Posters are visual means of communicating messages to large public audiences. A poster is a printed mass media product. Although graffiti and murals are predecessors of posters, they do not qualify as posters, since one of the defining criteria for a poster is its mass reproducibility. While graffiti and murals exist only as single objects, attached to a specific place, posters are movable objects produced in large quantities to cover a wide geographical area.
The production of posters is typically event-related: political campaigns, advertising campaigns, or simple announcements of cultural events count among the typical events leading to poster production. While posters in the context of an electoral or commercial campaign have to be considered as paid media, protest posters, produced for demonstrations or expressing clandestine opposition, are free media that have an end in itself and are not part of a larger, commercialized production process.
Historically, the poster or “placard” as a public announcement is linked with political upheaval and war. Already in the seventeenth century Netherlands, so-called plakatten, posted to walls and other public places, were used by the Dutch to protest Spanish domination. The twentieth century saw an increase in poster production and their public use. Both the German revolution of 1918 and World Wars I and II (e.g., Gregory 1993) were accompanied by heavy poster propaganda and counter-propaganda. US President F. D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policy enlisted poster artists like Ben Shahn in the Work Progress Administration (WPA), producing an abundance of posters for all occasions, from tourism to theater and later on war-related topics (DeNoon 1987).
Two developments were prerequisite for modern posters to be used as means of mass communication. The first was the invention of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century, which enabled the reproduction of visual motifs in large quantities. Second, the political development of mass democracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created an audience and a market for posters.
Posters are produced for the purpose of being displayed in public. In the US, during the 1960s and 1970s, printed posters and billboards were largely replaced by televised commercials. Contemporary political campaigns in the United States print posters, if at all, only in small numbers, mainly as collector’s items. Outside the US, and particularly in Europe, posters maintain their role as a major communication tool, both in political campaigning and in commercial advertising.
Political Campaign Posters
Today, the dominant usage of posters is in the political realm. Election posters, which are still widely used outside of the United States, possess a distinct iconography. The most pervasive motif is a candidate’s headshot in the context of a political election campaign. The majority of political posters feature portraits. Thus, the election campaign poster is a specific, and in quantitative terms dominant, sub-category of the political poster.
Lithography, a printing technique that uses the repulsion of water and grease for the reproduction of graphic images, was invented by the Bavarian printer Aloys Senefelder around 1796. This cheap and relatively fast technique to reproduce visuals spread quickly in western Europe and was mainly used in art and in early forms of advertising. The political poster needed a second “fertilizer” – mass democracy – to flourish in the second half of the nineteenth century. This happened to be in the United States of America, the world’s first mass democracy. The first publication of a lithograph in the US dates back to the year 1819, but it took another 20 years before this printing technique became popular. The political campaign poster emerged to become a characteristic feature, first of presidential campaigning, then of campaigning in general. Although posters were produced in France and Germany in the nineteenth century, these countries still lacked the mass audiences at which political posters were targeted. Thus, the origin of the modern printed election poster is the US presidential campaign. Four phases of the presidential campaign poster can be distinguished (Müller 1997): the experimental phase (1828–1840), the commercial poster period (1844–1880), the partisan mass-printing period (1884–1948), and the extinction of the poster and replacement by television ads (1952 to the present).
While nowadays political posters and other campaign items are usually commissioned by respective campaigns, and in Europe by the political parties running campaigns, the employment of candidate portraits in poster format owes much to the commercial genius of America’s early lithographers. Lithography as a trade blossomed in the 1840s and 1850s and kept its momentum until the end of the century, when color lithography, or chromolithographs, were fashionable. Around 1860, a total of 60 firms operating in the United States were registered, employing 800 people. Twenty years later the census of 1880 showed an increase to 167 lithography firms, employing a total of 4,332 people and with a production volume worth US$6,912,338. The business kept growing and toward the end of the nineteenth century 700 lithograph companies were registered, with a total labor force of about 8,000 and a turnover of about US$20 million annually (Marzio 1979, 3). Given those figures it comes as no surprise that in the 1840s small lithographic firms like the New York-based Currier and Ives were also offering political posters.
