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WW1: How firms cashed in on the war

By Simon Armstrong
BBC News

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  • World War One
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing

Amid the bloodshed and brutality, companies were quick to cash in on the marketing opportunities provided by World War One. Jingoism, anti-German sentiment and guilt were all laid on thick to sell everything from food and fashion to fountain pens.

"The cleanest fighter in the world - the British Tommy," proclaimed the strap line for Sunlight Soap.

Patriotically beating the drum for the "clean, chivalrous fighting instincts of our gallant soldiers", it was one of a large number of adverts that drew directly on WW1 in a bid to boost sales.

In an age before TV bombarded consumers with commercials, newspapers and magazines such as Punch and the Illustrated London News were the battleground for firms desperate to see off their rivals.

But just how did they pitch their wares to the public and the men enlisted in the armed forces?

"The military outfitters had a good idea of what was coming," says Andrew McCarthy, co-author of The Huns Have Got My Gramophone!, which features many of the most striking advertisements. "They got in very quickly with ads to supply kit, although the notion of selling directly to soldiers nowadays is astonishing to many people."

image copyrightGetty Images

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From 1914, Aquascutum, Burberry and Thresher & Glenny all punted versions of waterproof clothing to Army officers.

Slick slogans and eye-catching illustrations also tugged at the heartstrings of families desperately hoping their relatives would survive terrifying stints on the front line.

"A universal refrain was 'send a tin to your soldier friend'," says McCarthy. "Companies often played on people's fears." A Turnbull & Asser advert urged people to "save the lives of our men by sending them the anti-live barbed-wire glove" which was "completely insulated against electricity".

There were no areas, it seems, that could not be targeted.

Ads for revolvers were not unusual while another for a "trench bayonet", which appeared in Land and Water magazine in November 1915, is particularly brutal, says McCarthy. "It appears to be a handle with a knuckle-guard and a large spike added. It is hard to imagine a similar advertisement appearing in 2014," he says.

image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionBarbed wire was a frequent problem for soldiers, but it was rarely electrified
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionIt is unclear how many soldiers actually used fountain pens in the trenches. Many wrote home with pencil
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionBovril was sold as being "invaluable, both to those at the Front and those at home"

Far from being a humble hot drink, Bovril gave soldiers the "strength to win" thanks to being a "bodybuilder of astonishing power".

And, with five million letters sent from foreign lands each week, pen manufacturers battled for business too. Each emphasised attributes such as their product's trustworthiness and reliability for "the man who is fighting out yonder".

Even bottled water took on added significance. Playing on nationalistic sentiment, in February 1915 Perrier asked "Do You Drink German Waters?". It went on to state: "Perrier stands as the great representative of France against a host of waters from Germany."

Stranger still were the medical ads that offered electric shock treatment to "cure" neurasthenia - a term encompassing a range of nervous complaints including shell shock.

"A lot of the health-related ones were exploitative," says McCarthy. "The products didn't really cure very much."

Although such claims would be reined in from the 1920s onwards with the advent of the National Vigilance Committee, firms advertising during WW1 faced few restrictions.

image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionThis ad, which claimed the use of electricity could cure disorders including shell shock, appeared in 1918
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionPeople were encouraged not to consume products with German origins, as this Perrier ad demonstrates

For Huns co-author Amanda-Jane Doran, a former archivist at Punch, the range of ads give a sense of "everyday life". "You get a real idea of what was happening, which I don't think you get in the same way from newspapers and history books about the battles.

"You can see how people spoke to each other. They're very jingoistic, they're overtly anti-German, but they show the feelings of the time. The ones I found most touching were for things like guard dogs because women were on their own and vulnerable."

Helped by advances in print technology, ads had become more and more creative visually.

"It's amazing how targeted they were and the illustrations were beautiful," says Doran. "Artists started doing work for ad companies as well as book publishers and, as photography was still the preserve of the rich, illustrations and graphics were the art most people saw."

image copyrightPunch
image captionThis advert from Punch, printed in December 1915, mocks the number of must-have items sold to soldiers
image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionThis ad refers to a soldier whose gramophone - a source of joy in the trenches - was taken by "the cussed Huns"

"World War One came along at a useful time for the industry in many respects. It was coming of age," says advertising historian Dr David Clampin, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University,

How companies used language and imagery was acceptable despite sometimes appearing "tasteless" by today's standards, says Clampin. "Advertisers can map the narrative of a war into their products. With things like Sunlight Soap they're saying 'We're clean fighters both morally and literally'.

image copyrightBodleian Library Publishing
image captionDespite their injuries, this advert for crutches shows two soldiers being far from glum

"You see an upsurge in adverts for prosthetics. From a modern perspective, you may view it as tasteless. But the nature of a capitalist society is the need to sell goods. Businesses make money out of war.

"You can see it again during World War Two and even today, with Sainsbury's Christmas advert which plays on the 1914 Christmas truce and game of football in no man's land.

"The trust in brands developed during WW1. People generally accepted what they were seeing."

McCarthy agrees. "There were lots of things in Punch referring to profiteers. But you have to try to keep a company going.

"There's no point in thinking 'there's a war, let's roll over and give up'."

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