BBC News

Magazine

Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The greatest motivational poster ever?

By Stuart Hughes
BBC News

Keep Calm poster
The greatest motivation poster ever conceived?
Millions of copies of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster were printed on the eve of World War II, but never displayed. Now the message has taken on a new lease of life in our troubled peacetime.

The simple five-word message is the very model of British restraint and stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on.

In 1939, with war against Germany looming, the Government designed three posters to steady the public's resolve and maintain morale. These featured the crown of King George VI set against a bold red background, and three distinctive slogans - "Freedom is in Peril", "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory", and "Keep Calm and Carry On".

Two-and-a-half million copies of "Keep Calm" were printed, to be distributed in the event of a national catastrophe, but remained in storage throughout the war.

The message was all but forgotten until 2000, when a copy was discovered in a box of books bought at auction by Stuart Manley, a bookseller from Northumberland.

Many of the British home front slogans are well remembered

"I didn't know anything about it but I showed it to my wife. We both liked it so we decided to frame it and put it in the shop," explains Mr Manley.

"Lots of people saw it and wanted to buy it. We refused all offers but eventually we decided we should get copies made for sale."

Sales remained modest until 2005, when it was featured as a Christmas gift idea in a national newspaper supplement.

"All hell broke loose," says Mr Manley.

"Our website broke down under the strain, the phone never stopped ringing and virtually every member of staff had to be diverted into packing posters."

Soothing words

The poster was just one of hundreds produced by the Ministry of Information during the war to influence public opinion.

"The poster was a major medium in a way that it isn't now," says Professor Jim Aulich, an expert in propaganda art at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"It wasn't competing with television. It was one of the main ways of reaching people, through billboards and on public transport."

Rescued from obscurity after 70 years, the Ministry of Information's appeal for calm has risen to cult status. Mr Manley's store, Barter Books in Alnwick, receives an average of 1,000 orders a month from around the world. Customers include 10 Downing Street and assorted embassies. The design has been reproduced on T-shirts and coffee mugs, shopping bags and cufflinks.

It has also spawned imitators. One company has given it a twist, replacing the original slogan with "Now Panic and Freak Out".

POST-WAR OFFICIAL SLOGANS
Clunk click every trip - seatbelt campaign
Stop, Look, Listen - road safety
Go to work on an egg - Egg marketing board
Don't forget to tell Sid - Gas privatisation

To some, the world in 2009 seems as uncertain as it was in 1939, even if modern-day anxieties focus on redundancy and recession rather than bombs and the Blitz. Perhaps this is why the message still seems so relevant.

Of course, it might be difficult for the current government to come up with a poster with quite the same appeal during this time of economic stress. Context is everything, says social psychologist Dr Lesley Prince.

"If the government is in tune with you, you will listen. If you think the government is working on your behalf, you will listen."

This was indisputably the case during WWII, but is less clear-cut even in the most troubled period of peacetime.

Stiff upper lip

And a message of such powerful simplicity might not be so forthcoming these days. Today's government posters attempt to convince the public of an unappreciated danger and get them to modify their behaviour. The "Keep Calm" poster is merely an injunction to think another way and continue acting as you have always acted.

Message on a wall
The propaganda was supposed to be rousing with a very British tone

"It's very good, almost zen," says Dr Prince. "It works as a personal mantra now. If people are thinking 'I'm about to lose the house', it's good advice."

People are drawn to the calming Britishness of the message, says Mr Manley.

"It's interesting to look at the kind of places we often sell to; doctors' surgeries, hospitals, schools and government departments. It seems to strike a chord anywhere that works at a hectic pace."

Prof Aulich adds that the message has universal appeal.

"It speaks to peoples' personal neuroses. It's not ideological, it's not urging people to fight for freedom like some propaganda posters did."

Following the end of WWII, most of the posters are believed to have been pulped, never having seen the light of day. Only two original copies are known to have survived.

Thanks to a chance discovery in a dusty box of books, the soothing entreaty is finally having its intended effect, bringing comfort to a nation in turmoil.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Someone gave me this poster just before Christmas, when my husband was in hospital, very seriously ill with a disease which is causing fits and dementia. He also broke his hip in a fall in hospital and picked up the noro-virus. So did I and spent Christmas day in bed alone, having sent the family home. It helped and continues to help as my husband's illness continues.
Alison Dennison, Shipley, UK

Nice, and better judged than Lance Corporal Jones' "Don't panic!". By avoiding any use of the word panic, they avoid panic, in the same way that air traffic controllers do not say "do not take-off yet" lest it puts the though of take-off into pilots' heads.
Clive, Waikanae, NZ

We have one of these posters framed in our hallway. It looks good as our house is 1930s and for me it pretty much sums up the right approach to modern life so it's still good advice after all this time.
Charlie, London

It's messages like these that make me proud to be British. So often I'm on the cusp of renouncing my national identity and becoming a man without a country, free of all the stereotypes and nonsense that we define each other with - and then five words like this remind there's something really great about the public mentality here. Keep Calm and Carry On. Sums us up more than any other phrase I'd say.
Robert Richardson, Norwich, UK

While I feel we love the slogan because it captures a historic Britishness, unfortunately it doesn't articulate what it means to be British in a 21st Century. With the government using fear of terrorism to push through draconian legislation and the media whipping us up into a constant state of anxiety and worry, maybe it should be changed to "Panic - stay at home".
Dr Jimmy Blake, Ashford, Kent

I love the poster, but I also love a recent remix that reads: LEAVE EVERYTHING AND GO BALLISTIC. Personally, this other one suits me more.
Sol, Sterzing, South Tyrol, Italy

I have this poster in my office - it says it all. Steady on the drama and hysteria, and just get on with it. Fab.
Rachel, Peterborough

Someone should put out a cross stitch or embroidery pattern of Keep Calm and Carry On - just stitching it would be beneficial right about now.
Ann Zavala, Parma, Idaho, USA

I saw it for the first time recently on a T-shirt that James May was wearing in his new TV series with Oz Clark. Being stereotypically British, I thought it looked perfect on him.
Chris Oakley, Dagenham

I would like a T-shirt to wear to my yoga class. I love this message.
Carroll Macdonald, Bridgewater, CT, US

I saw this poster in a gift catalogue last year. It's on my mobile phone as the background wallpaper because I love the simplicity of the message and the visual design. I think it sums up the British spirit in a crisis although some elements of the British press seem hellbent on whipping up hysteria about every event. They could learn a lot from this message.
Sheena, Portsmouth

"Thanks to a chance discovery in a dusty box of books, the soothing entreaty is finally having its intended effect, bringing comfort to a nation in turmoil." Rubbish, it's just a poster. It doesn't hide the fact that wages are being cut and jobs lost. Socialism would bring comfort to all people, not nationalistic posters.
J Harris, Birmingham

Am in the process of moving house and also soon to start a post graduate course. This is something I need.
Jane, Manchester

I've had this up in my front room for about a year and a half now. The message is brilliant as it's basically a massive hiker's style Don't Panic message from the king. It's even in large friendly letters.
Jim Downing, Salisbury

I saw this on a wall in one of our classrooms and I had no idea where it had come from though it sounded typically British. It's a shame it didn't get used for its intended purpose but it still holds a message for people in different situations today.
Abz, north east England

I saw this poster and fell in love with it last year - it is now hanging proudly in my hallway as a message to me and my family as we go about our daily life - it's so British and after a year which included a redundancy, a house move and a bereavement it just seems fitting. Also think the design is wonderful and love the way the colour and the wording clash - bright red to calm us down. Fantastic.
B Ellis, London

Print Sponsor


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific