President Woodrow Wilson, incumbent in 1916, narrowly won his reelection that year on the basis of a simple platform: “He kept us out of war.”
Yet only months later, in 1917, Wilson became convinced that the U.S. needed to enter the European conflict. But how on earth would he convince the American public?
All his advisers knew it would be a tough sell. But Wilson, who had taught history at Princeton before entering politics, found the answer he needed in the advice of one of his former students, prominent progressive Arthur Bullard, who urged the president to form an official publicity office in order to “electrify public opinion.”
The idea was taken up by another influential insider, Walter Lippman, co-founder of The New Republic. Lippman had become fascinated with the psychology of mass opinion and politics, particularly as described in Gustave LeBon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. According to LeBon, whenever ordinary citizens gathered into a mass assembly, no matter how reasonable as individuals, they became irrational and easily subject to manipulation.
Lippman encouraged the president to appoint an agency for the purpose of convincing Americans that entering the war was a necessary and positive step. Following the advice of Bullard and Lippman, the president issued Executive Order 2594, establishing the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the leadership of progressive journalist George Creel.
The committee’s original instructions were to provide hard facts and information to the public so that they could intelligently draw their own conclusions about the war. But this idea was quickly abandoned.
Creel was convinced that the American public lived “mostly by slogans.” Therefore, he selected a committee of artists and communications experts, including Charles Dana Gibson of “Gibson girl” fame, and George Bowles, the Hollywood promoter behind the distribution of Birth of a Nation, to help him appeal to the public’s appetite for sensation.
The resulting massive propaganda campaign included the distribution of two hundred thousand different images, the employment of several hundred thousand “Four Minute Men” who delivered speeches in movie theaters, a massive censorship campaign, and countless posters, flyers and broadsides.
As Gibson noted, “One cannot create enthusiasm for the war on the basis of practical appeal.” The CPI made no attempt to provide the public with facts about the war. Instead, CPI posters showed sentimental images of American culture and lurid, fearful representations of German soldiers, and appealed to the public’s basest sentiments and most irrational fears and prejudices.
Many reformers watched in horror as the formerly progressive president resorted to crass pro-war propagandizing. But another group of Americans watched with interest: the new public relations professionals. By paying attention to the CPI’s war promotions, advertisers learned the techniques that enabled them to create a whole new culture of rampant consumerism in the prosperous decade that followed.