example of reciprocity in action. This poster was created by the Food and Drug Administration in 1917 to encourage immigrants to the United States to invest in the war effort by purchasing Liberty Bonds, which were a crucial source of funding for the war effort.
By highlighting the benefits and opportunities that the United States had given to immigrants, the poster called upon its audience to invest in the country’s war effort in return. The poster also strategically included the Statue of Liberty as a metaphor for the opportunities available in the United States and to remind immigrants of the emotional experience of arriving in the U.S. for the first time. The artist’s powerful illustrations and the poster’s authoritative call-to-action prompted Americans to recall their debt to their country, which ultimately proved persuasive in raising money for the war effort. This poster remains a powerful example of the way reciprocity persuades us to act.
2. ScarcityThe second principle of persuasion, scarcity, refers to the idea that when people have less of something, they want it more. Scarcity speaks to our human nature to place greater value on things that are less readily available. To use this principle, incite people to act, agree, or buy your product by demonstrating how they can benefit from it, what’s unique about your offering, and what they could potentially lose out on.
In the poster “Doctors are Scarce, Learn First Aid and Home Nursing,” the artist used the scarcity principle to promote basic at-home care. By making it clear that good medical care would be hard to come by, the poster instilled fear and communicated the importance of individuals learning to manage their own minor health concerns. The poster was created to communicate people’s need to learn to handle their own injuries and illnesses since many doctors were oversees fighting in the war effort.
This poster is historically significant because it is one of the many examples of ways Americans on the homefront were forced to ration supplies and services to aid in the wartime effort. Its message drove Americans to act and remains a powerful reminder of the scarcity principle and its ability to influence.
3. AuthorityThe third principle of persuasion is authority. This principle says audiences are much more likely to listen to messages from sources they respect or view as experts. Whether you are explaining your point of view or selling a product or service, showcasing your credentials will help your chances of success. No matter what your message is, it will be better received if it is packaged in a way that makes it seem authoritative.
When using authority, the source doesn’t always need to be yourself. When someone else points to your credentials the message can be just as powerful or even more effective. In the propaganda poster “Christ Guerilla,” Jesus was portrayed as a guerilla fighter. The poster was created by the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America based on a quote from the Colombian priest Camilo Torres who said, “If Jesus were alive today, he would be a guerrillero.”
The poster called on the authority behind the Christian religion to convince audiences that being a guerilla fighter was a noble cause. This piece of propaganda was created in Cuba during the 1970s as part of a political movement to fight imperialism and defend human rights. Its message was clear: guerilla fighting was noble, necessary, and moral. Because the poster called upon the authority of Jesus to deliver its message, its theme was especially resonant for its audience.
4. ConsistencyThe consistency principle refers to the idea that people like to remain resolute with the things they have said or done in the past. If someone already agrees with some of your message, or if you are able to get your audience to buy into your point of view in a small way, you’re much more likely to convince them to take further action.
The “We Can Do It!” poster used the consistency principle to encourage women who were already working in factories to work harder. While today this poster is considered one of the most iconic U.S. propaganda posters of all time, it was not widely circulated during World War II when it first appeared. The poster was made in 1943 by J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse Electric, and was part of a broader effort to encourage both male and female workers to work harder due to the high demand for manufacturing generated by the war effort.
The poster resonated with women in its original context in the 1940s and continues to serve as an icon of feminism today. When it was first created, the poster used the consistency principle to remind women of the importance of committing to their factory jobs while encouraging them to work harder and stay motivated. The likeness of Rosie the Riveter still resonates, and the poster has become a rallying cry for recognition of equality.
5. LikingIt’s commonly accepted that people are more likely to agree with the opinions of someone they like. The fifth principle of persuasion, liking, is based on this idea. This principle notes that people agree with those who are similar to them, those who pay them compliments, and those who cooperate with them. If you know your audience already likes you, you have a leg up for persuasion, but incorporating these three factors into your communication efforts can go a long way towards making your audience receptive to your message. Before making your case, consider spending a few moments with your audience to build rapport and likeability.
The poster “Women of Britain Say ‘Go’” incorporated the liking tactic to encourage the men of Britain to buy into the government’s request to join the war effort. During World War I, posters were one of the most important mediums for conveying a message. Women were used in these posters to spread ideas of morality, innocence, and justice in the face of danger.
While this poster was intended to remind the women of Britain to encourage their men to enlist, it also clearly communicated to British men that they’d be spurned by their loved ones if they refused the call to serve. Using the opinions of their families as advocates proved to be an effective persuasion tactic in getting men to enlist.
6. ConsensusThe sixth principle, consensus, is the idea that people are likely to agree with something if it is in line with what the broader group believes. To get others to believe in your message or your product, point to what those similar to your audience believe and do. When people are unsure of how to act, they look to the behaviors of others they identify with to determine their own beliefs. By highlighting what your audience’s larger social group thinks, you are more likely to get their buy-in.
The title of the poster roughly translates to “Let’s Fulfill the Plan of Great Works,” and shows clear parallels to the consensus principle. The tiny hands fill up a larger hand to communicate to the viewer that all of Russia is working together to reach a common goal. The poster was created in 1930 by Gustav Klutsis, a popular poster artist during this time period who was a popular designer for the Soviet government. This piece was created in the Constructivist style, which originated in Russia in 1919.
Klutsis was associated with the Communist party and created propaganda art for the organization, especially when the party was under the control of Stalin. The hand in this poster is Klutsis’ own hand, but it was used in the poster to represent the workers who were crucial to achieving the Communist party’s goals. The artist incorporated the faces of the workers directly into the poster’s design so they appeared not as individuals, but as a collective mass united around the same goal.
Long before the digital age and the rise of social media, propaganda posters were used as powerful tools for persuasion. While these posters are carefully designed, dynamic relics of the time in which they were created, they also provide powerful takeaways about communication and influence. By analyzing their historical significance and artistic choices of the artists who creates the posters, clear links to the principles of persuasion show the power of media in swaying an audience, no matter what message you are sharing.
Canva | Influence at Work | Conversion XL | Docs Teach | University of Pennsylvania | How Stuff Works | Huffington Post | Gettysburg College Projects | International Institute of Social History | World Digital Library | Smithsonian | Buzzfeed | San Jacinto Museum