THE MOVIE TRAILER & THE BIRTH OF MODERN PROPAGANDA – Notes toward an essay

A PROPAGANDA FILM Produced by the CPI or Creel Commission

I’ve recently had a paper accepted to a special edition of the academic film journal FRAMES, due out in Spring of ’13 and dedicated entirely to movie promotion and marketing, a first ever!

Ever since writing about propaganda and movie trailers, I’ve wanted to research the introduction of movie trailers into film marketing in the 1910’s and 20’s relative to the application and exploitation of modern propaganda techniques (in a/v and print media, among others) during WWI and its articulation in the disciplines of public opinion and public relations which came hard on the conclusion of hostilities. With the indulgence of my readers, I’m going to use my blog to explore some of the primary sources of this history.

Today, I’ve excerpted several paragraphs from George Creel‘s triumphant account of his work as leader of the Committee on Public Information, a position to which he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and tasked with fighting for the “moral verdict” of mankind. (In the words of Newton Baker, Secretary of the War and a member of the Committee, “The whole business of mobilizing the mind of the world so far as American participation in the war was concerned was in a sense the work of the Committee on Public In-formation.”) In the passages below, Creel describes the campaign that he supervised. I think that a studio marketing executive would recognize and be impressed by the scale, scope, energy, planning, targeting and comprehensiveness of it. I’ve added commentary in brackets “[ ]” after each paragraph.

FROM GEORGE CREEL’S

    How We Advertised America

, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1920.

While America’s summons was answered without question by the citizenship as a whole, it is to be remembered that during the three and a half years of our neutrality the land had been torn by a thousand divisive prejudices, stunned by the voices of anger and confusion, and muddled by the pull and haul of opposed interests. These were conditions that could not be permitted to endure. What we had to have was no mere surface unity, but a passionate belief in the justice of America’s cause that should weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination. [emphasis, mine] The war-will, the will-to-win, of a democracy depends upon the degree to which each one of all the people of that democracy can concentrate and consecrate body and soul and spirit in the supreme effort of service and sacrifice. What had to be driven home was that all business was the nation’s business, and every task a common task for a single purpose.

Starting with the initial conviction that the war was not the war of an administration, but the war of one hundred million people, and believing that public support was a matter of public understanding, we opened up the activities of government to the inspection of the citizenship. A voluntary censorship agreement safeguarded military information of obvious value to the enemy, but in all else the rights of the press were recognized and furthered. Trained men, at the center of effort in every one of the warmaking branches of government, reported on progress and achievement, and in no other belligerent nation was there such absolute frankness with respect to every detail of the national war endeavor.

[Advertising is, first and foremost news. A good “spot” must inform.]

As swiftly as might be, there were put into pamphlet form America’s reasons for entering the war, the meaning of America, the nature of our free institutions, our war aims, likewise analyses of the Prussian system, the purposes of the imperial German government, and full exposure of the enemy’s misrepresentations, aggressions, and barbarities. Written by the country’s foremost publicists [emphsasis, mine], scholars, and historians, and distinguished for their conciseness, accuracy, and simplicity, these pamphlets blew as a great wind against the clouds of confusion and misrepresentation.

[We call these “strong arguments,” the compelling claims for an emotional, aesthetic, or intellectual response. I love how Creel begins his list of “foremost” intellectuals with the category of publicists. That’s a first, and probably a last.]

Money could not have purchased the volunteer aid that was given freely, the various universities lending their best men and the National Board of Historical Service placing its three thousand members at the complete disposal of the Committee. Some thirty-odd booklets, covering every phase of America’s ideals, purposes, and aims, were printed in many languages other than English. Seventy-five millions reached the people of America, and other millions went to every corner of the world, carrying our defense and our attack.

[Talk about interactivity, and thought/opinion leaders! These folk were the fanboys of their age; fangirls, no doubt, as well.]

