Posters for Preparedness

The National Library mounted an exhibition in 2005 on the art of selling something nobody wants. It was about selling war – but also mobilizing the defense. The posters teach us something about prevailing attitudes at the time.

War can be marketed because the benefit determines whether it is sellable: if there is a payoff, it is. The posters can help us imagine the historical context in which the posters were created. While it feels absurd to sell war, the war was also a mobilization for defense. The benefit returns when we agitate to be rid of the threat from the outside posed by a military attack. Selling war like margarine becomes almost normal. It is done with the same methods, esthetic principles, and rhetoric as if the “product” were soap or bicycle chains. And the same artists were involved.

Poster by Adolphe Wilette, 1917/Donald Boström, 2005 
Adolphe Willette, 1917/Donald Boström 2005

Posters from the World Wars

The National Library exhibition presented mainly French posters made during the First and Second World Wars. Sweden was spared from direct involvement in the wars, but we created preparedness posters. First World War poster propaganda displayed examples of conflicts between different social groups in Sweden. Here are a few memorable posters of the era.

Poster by Carl Larsson, 1914 
Carl Larsson, 1914

Poster by JAC Carl Agnar Jacobsson, 1914 
JAC Carl Agnar Jacobsson, 1914

Poster by Gunnar Widholm, 1914 
Gunnar Widholm, 1914

Poster by Ossian Elgström, 1928 
Ossian Elgström, 1928

Poster by Anonymous, 1932 
Anonymous, 1932

When the Second World War broke out, the Swedish advertising and business communities displayed their solidarity with society. A group of advertising people had gathered at the old Hotel Anglais on the day the news of war hit Sweden. The Swedish advertising community was spontaneously mobilized, with no pressure from on high. It was a manifestation of the spirit of democracy. Under the aegis of the Swedish Advertising Association, the men and women of advertising began to discuss what propaganda could do to fight espionage, sabotage, rumors, and an atmosphere of fear. The advertising community wanted to serve the public, but the government did not take advantage of the spontaneous reaction. Instead, a National Board of Information was established that produced dull, boring bulletins and the advertising creators were not deemed worthy of a place at the table.

The first campaign was carried out two and a half months after war began: “Allvarstid kräver ...” (“Serious times demand ...”) represented a dull and bombastic text. An edition of 405,000 copies was printed, but it was not followed up, which the advertisers considered a mistake. Two years later, the government realized their error and asked for the Advertising Council’s help, which led to the “espionage campaign” – a campaign for vigilance.

Poster by Anonymous, 1939 
Anonymous, 1939

En svensk tiger” may be the most popular poster. A lot of people thought it was hard to understand, but it left no one unmoved. It is actually a stroke of advertising genius. In Swedish, the text can mean either “A Swede is Silent” or “A Swedish Tiger.” The ambiguity triggers a thought process in which the message slowly sinks in. The “tiger” both was a euphemism for the Swedish soldier and an expression of dangerousness. But it was also an admonition to ordinary citizens to be careful about what they said and to whom.

Poster by Bertil Almqvist, 1941 
Bertil Almqvist, 1941

The war was pounding at the gates and the Emergency Situations Board (Kristidsnämnden) and the National Board of Information (Statens informationsstyrelsen) printed mass editions of a pamphlet called If War Comes.

Poster by Bengt Mellberg, 1943 
[Bengt Mellberg], 1943

Poster by Carl Herman Runnström, 1939 
Carl Herman Runnström, 1939

When the Soviet Union attacked Finland, trade unions, the temperance movement, and other organizations joined forces with each other and the advertising industry to create the Döbeln poster with the National Fundraiser for Finland. The advertising creators suggested the design; their ideas were accepted and the money flowed in. They designed the poster for the first Defense Bond, which was followed by a second and a third.

Poster by Fritz Rückert, 1940
Fritz Rückert, 1940

Poster by Anonymous, 1940
Anonymous, 1940

Poster by Anonymous, 1940s
Anonymous, 1940s

Poster by Anonymous, 1940
Anonymous, 1940

Success Stories

The advertisers’ posters led to great successes. The government began using posters in various campaigns, such as those to promote electricity conservation and scrap collection. A joint effort of the Advertising Council and the Swedish Food Commission, the “Bliv riksarbetare” (“Become a National Land Worker”) campaign was one success. Another was the women's campaign, where the message was that women were being called upon to do “men’s work” on the farms and elsewhere.

Poster by Bertel Nordström, 1940s
Bertel Nordström, 1940s

Poster by Willie Bergström, 1942
Willie Bergström, 1942

Poster signed "M", 1939
Signed “M,” 1939

Anders Beckman

Previously known for his idea of using advertising to sell Sweden and the Swedish way of life abroad, adman and poster artist Anders Beckman started designing posters for the government in the 1940s. The breakthrough came at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Folke Bernadotte contacted Beckman to work on the “People and Defense” exhibition, which became a major manifestation for Swedish preparedness. The exhibition showed the Swedish people what they had bought with the money raised through defense bonds. Beckman both arranged and marketed the exhibition. Anders Beckman was the most influential poster artist in Sweden at the time and arguably of all time. He was endlessly creative, but his constant goals were simplicity and accessibility. In partnership with fashion designer Göta Trädgårdh, he started Beckmans School of Advertising (now Beckmans College of Design) in 1939, with the aim of making advertising on esthetic grounds, something the two founders felt was lacking.

Poster by Anders Beckman, 1944
Anders Beckman, 1944

Poster by Anders Beckman, 1944
Anders Beckman, 1944

The Poster – A Cry for Aid and Succor

Many posters of the Second World War era communicated the need to come to the aid of Norway and Holland, to all of Europe, and especially to the children of Europe.

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman, 1944

A Textbook Case

The 1944 Holland Aid poster with the tattered flag fluttering above the text “A flood of aid can save Holland now” is a superb example of the effective combination of text and illustration. You see a picture of a flag, the symbol of a country. It is torn – the country is in trouble. The word “flood” resonates in the minds of all Dutch people because most of the country is below sea level. The meaning of the expression “a flood of aid” thus takes on tremendous power. The typography takes up more than half the space, and the poster – so to speak – is drowning in text. The letters seem to flow forward and you read until you get to the word NOW, which is written in blood red. The message is across. Holland needs emergency aid. Despite the simplicity and directness, the suggestive impact is clear.

The distinct feature of the poster is the combination of text and illustration. The whole is most effective when the elements of typography, text content, and illustration each accentuate the other. A common advertising trick is to have the picture say one thing while the text suggests something else. Irony arises in the advertising message, where the humor helps pound in the message the creators want to communicate.

The posters created during the preparedness era in Sweden also spoke about Swedish defense on land, at sea, and in the air.

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman
Anders Beckman

Poster by Anders Beckman, 1952
Anders Beckman, 1952

Anders Beckman served his country. He kept designing posters in the service of the Swedish defense through 1952, when he created his ingenious poster targeting espionage and sabotage. He chose the mole as the symbol of those undermining forces.

Last updated: 2008-04-28
Contact person: Catarina Nordling, e-mail:
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