One of the best known of the MOI’s early products is the poster urging people to ‘Keep calm and carry on’, which has become popular today as an iconic reminder of the ‘phoney’ war. The poster was one of three prepared by the MOI on government instructions, ready to brace public morale when war broke out, in case Germany invaded. Some two million copies of this– the third in a series of similar morale-boosting messages – were printed and stored for posting all over Britain. The first poster in the series announced that ‘Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution, will bring us victory.’ In the event, very few of the later posters were ever pasted up in the streets, mainly because they were derided by the press.
The Times, for example, commented, ‘. . . the insipid and patronising invocations to which the passer-by is now being treated have a power of exasperation which is all their own.’ Other newspapers agreed.
This press criticism sparked questions about the campaign in the House of Commons. How much had it cost the taxpayer? MPs wanted to know. Edward Grigg, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, defended the campaign, saying it was expected to cost no more than £23,000 (getting on for half a million pounds at today’s prices) by the time it ended in October. Most of this cost went on site rental. Next day, The Daily Express reacted to Grigg’s announcement with the headline ‘Waste and Paste’.
The posters had been designed on Government instructions with input from civil servants, all of whom seem to have considered themselves experts on public relations. The poster ambiguously declaring that ‘Your resolution will bring us victory’ was penned by A. P. Waterfield, a career civil servant with no credentials in PR who ‘wanted a rallying war-cry that will . . . put us in an offensive mood at once.’ Waterfield, and his fellow civil servants, failed to notice the divisive ‘you’ and ‘us’ subtext of the poster, which gave rise to still more public complaint. Yet it was the Ministry Of Information and its new Minister who carried the can for being insensitive to public opinion at such a critical time.
Read about the history of the Ministry Of Information here.