Two powerful and thoughtful pieces of commemorative advertising have already been produced ahead of Monday's centenary of Britain's entry into World War I. Johnny Fearless' sublime and moving piece of animation for the Imperial War Museum is a thoughtful response to a brief that didn't seek to celebrate war, while Karmarama has produced a simple promotion for the BBC that is rightly poignant in its understatement.
It sounds trite, given the enormity of the conflict, but the campaigns are a reminder of the uniquely catastrophic loss of life that accompanied the war, and it’s also true that they have helped to showcase the sensitivity and versatility of British creativity.
No family escaped the conflict – my grandfather served in the Royal Artillery but was lucky enough to avoid the slaughter of the trenches of the Western Front with a posting to Palestine. It’s a tragedy in itself that this is now the scene of a bombardment causing the sort of bloodshed to civilians that the Great War largely avoided.
So what does the anniversary of the outbreak of a conflict that cost the lives of more than 16 million people mean for advertisers? Should they do anything to mark the world-changing events of 100 years ago John Crowther, the strategy director at WCRS, wrote a powerful and eloquent piece for Campaignlive.co.uk a few weeks ago that disputed that the centenary could ever be a battlefield for brands other than for the Red Cross, which, as he put it, responded to the "industrial scale killing with industrial scale caring". The Poppy Appeal, too, has planned activity to show that its relevance extends beyond the annual Remembrance Sunday to more recent victims of armed conflict.
The horrors of an event that caused so much suffering is not an occasion marketers should try to exploit
I think Crowther is right: the horrors of an event that caused so much appalling suffering is not an occasion or a shared cultural memory – unlike other national events such as the Jubilee – that marketers should try to exploit (although I dare say some will try).
Nonetheless, the First World War led to changes and developments in advertising, some of which still resonate today. The printed page was the crucial medium for communication back then and, amid the growing casualty lists, FMCG brands became a common feature in a war that was notable for its mud and blood. Women, too, became a more important target market as financial independence became a by-product of the slaughter.
War is good for business, and brands consequently tapped into the emotional vacuum and the patriotic fervour at home – a nascent form of advertising planning had emerged. Tragically, with conflict in Ukraine, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, any lessons learnt from the front have not been so enduring.
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