A Pluralistic Approach to Visual Communication: Reviewing Rhetoric and Representation in World War I Posters

Maureen Hupfer, University of Alberta
ABSTRACT - A pluralistic research approach that blends historical and art historical methods of inquiry is proposed for the analysis of visual advertising images. Although individually these disciplines fail to provide satisfactory accounts of the meaning(s) that viewers construct in response to advertising visuals, interpretation is enhanced by blending the two methods of inquiry. This pluralistic approach is applied to British World War I posters targeted toward women to encourage their wartime participation. Choosing a historical context that is seemingly remote from our contemporary advertising research concerns assists in the development of a theory of visual rhetoric because it allows researchers to look directly at, rather than simply view through or with, the ingrained beliefs about visual representation that flaw current research practice.
[ to cite ]:
Maureen Hupfer (1997) ,"A Pluralistic Approach to Visual Communication: Reviewing Rhetoric and Representation in World War I Posters", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 322-327.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 322-327


Maureen Hupfer, University of Alberta

[The author thanks Adam Finn and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments in preparation of this paper, and acknowledges the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.]


A pluralistic research approach that blends historical and art historical methods of inquiry is proposed for the analysis of visual advertising images. Although individually these disciplines fail to provide satisfactory accounts of the meaning(s) that viewers construct in response to advertising visuals, interpretation is enhanced by blending the two methods of inquiry. This pluralistic approach is applied to British World War I posters targeted toward women to encourage their wartime participation. Choosing a historical context that is seemingly remote from our contemporary advertising research concerns assists in the development of a theory of visual rhetoric because it allows researchers to look directly at, rather than simply view through or with, the ingrained beliefs about visual representation that flaw current research practice.


During the past ten years, an increasingly diverse range of methodologies has been applied to the investigation of consumer behavior (Hirschman 1986; Holbrook 1987). Certain researchers have argued that the interpretive traditions of the humanities may lend greater insight into "the meanings embedded in consumer behavior" than can be achieved within our familiar social science paradigms (Holbrook and O’Shaughnessy 1988). Obseving that much of advertising research has been flawed by misconceptions regarding the visual conventions underlying advertisement construction and consumption, Scott has called for a theory of visual rhetoric to improve our understanding of advertising images (1994). Accordingly, she has proposed a pluralistic research program including historical analyses that consider social and cultural context as well as advertising objectives and visual conventions.

This analytical task demands an interdisciplinary approach in which historical and art historical methods of inquiry are blended. Individually, these disciplines fail to provide satisfactory accounts of the social effects of persuasive campaigns. Each, however, has particular strengths: art history’s knowledge of visual conventions (Fernie 1995), and history’s attention to socially and culturally situated individuals and groups (Green 1993; Shafer 1980). In this paper I argue that by moving back and forth between historical and art historical method, researchers can achieve a synthesis that advances our understanding of how viewers respond to visual advertising images and construct meaning. For illustrative purposes, I have selected three posters from campaigns aimed at British women to encourage their participation in the World War I effort. Corresponding to the primary categories in which female involvement was required throughout the war, these three examples are also representative of the realist aesthetic strategy employed by recruiting organizations. Historical sources provide a social context, and interpretation is enhanced by a close reading informed by art historical understanding of visual conventions.

Selection of an advertising campaign seemingly so remote from our contemporary advertising research concerns offers an important advantage in that it facilitates the understanding that visual images are "re-presentations" rather than simple reflections of observed reality (Mitchell 1986). The belief that pictures copy or mimic real world reality is a thoroughly ingrained and naturalized cultural assumption, and functions as a pictorial schemata or lens through which visual information is processed (Solso 1994). However, Western world pictorial realism is only one of many possible visual conventions available for image production. By examining a context in which social and visual conventions differ from our own experience, we are better able to look directly at these learned pictorial conventions rather than simply view through or with the copy theory lens that obscures our analysis of contemporary advertisements (Scott 1994). When we return to our contemporary context, we can better identify entrenched beliefs regarding the nature of visual language, rather than view uncritically with these assumptions unquestioned and intact. We recognize that pictures need not be rooted in observable reality when we refer to imagery that is readily perceived as dated, and begin to appreciate that the photographs favored in current print advertising practice are no less constructed and no more "truthful" or "objective" than those painted or drawn (Tagg 1988). As such, we move toward building a theory of visual rhetoric and improving our understanding of the processes by which socially and historically situated audiences respond to advertising images.