From the perspective of twentieth-century campaigning, where the differentiation of candidates is crucial, the similarities of opposing candidates’ posters is surprising. For example, the only differences between the posters for the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay and the competing Democratic candidate James K. Polk are the portraits and the accompanying names and slogans. The rest of the poster, including an American eagle, flags, floral ornaments, and framing curtains are identical. This was typical for the commercial period of the electoral poster, since these posters were meant to be sold by peddlers at very low price. The most expensive part of the poster production was the original design of the poster prepared by an artist. In presidential campaigns, those designs could be used twice by just exchanging the medallion-shaped portraits of the candidates, and thus reducing production costs. These early campaign posters were meant to be posted indoors – in saloons, at the sheriff’s office, and by the large partisan audience at home above the fireplace.
At the turn of the nineteenth century the printing trade had reached its peak. The professionalization of presidential campaigning had led to a reversal of the production structures of posters. Formerly offered as a news item by commercial lithographers, the posters became products that were commissioned and paid for by individual campaigns, with distinct Republican or Democratic party symbols. These colorful posters had a larger format and were no longer meant for private display, but for adorning party rallies, work spaces, public billboards, as well as street parades. The New Deal campaigns of Franklin D. Roosevelt employed artists like Ben Shahn (see above) to design posters and billboards for his campaign (DeNoon 1987).
With the introduction of television commercials for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential bid in 1952 posters became first old-fashioned, then too costly, and finally obsolete in modern US campaigning. Television advertisements had many advantages. They provided a national reach at comparatively low cost, and they could convey more information in a short period of time. Still, the poster tradition lives on. Stereotypes of presidential candidates were long established in political posters before electronic communication was available. Thus, the US presidential campaign poster can be termed the legitimate predecessors of contemporary TV and Internet commercials. The medium has changed, but the political messages vary only marginally, as can be demonstrated by the main types of visual campaign strategies, most of which are still applied in twenty-first-century campaigning.
Campaign Posters In Germany And France
In Germany, to this day, publicly advertised billboards and posters signal the election campaign. Campaign posters still rank high in the mix of paid media used by German parties to communicate with the electorate. Although a slight decline in the importance of posters can be observed when comparing the campaigns of 1998 and 2002 (Müller 2002), posters still ranked second on the list of most important campaign communication tools, surpassed only by party conventions in 1998 and by the then newly introduced televised debates in 2002. Since in the German public broadcasting system, television commercials for parties running in the general election are limited according to party size, but have to be aired for free, TV advertising does not dominate German campaign communications and has not yet replaced the posters.
The colorful French tradition of political campaign posters (Benoit et al. 1986; Gervereau 1991) was abruptly curbed in 1990 by the Loi Rocard, a law titled after then French Prime Minister Michel Rocard that expressly banned all forms of political advertising within the three months preceding an election, including newspaper advertisements and commercial posters. Posters can now be displayed in public during election time only in designated poster areas in the immediate vicinity of polling stations. Elaborate billboard campaigns like the one that brought President Mitterrand to power in 1981 – “La force tranquille” (the tranquil force), drafted after the image of US actor John Wayne – belong to the past. Thus, in contemporary French campaigning, posters no longer play a significant role.
Propaganda And Protest Posters
The twentieth century, and particularly the two World Wars and the following Cold War, were the heyday of political posters. Posters were a crucial strategic tool of war propaganda on all sides (Gregory 1993). Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and in China perfected large billboard campaigns which were spread over vast territories to propagate the communist model of society.
Contemporary usage of political posters is, with few exceptions, concentrated outside of the western and the developed world. For example, the use of posters of religious leaders, of victims of violence, and of terrorist “martyrs” in public rallies and demonstrations in the Near and Middle East is a scarcely researched topic. Additionally, in many non-western countries election posters still play an important role that requires further investigation.
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