Similar wartime messages are conveyed here in two different styles. The first two posters highlight Jean Carlu’s European-influenced, avant-garde design, while the third poster exhibits a more commercial aesthetic. These stylistic differences reflect a broader debate within the U.S. government over whether fine artists, like Carlu, or commercial artists were better equipped to create war posters.
In January 1942, shortly after entering the war, the government hired Young & Rubicam, a leading advertising agency, to study the public’s reaction to different poster designs. Among their findings, they discovered that war workers in New Jersey read Jean Carlu’s image of a laborer holding a rivet gun as a gangster with a machine gun and thought it was a poster against organized crime.
The survey analysts recommended that a successful and effective poster be designed for the “lowest” level of comprehension, to reach the “lower third” of the public. Realistic pictures with photographic details were deemed to convey messages best, since abstract and symbolic designs tended to be misunderstood. In effect, the survey corroborated a critique voiced by some government officials that many fine artists were unable to communicate as simply and clearly as commercial artists. Consequently wartime posters became more commercial in their style and messaging.