Historical theory is derived through both inductive and deductive processes; relevant primary and secondary data are collected, organized and interpreted to form one or more working hypotheses that guide subsequent evaluation and data collection (Green 1993). Analysis and synthesis merge and overlap as the historian moves toward a final account of an historical phenomenon (Shafer 1980).In their analysis of British World War I poster campaigns, historians treat these images as simple visual evidence of female access to previously male-dominated occupations. As such, the posters are situated within a nineteenth centry emancipatory process that culminated with partial enfranchisement in 1918 (Marwick 1977). Rather than considering their active contribution to wartime role construction, historians have cast these posters as artifacts that passively reflect their social and historical context. More recent work acknowledges that these persuasive campaigns did not, and indeed could not, represent the gruelling or dangerous aspects of female wartime labor (Woollacott 1994). Nevertheless, the expectation that pictures should represent reality belies the historian’s reliance on copy theory.

The tendency among historians to overlook the meaning that pictorial convention lends to the visual image (Robertson 1988) is a shortcoming that can be addressed by the art historian. Art historical investigation proceeds similarly via induction and deduction, but pays particular attention to the object itself. Methods include stylistic analysis, consideration of pictorial traditions, and an examination of social context including conditions of production and reception (Fernie 1995).

Despite the ability of art historians to augment research undertaken by historians, they also treat the war poster in a summary fashion, albeit for different reasons. In general, the poster falls beneath the art historical purview, unless the work can be raised to the level of fine art. This brand of art historical redemption is most frequently applied to posters by artists who are well established within the modernist High Art canon, and to work that is avant-garde in style. The British war poster is doomed to obscurity on both counts. Most of these designs were created by anonymous artists in printing house art departments (Darracott 1974, p. ix). More seriously, they featured the narrative realist style made popular by Victorian academic painters and preferred by commercial advertisers who believed that advertisements were less effective when they were "too artistic" (Lay Figure 1917, p. 52). Pejorative judgments attached to these realist images were instituted in early poster studies (Hardie and Sabin 1920) and persist in more recent writing (Ades 1984).

Neither historical nor art historical discussion of the British illustrated war poster provides a satisfactory account of the manner in which an aesthetic strategy of realism was exploited by advertisers to communicate war imperatives. Nor has previous analysis attempted to explain the British public’s response to these advertising campaigns or the social impact of these posters in constructing the female wartime role. A reevaluation that addresses these problematic omissions must consider the visual conventions inherent in these images as well as the social and historical context within which they operated.


Britain in 1914

Edwardian Britain’s social system was one in which the inherited Victorian ideology of separate spheres for the sexes acted as a formidable force in opposition to the fledgling feminist movement. Despite agitation for female emancipation throughout the late nineteenth century, Britain was still steeped in a social construction of gender that assigned passivity, emotion, moral virtue, and responsibility for children to the female domestic sphere. Conversely, men were expected to be active, rational, intellectual, and to provide for their families through their conduct in the economic sphere. Because of its bipolar nature, Victorian gender ideology was a delicate balancing act in which changes in one gender role implied a corresponding adjustment for the other (Poovey 1988).

The Illustrated Poster in British Advertising Practice

Nineteenth centry developments in lithography had allowed economic quantity production of visual images with tonal and color gradation, and advertisers were quick to exploit the poster’s advantages (Rickards 1970, p. 12). Regarded as a highly effective form of commercial persuasion, the poster had eye-catching appeal that was believed to capture even the uninterested viewer’s attention (Lay Figure 1917, p. 52). In addition to its commercial use, the poster had been exploited by suffrage campaigners (Tickner 1988, p. 48-49), and by politicians during the 1910 election. The poster could also offer the government communicative prominence. Because wartime economizing and rising paper prices had curtailed commercial image production, those produced by the government experienced less visual competition than normally would have been the case (Nevett 1982, p. 139). Given these factors, it would have been surprising had the government failed to utilize the visual image for its own campaigns of persuasion.

