5 Invaluable Movement Building Lessons from America's Legendary WW2 Propaganda Office
The short-lived U.S. Office of War Information is a timeless example of how to get people to care and get involved
Last week, I argued that people with important ideas need to spread the word to create "honest, participatory propaganda campaigns.”
This week marks the beginning of a series of posts on how to do that.
And what better place to start than by exploring what we can learn from the most legendary propaganda offices of all time: The Office of War Information, or OWI.
The OWI was a U.S. government agency that existed during World War II. It was created in 1942 to oversee the dissemination of information to the American public and foreign countries about the U.S. war effort.
The OWI aimed to promote patriotism and support for the war and to counter enemy propaganda. It produced and distributed press releases, films, posters, and other materials that shaped public opinion and inspired support for the war effort.
Although it was quickly disbanded in 1945 after the end of the war, the way it conducted its operations provides us with timeless lessons on how to persuade and enlist the masses to help spread messages and inspire individual action.
Here are the top 7 movement-building lessons we can draw from reflecting on how the OWI mobilized over 2/3 of American civilians to contribute to the war effort in just three years:
LESSON 1: Be SUPER clear about what success looks like in terms of measurable behavior change
The OWI had a clear end goal: for the US to win the war. To achieve this goal, it became very clear what success looked like in terms of changing the behavior of individual civilians. Examples of such behaviors included:
Conserve Resources: The OWI encouraged citizens to conserve resources such as food, fuel, and materials needed for the war effort.
Purchase War Bonds: The OWI encouraged the purchase of war bonds as a way for citizens to financially support the war effort.
Reduce Waste: The OWI encouraged citizens to reduce waste and conserve resources by using both sides of paper, repairing rather than replacing items, and avoiding the purchase of unnecessary goods.
Volunteer: The OWI encouraged citizens to volunteer for war-related activities, such as working in munitions factories, joining the Red Cross, or serving as air raid wardens.
Support the troops: The OWI encouraged citizens to support the troops by sending care packages, writing letters, and greeting returning veterans.
You would be surprised how few organizations are clear about the IDEAL behavior of their audience.
How can you achieve your ultimate goal if you don't even have a theory of what your audience's behavior needs to be to get there?
LESSON 2: HAMMER relentlessly with messages that drive successful behavior change
If you know what success looks like, you should HAMMER your target audience with messages that change behavior in the right ways.
For the OWI's goal of getting citizens to buy war bonds, it produced (at least) hundreds of UNIQUE poster designs urging Americans to "BUY WAR BONDS. These posters were printed millions of times and distributed all over the country.
The subtext of these posters is as powerful as the words on the posters.
These posters say, without saying it explicitly:
"Our soldiers are going through hell over there. The least you can do is buy war bonds."
"Your war bonds will directly enable our brave soldiers to win the war."
"Everything is at stake. Everything you love is on the line. If you don't buy war bonds, we may lose the war.
LESSON 3: Get REALLY creative with how you inspire financial contributions
World War II was very expensive for the United States. They had to increase their annual military budget from $9 billion to $98 billion per year.
In order not to raise taxes too much to pay for the war, the US government decided to raise money by selling "war bonds".
The detailed mechanics of these financial instruments are beyond the scope of this article, but the point is this: the US had to sell a shitload of war bonds to finance the war.
So how did they do it?
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