Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

When ads celebrated soldiers and sacrifice

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A 1941 photo of a Dairylea Ice Cream billboard in Utica, New York, shows two U.S. servicewomen saluting.
A 1941 photo of a Dairylea Ice Cream billboard in Utica, New York, shows two U.S. servicewomen saluting.
  • Bob Greene: Ads today don't usually pay tribute to soldiers' sacrifices
  • In WWII, the war "effort" meant advertisers linked products to pride in overseas fight, he says
  • Ads tied themselves to war the way companies affiliate with sports teams now, he says
  • Greene: Was it because that was a different kind of war, or was it just a different America?

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."

(CNN) -- You know that great television commercial you saw from the peanut butter company that wants the world to know how much U.S. troops in Afghanistan love eating its product?

And the heartwarming magazine advertisement from the chewing-gum manufacturer that pointed out how many millions of packs of its gum were enjoyed by the U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq?

What? You don't remember those ads? You don't think they exist?

You're right. Which is precisely the point.

The two wars in which the United States became engaged after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have often felt as if they have little to do with the daily lives of civilians at home. People in the nation's cities and towns carry on with their business; the volunteers in the military fight. Life on the home front goes on.

It's rare to find an advertisement that makes a direct point of linking a company or manufacturer with America's wars.

Death in Afghanistan

Contrast that with advertising that appeared in U.S. newspapers and magazines during World War II. The difference is stark. Back then, many ads went out of their way to show consumers that the companies -- whether they made wristwatches or paint or ball bearings -- were proudly involved in the fight overseas.

"Time is Short, Adolf!" proclaimed the headline on a 1942 ad from the Philco Corp., manufacturer of radios, phonographs, refrigerators and air conditioners. The illustration showed a skeleton holding a pistol aimed at the right ear of Hitler. The text praised the men and women of Philco: "The incentive and inspiration for their war achievements are Victory and the survival of America's freedom."

The Revere Copper and Brass company sponsored a 1941 ad depicting a Navy officer in full dress uniform showing a model of a ship to a little boy: "A battleship's biggest battle is fought before she's launched, lad. It's fought at the drawing boards of engineers, in the test-tubes of laboratories, at the lathes and forges of industry. And the Navy counts on the brains and brawn of the thousands of men who made the ship just as much as it counts on the valor and fitness of the men who man it in battle."

Bennett: Time for urgent debate on Afghan war

The American Locomotive Co., in 1942, created an ad that showed a Nazi judge flanked by two henchmen, staring down toward a defendant. The headline: "They'll Give You a Fresh Start in Life." The text: "This is a Nazi court. Maybe none of us will ever have to face one ... we hope. They specialize in giving people fresh starts in life. All that you've ever had ... your home, your bank account, the very clothes off your back, your family, even your self-respect ... they take from you."

The underlying reason for the ad was to let readers know that American Locomotive was a part of the war effort. Quite apart from that, though, was a message that was implied in almost all the World War II ads. Here's how American Locomotive put it:

"For this is a people's war. This is a war in which we, the people, win or lose ... in which we, the people, earn the right to live our own lives or to lose them. And you -- and we who sign this advertisement -- are the people."

There are significant and much-discussed differences between World War II and the wars in which the United States became involved during the last decade. And there is no military draft; the men and women who fight the wars today are volunteers. Perhaps that is a big contributor to the feeling that civilians at home have an arm's length -- a many-arms' length -- remove from the battlefields.

Which makes going through the newspaper and magazine ads from the 1940s so absorbing. The U.S. corporations did everything they could to aggressively link themselves with the war effort. It feels very much like how companies today strive to tie themselves to the Olympic Games or to the National Football League. Reading those old advertisements, it is as if each major firm wanted to be seen as an official sponsor of the U.S. armed forces fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

(Speaking of sports and war: How many major-league baseball players do you think served in World War II? According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, more than 500. Is it any wonder that, back home, there was no instinct to forget that a war was going on, or to pretend that it was being waged by strangers?)

From the Western Electric Co., in 1942, a colorful panoramic painting of an officer commanding battlefield operations with a phone receiver held to the side of his face: "In modern battle, our fighting units may be many miles apart. Yet every unit, every movement, is closely knit into the whole scheme of combat -- through communications. Today much of this equipment is made by Western Electric, for 60 years manufacturer for the Bell System."

From Chevrolet, 1945, with a picture of a U.S. warplane above a U.S. ground convoy: "America's Automotive Leader Gears All Its Resources to 'the Biggest Transport Job of All Time' ... On land ... in the air ... all around the world."

From A&P Super Markets, 1943, a painting of a young soldier eating field rations: "The Kid Who Used to Raid the Icebox. Next time you shop for food, keep this boy in mind ... He is the kid who used to come in late at night and 'polish off' mother's meal planned for the next day. Folks used to say he'd eat his parents out of house and home ... He's in the armed services now ... along with millions of other boys. And, of course, he and all his buddies have taken their appetites with them."

Maybe all those ads were there because it was a different kind of war.

Or maybe it was because, back home, this was a different America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

Featured Deal |