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Gorgeous War: The Branding War Between the Third Reich and the United States

by Tim Blackmore

In his new book, author Tim Blackmore compares the way Germany and the U.S. branded themselves during the Second World War. One country was an evil dictatorship; the other a celebrated democracy. Given this reality, it might come as a surprise to learn that there were a lot of similarities between the two in the way they attempted to promote their war efforts. Blackmore, a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, shows that while both countries leveraged modernist styles in a very similar way, Germany was actually far more successful at doing so than the U.S.

Blackmore acknowledges the complexity of media, symbols, and meaning, and the lack of a clear definition of modernism. Broadly speaking, the modernist movement was a reaction to “the brute rage … from fears of dispossession” in Depression-era America. The response was a celebration of the new and a complete rejection of the past. “In finding modernism good,” Blackmore writes, “it has also become traditional to align it with … Western freedoms.”

However, the author adeptly shows that Hitler’s design aesthetic followed the same trajectory as the U.S.’s; once the Nazi party was in power, their imagery could be described as peak modernism. The absolute success of the swastika  – a “fully complete” symbol from a brand perspective – in creating a visual association with the Nazi party has since rendered it unacceptable to use for any other purpose. Blackmore points out that other countries with a history of colonialism or systemic government violence have not faced similar censure or demands that they redesign their national flags.

Where modernist design offered the possibility of success, the Nazis embraced it wholeheartedly: despite Hitler’s stated desire for Germany to return to a supposedly idyllic past, he also prized practicality. One example is the radio, which Hitler was quick to understand represented the best way to communicate with the masses. Despite radio’s association with modernist ideals, he encouraged efficient commercial production in order to ensure that radios would be affordable for German citizens.

After discussing the U.S. military’s utter failure at similarly branding themselves, Blackmore identifies Walt Disney Studios as the only contemporary American answer to the Nazis’ success. A lack of government branding in the U.S. “created the need for private enterprise to step into the propaganda war.” After 1941, 90 per cent of Disney’s work was for government contracts, including the design of 1,200 military unit insignias. Because Disney’s safe, accessible, and comforting modernist images were on the front lines, the brand came to be associated with the U.S. military. That early exposure, Blackmore argues, laid the foundation for the continuing sway the Disney brand holds in the U.S. and around the world.

Blackmore is very good at leading the reader through complex material. He is less successful at drawing all of his points into a cohesive whole; in some chapters, the connection to the overall point is unclear. Gorgeous War will likely appeal most to readers in cultural or media studies and those with advertising or marketing backgrounds. For these readers, it will serve as a well-written text that should prompt questions about the motives of the advertising industry, specifically regarding the origins and uses of branding as a means of consumer enticement.