Poster Production in the Early Stages of WWI

The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) was responsible for most of the initial poster production (Crawford 1979). These government recruiting posters typically featured the well-accepted Victorian narrative and illustrative art style that prompted viewers to decipher the story behind the image. As either fine art or commercial image, the Victorian realist picture was a highly familiar visual convention for Edwardian viewers. This style was firmly associated with Britain’s nineteenth century Imperial strength, and by extension, an economic and social system structured by separate spheres for the sexes. A well-accepted style and a democratized art form were important considerations in a mass appeal that sought to evoke a glorious past with a rhetoric of sacrifice, moral duty and patriotic fervor. Artists and critics would describe these images as an insult to public taste (Hardie and Sabin 1920, p. 9), but the British public felt otherwise. With Victorian "healthy naturalism" preferred to modernist "heavy eccentricity" (Rickards 1970, p.12), the government was wise to avoid the avant-garde in their promotion of the war effort.

During the early stages of World War I, women were encouraged to persuade their men to enlist. Women of Britain Say C "GO!" (Figure 1) was tailored specifically to appeal to the young wives whose husbands were not enlisting in adequate numbers. Historical accounts of this image simply describe this illustration: an ideal British wife and mother, in an attractive state of deshabille on the "morning after the night before", bravely watches the soldiers march away for war (Adam 1975, p.43). Fashionable wrapper gaping open, her hair hastily twisted and pinned, this woman would draw the viewer’s eye just as an appealing female posed with a product did for commercial advertisers.

The art historian would go on to address the visual functions of the open window, which demarcates the separate spheres for the sexes and provides justification for the woman’s attire. A parallel may be drawn between Romantic art’s open window as symbol of longing for adventure and the romantic manner in which the war was first perceived. The lovely countryside view also suggests the female-nature/male-culture dichotomy C it was often said that soldiers were at war to defend Britain’s culture. In conjunction with the woman’s clothing, the natural setting further signifies middle-class social status. Far from London east end poverty, this family is fortunate to reside in this idyllic locale at a time when the city-based proletariat was estimated at 80% of the population (Marwick 1974, p. 21).

Viewers were thus offered a sentimental appeal that encouraged romantic construal of a husband’s departure for the front. A recruitment poster could not be expected to depict women and children subjected to hardship, but the comfortable situation enjoyed by this family was not typical of experience on the home front. Within a few days of the war’s outbreak, nealy 40% of women employed in luxury trades lost their jobs as businesses anticipated drastic cuts in luxury purchases (Marwick 1974, p. 60). Working-class families were left badly off, with meagre separation payments that arrived late or never at all (Pankhurst 1932, p. 12).

Additional situational factors reiterated the message of the recruiting posters and encouraged similar response. For example, Admiral Penrose Fitzgerald’s campaign had women present white feathers of cowardice to healthy young men who had not yet enlisted (Adam 1975, p. 41-42), while Baroness Orczy’s Active Service League attracted over 20,000 female volunteers who pressured men to enlist (Martin 1974, p. 40). Newspapers and women’s magazines such as Home Notes praised women who had urged their husbands and sweethearts to join the cause (Adam 1975, p. 42).

How would male viewers have responded to these messages? Conscientious objectors could not have regarded them with much enthusiasm. Working-class men also must have viewed them with dismay, knowing that to enlist would leave their families in desperate straits. Some must have resented the government’s persuasion tactics and the motives of women who urged them to enlist. "If I enlist it will be for my own reasons and not for your own safety, not to protect you against an invasion..." (Adam 1975, p. 42-43).




