Here’s a pretty reassuring thought for any man who supposes he has
a difficult girlfriend: ’The ’easy’ girlfriend spreads syphilis and
gonorrhoea which, unless properly treated, may result in blindness,
insanity, paralysis and premature death.’
Such comforting words from a 1943 Health Education poster are alone
worth the price of admission to the new exhibition at the V&A, the Power
of the Poster. It’s a wonderful array, drawn from the V&A’s collection
of more than 10,000 originals, and should be seen for two good
The first is pure pleasure; I defy anyone not to enjoy a selection
eclectic enough to include Toulouse-Lautrec, the Economist and the
Council for Health and Cleanliness, whose 1920s ’Where there’s dirt
there’s danger’ poster compared the alphabet of the Not-so-Clean and the
Clean families; would you rather be Angry or Amiable? Frowsy or Fresh?
Vapid or Virile?
The second reason, for anyone in advertising, is that the birth of our
business is displayed on these walls.
There are some recent-ish posters - Nike, Smirnoff and Heineken are here
- but it’s a fairly arbitrary scattering. What’s far more fascinating is
the surprising relevance of some very old work.
Naturally, sex weaves a sinuous thread through the entire exhibition,
from Jules Cheret’s swirling Loie Fuller at the Fol- ies Bergere, dated
1893, to Eva’s ’Hello Boys’ in full 48-sheet magnificence.
It takes in ’the divine Sarah’ Bernhardt by Mucha, Levi’s bare bum from
the 70s and Rooney and Larry’s Haagen- Dazs poster. (Oh good, I’m
working with a man featured at the V&A. Oh God, I’ve replaced a man
featured at the V&A.) Surprising frissons were caused by Dudley Hardy’s
’Yellow Girl’ poster for Today magazine in 1893 about which the
E. Johnson, wrote: ’The Yellow Girl refused to be ignored. There was
something almost immodest in the way she danced along the decorous
streets of London.’ Even more aquiver was Jean Cocteau, who drew
Nijinsky for a 1911 poster and described him as ’vigorous beyond
anything human and feline to a disquieting degree’.
But there is a darker side to the role of sex in posters that is equally
compelling. The Suffragettes are well represented, one poster pointedly
reminding us ’what a woman may be and yet not have a vote’ (mayor,
nurse, doctor) and ’what a man may have been, and yet not lose the vote’
(convict, lunatic, proprietor of white slaves (!)).
And if this seems amusingly anachronistic, one’s smile is tested by a
poster not ten years old asking, ’Do women have to be naked to get into
the Met. Museum?’ - as fewer than 5 per cent of the artists displayed
are women but more than 85 per cent of the nudes are female.
Sex is even used to lure the boys to war in a 1917 American recruitment
poster featuring a girl in a sailor’s suit alongside the caption, ’Gee!
I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy.’
But it’s a light moment in the bleakest section of the exhibition,
Protest and Propaganda. Here the poster’s power to shock is fully
Some items were even too much for those commissioning them. A vivid
rendition of a British soldier bayoneting his German counterpart so
enthusiastically that he lifts him off the ground, headlined, ’Put
strength in the final blow, buy War Bonds’, was softened to read, ’Back
him up, buy War Bonds’ and the German’s feet were returned to earth,
which must have made all the difference.
Even more horrifying, given the immediacy and brutality of the
photography, is the anti-Vietnam poster featuring the aftermath of the
My Lai massacre, brilliantly captioned with the final question and
answer from an interview with one of the soldiers involved: Q. And
babies? A. And babies.
Interestingly, though, even in the toughest of times, being grim doesn’t
always work. One of the most famous poster campaigns run in this country
is here, but only because research blew out its predecessor.
To encourage its good people not to gossip their way to early defeat
during 1939-45 war, the government produced a pompous, typographic
campaign to wag its finger at the public. The public resented it and it
was replaced by Fougasse’s ’Careless talk costs lives’. These ads were
so popular that they were reproduced on hankies and fabrics (which are
here) and it’s worth remembering how cleverly they were made to work.
Their simplicity and the clarity of the headlines worked from a
distance, but the small captions forced people closer to read them.
Fougasse believed this personal contribution was the key to remembering
the message and acting on it.
Such astute understanding of the way ads work reminds us how little we
have to teach the past. Many of the recurring themes of our working
lives are here.
The earliest known version of ’the ads are better than the programmes’
must have been the actor-manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, looking
ruefully at the ads for his production at His Majesty’s Theatre and
commenting, ’It’s difficult to live up to one’s posters.’
Benetton is here with its deathbed scenes and bloody new-born baby of
questionable relevance - but such controversy is nothing new: in 1895,
Aubrey Beardsley’s design for a theatre poster bore no relation to the
tone or subject matter of the play and much hubbub ensued. Punch
lampooned it, but an-other critic wrote that ’nothing so compelling, so
irresistible had been posted on hoardings before’.
Clever, poster-related ideas, such as VW’s ads on petrol-pump handles,
have been done before: Fougasse designed a ’careless talk’ sticker for a
Politics recycles the same old muck to sling. Here, side by side, sit
Saatchi & Saatchi’s ’Labour still isn’t working’ and ’Workless’, a 1910
Labour party poster. A masked Norman Lamont as ’Vatman’ glowers beside
an equally unprepossessing masked figure from decades earlier
brandishing a gun beneath the claim that ’Socialist schemes mean pounds
250,000,000 a year in taxes’.
Early creative preciousness is wonderfully exemplified by the
Beggarstaffs’ poster for Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa. They refused to
compromise their minimalist approach by adding packs or copy, so
Rowntree’s presented the poster as a puzzle and ran press ads
challenging people to guess the subject. I wonder if Rowntree’s would do
that now ...
We see the importance in the pre-television age of memorable figures on
posters. Gert and Daisy advertise Macleans and there’s a lovely old
Underground poster for an advertising exhibition which brings together a
host of brand characters from Johnnie Walker and the Michelin Man to the
Kodak Girl and the Bisto Kids - the Cap’n Birds Eye and Energiser Bunny
of their day.
This poster was commissioned by the man who proved another eternal
adage: clients get the advertising they deserve. Frank Pick, responsible
from 1908 for the London Underground advertising, got some of the best
posters ever done - and he must have been the loveliest client since the
He commissioned 40-plus posters a year and after his retirement in 1940
Nikolaus Pevsner described him as ’the greatest patron of the arts ...
Which brings us to the most delicious argument of all: is advertising
art? Should it be? And does it matter? Of course, most advertising is
nowhere near art (then again, nor is most art). But it’s difficult,
wandering through galleries adorned by the work of Lautrec, Hockney,
Whistler, Sutherland, Rauschenberg, Cassandre and Millais, not to think:
’Mmm, pretty arty.’
And probably the most pertinent comment is: ’Looking at the matter from
the commercial point of view, the really artistic work pays better in
cash results.’ Frank Lowe, 1988? John Hegarty, 1998? No, Joseph Thacher
Yes, the power of the poster is its art and, if you don’t believe me,
get on down to the V&A.
Leon Jaume is joint creative director of WCRS. The Power of the Poster
runs until 26 July and the exhibition is sponsored by the Maiden group,
J. C. Decaux, Mills & Allen and the More Group.