World War II

Copy Critique: How to Tell a Complex Story In Just a Few Words

More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.

Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.

Got all that?

Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.

Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.

As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.

With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?