Wartime strong-arm tactics were also criticized by Punch, the journal directed toward the middle to upper-class London professional establishment. In August 1915, Punch described the "universal eruption of posters" as the new art of "Government by advertisement." "It may be necessary, but the method is not dignified" (Punch 1919, p. 50). Dignified or not, by 1916 the PRC had printed and distributed nearly 12.5 million copies of some 164 different posters (Sanders and Taylor 1982, p. 104). Both the narrative realism and the rhetoric of sacrifice and duty established by the PRC would set the tone for future war posters.

Poster Campaigns After Conscription in 1916

During the war’s first year, the female role was still conceived in traditional Victorian terms. This would soon change. In 1916, the government introduced conscription. War casualties had reached alarmingly high proportions, many more men were needed at the front, and women would have to join the labor force in order to maintain levels of production and service (International Labor Office 1946, p. 1-3).

In Learn to Make Munitions (Figure 2), the text "These women are doing their bit," suggests that this woman is making a necessary but temporary sacrifice by producing munitions for men at the front. Woollacott has observed that the visual balance between the woman’s cheery wave and the soldier’s salute equate her duty with his (1994, p. 112c). However, the woman’s placement within the factory and the soldier’s position at the open door ensures that the spheres remain separate. The woman’s winsome face lends visual appeal, and provides the necessary reassurance that her labor need not entail loss of femininity. One foot extends beyond the poster border, joining her space with the viewer’s to encourage identification or self-referencing. The eye-catching gold and purple combination, associated with luxury and royalty, was often used by advertisers to create favorable impressions, and here may have referred to the praise extended to munitions workers by the King.

Just as the PRC recruitment posters could not suggest hardship at home or danger at the front, neither could these munitions posters have made reference to highly explosive chemicals or the toxic jaundice suffered by armaments workers (Woollacott 1994, p. 112e). Persuasive strategies aside, the long-standing tradition of female beauty as an appropriate subject of high art (Nead 1988) would have prohibited the depiction of a woman’s skin yellowed with chemical poisoning.

It is doubtful that the appeal to duty held much interest for the working-class omen who flocked to the factories by the hundreds of thousands (Braybon 1981, p. 47). Attracted by high wages and a better standard of living, many women left low-paying domestic positions to work in munitions, creating significant shortages in the domestic labor pool (Martin 1974, p. 58). Certainly the pre-war match factory laborers who had endured the bone deterioration caused by phosphorus poisoning would not have been deterred by hazardous working conditions and long hours. However, a persuasive message that construed this female employment as wartime duty would have encouraged middle and upper-class viewers to respond to the controversial issues of enhanced earning power among lower-class women and domestic labor shortages by equating the horrors of the munitions factories with those at the front. Reports of munitions workers’ wartime extravagance occasionally reached the press, but more commonly, the British media reiterated the message of sacrifice by describing their gallantry during tragedies such as the Silvertown explosion of 1917 (Martin 1974, p. 58).

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was one program that did attract middle and upper-class women. Paid employment outside the home was inappropriate for young ladies, but voluntarism connoted traditions of charitable acts and noblesse oblige. Once war casualties soared, VAD nurses were posted at hospitals in all the major war theatres, and capably carried out arduous work under gruesome conditions. One recruitment poster, captioned VAD’s Urgently Needed, featured three nurses with snowy white aprons in an updated version of Faith, Hope and Charity. Few could have failed to respond by associating these angels in white with their eminent predecessor, Florence Nightingale. The close identification of nursing with feminine nurture and maternal sacrifice was probably a factor in attracting the middle and upper-class women who were more tightly bound by social constraint than their working-class sisters. As Punch observed, there was "nothing new in the function of ministering angel" (Punch 1919, p. 95-96).




The women’s war effort reached a new peak when women joined the auxiliary corps of the Armed Services to free men from non-combatant duties. Between 1917 and the war’s end, approximately 100,000 British women replaced male soldiers as motorcyclists, drivers, cooks, clerks, storekeepers and typists (Mitchell 1966, p. 221-222). However, the civilian designation meant that an auxiliary corps woman would always be "the girl behind the man behind the gun" rather than an active partner in the war effort.