The importance of the spoken word was not underestimated. A speaking division toured great groups like the Blue Devils, Pershing’s Veterans, and the Belgians, arranged mass-meetings in the communities, conducted forty-five war conferences from coast to coast, co-ordinated the entire speaking activities of the nation, and as- sured consideration to the crossroads hamlet as well as to the city. The Four Minute Men, an organization that will live in history by reason of its originality and effectiveness, commanded the volunteer services of 75,000 speakers, operating in 5,200 communities, and making a total of 755,190 speeches, every one having the carry of shrapnel.

[Advertising gets the first word, but the last word, is Word of mouth, as they say. YOu might think of these speakers as street teams, spreading the promotional message from town to town, corner to corner, passerby by passerby.]

With the aid of a volunteer staff of several hundred translators, the Committee kept in direct touch with the foreign-language press, supplying selected articles designed to combat ignorance and disaffection. It organized and directed twenty-three societies and leagues designed to appeal to certain classes and particular foreign-language groups, each body carrying a specific message of unity and enthusiasm to its section of America’s adopted peoples.

[The press, in particular the foreign press. Where would H’wood be without the Golden Globes! Marketing is truly international.]

It planned war exhibits for the state fairs of the United States, also a great series of interallied war expositions that brought home to our millions the exact nature of the struggle that was being waged in France. In Chicago alone two million people attended in two weeks, and in nineteen cities the receipts aggregated $1,432,261.36.

[Museum cross promotion. Brilliant!]

The Committee mobilized the advertising forces of the country press, periodical, car, and outdoor for the patriotic campaign that gave millions of dollars’ worth of free space to the national service. It assembled the artists of America on a volunteer basis for the production of posters, window-cards, and similar material of pictorial publicity for the use of various government departments and patriotic societies. A total of 1,438 drawings was used. It issued an official daily newspaper, serving every de- partment of government, with a circulation of one hundred thousand copies a day. For official use only, its value was such that private citizens ignored the supposedly prohibitive subscription price, subscribing to the amount of $77,622.58.

[Press, print and pictorial assets. The prestige of a daily publication. That’s provenance.]

It organized a bureau of information for all persons who sought direction in volunteer war-work, in acquiring knowl- edge of any administrative activities, or in approaching business dealings with the government. In the ten months of its existence it gave answers to eighty -six thousand requests for specific information. It gathered together the leading novelists, essayists, and publicists of the land, and these men and women, without payment, worked faithfully in the production of brilliant, comprehensive articles that went to the press as syndicate features.

[Information, resources, thought leadership mobilized around a product roll-out, in this case Americanism and thus the justification for our entry into World War I.]

One division paid particular attention to the rural press and the plate-matter service. Others looked after the specialized needs of the labor press, the religious press, and the periodical press. The Division of Women’s War W r ork prepared and issued the information of peculiar interest to the women of the United States, also aiding in the task of organizing and directing.

[Niche Marketing. Demographic and psychographic approaches exploited!]

Another propaganda film produced by the Creel Commission


Through the medium of the motion picture, America’s war progress, as well as the meanings and purposes of democracy, were carried to every community in the United States and to every corner of the world. “Pershing’s Crusaders,” “America’s Answer,” and “Under Four Flags” were types of feature films by which we drove home America’s resources and determinations, while other pictures, showing our social and industrial life, made our free institutions vivid to foreign peoples. [emphasis, mine] From the domestic showings alone, under a fair plan of distribution, the sum of $878,215 was gained, which went to support the cost of the campaigns in foreign countries where the exhibitions were necessarily free. Another division prepared and distributed still photographs and stereopticon slides to the press and public.

[I’ve researched the above mentioned films in UCLA Film Archive, one of the best in the world, and no trailers exist for any of them. If anyone know where to see such a/v marketing materials, I’d love to learn. I suspect that no trailers were made for these films, since Hollywood only began regular production of trailers in 1916, and didn’t mandate them for all releases till 1919. ]

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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