Art historical analysis of the auxiliary corps posters reveals that these recruiters continued to follow the advertising strategy established by the PRC. Whenever possible, the novel and dangerous aspects of female involvement were glossed over while the more traditional aspects of the female role were emphasized. Such was the case with the example (Figure 3) that urged women to join the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF). An idealized female figure is posed with a gesture used by Edwardian advertisers to draw attention to a product being promoted. In this case the product is the woman herself and her position as a WRAF, identified or branded by the circular Royal Air Force Insignia. The supportive nature of her role is implied by her placement at an air base out of harm’s reach, while overhead the men fly off to fight for their country. The most traditional aspects of the female role are emphasized through the use of larger-scale typography, while the shock value of the request for "experienced motor-cyclists" is softened by the use of smaller lettering and its placement at the end of a list that advertises for Clerks, Waitresses and Cooks.


Historians frequently cite the high level of female wartime employment as evidence of a successful British feminist movement that culminated in partial enfrnchisement in 1918. In these discussions, war poster images are frequently invoked as a visual validation of this gradual process of female emancipation. However, analyses such as these ignore the prescriptive power of the wartime advertising campaigns in maintaining traditional gender roles.

As a body of persuasive images designed to solicit female involvement in the war effort, the posters produced by government and semi-official bodies played a key role in the formation of attitudes regarding appropriate feminine behavior and occupations in wartime Britain. The unusual demands of war necessitated the widespread employment of women in many previously male-dominated and even hazardous occupations, and this expansion of the female sphere was facilitated by the corresponding new requirements of the male sphere. The poster campaigns contributed to this ideological negotiation by conveying visual information which reassured the British public that expansion of the female role was never intended as anything more than a wartime phenomenon. These patriotic appeals to duty and sacrifice employed a narrative, realistic format and consistently emphasized the supportive and temporary nature of every field of endeavor that women would enter during the war. Whenever possible, recruiters highlighted the most traditional aspects of these new female occupations through appropriate typography, idealized female figures and idyllic settings. Mr. Punch certainly managed this role expansion with great aplomb. Despite their "foibles", he never supposed that British women would be anything but "keen and ready when the hour of need struck" (Punch 1919, p. 96).




Even though individual attitudes regarding female capabilities may have changed, the social system relaxed back into its Edwardian balanced state once the war was over. Woman’s place, as before, was in the home. Most female factory workers lost their jobs to returning soldiers, with the exception of those employed in sectors that had traditionally exploited female labor. New levels of bureaucracy offered employment for some women, but the majority returned to domestic and family responsibilities. During the 1920s, female labor statistics dropped back to pre-war levels. The ideological expansion necessitated by the war shrank as quickly as it had grown, and not until 1939 would similar expansion occur.


I have argued that researchers can enhance their analysis of persuasive imagery by adopting an approach that blends the methods of history and art history, and have demonstrated how application of this interdisciplinary strategy to the British World War I poster achieves greater insight than is offered by either of these disciplines in isolation. Although researchers should value the study of image production and consumption in the past for the counterpoint provided with the present, this methodological framework is also appropriate for investigation of contemporary advertising images. Where contemporary advertisements are concerned, a thorough analysis using historical and art historical methods can assist in the development of an empirically testable hypothesis. One might, for example, test the hypothesis that the depiction of conventionally pretty women in contemporary armed forces recruitment campaigns is an effective means of persuading viewers that women in the armed forces have not sacrificed their "femininity" for their military careers.

Once equipped with the insight that all visual images depend on established conventions for their creation and reception, researchers may also begin to document and explain the shift from illustrated to photographic imagery in advertising, continue to explore relationships between the visual conventions of fine and commercial art, and work toward a more complete understanding of the manner in which consumers read the visual language of advertising. From the investigation of questions such as these, the foundation for a theory of visual rhetoic will be constructed.


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