Flashback to 1933: US ad industry digs Hitler

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

It's pretty well-known that Hitler and his propaganda minister, Paul Joseph Goebbels, looked to American advertising for inspiration. What I didn't realize was how proud the advertising industry was about it. In its July 20, 1933, issue, Printers' Ink, one of the lead advertising trade journals of its time, speaks approvingly of Hitler's methods:

[Hitler] has depended almost entirely upon slogans made effective by reiteration, made general by American advertising methods...[S]logans on billboards and newspapers and in publications of national circulation have made a new Germany which has raised much excitement, made many changes.

Many changes, indeed. And many more to come!

It continues:

"As is well known, the word propaganda in Germany is used synonymously with the word advertising. Although in this country and in Great Britain propaganda has the unfortunate connotation of being free instead of being paid for, this distinction does not exist in Germany."

Ah, yes, that unfortunate connotation of freedom! Interesting that this is the only negative connotation of "propaganda" at this time. In fact, the (American) author makes sure to point out that in the Hitler speech that follows the word "propaganda" should be read as "advertising." Apparently, the trade mag wants credit for schooling the Führer.

The article then goes on to quote Hitler at length talking about something that Americans who worked in advertising at the time already believed: that the masses are morons who respond only to simple messages repeated thousands of times (a perspective I discuss at length in my book).

Seventy-some years later, this belief is as popular with the powers that be as it was in 1933. Which, if nothing else, provides a shred of evidence connecting the makers of the Head-On commercial to the Nazis.


  1. I don’t know why this is shocking. THe propaganda posters made between WW1 and WW2 in Germany look great. Very impactful. We still borrow form the graphic artists at the time for inspiration. Neue Grotesk is the basis for Helvetica that is used everywhere today. It was created and refined in Germany and Switzerland in the ’30s.

    Remember, the medium can be separated from the message.

  2. Major US industrialists were invited to Hitler’s birthday in the 30’s while e made his rise to power— and many attended, as it was good business… and let us not forget the well documented case of Prescott Bush arranging for sales and support of his endeavors. Just s Rumsefeld himself gave Saddam a pair of golden spurs as a gift before later turing on him, the US corporate and political interests align themselves, consistently with those they can profit from– with morality and ethics rarely a consideration

  3. Monkeythumpa,

    The fact that you used the word “impactful” suggests that you may be a little close to the industry to understand why this sort of thing is problematic, and why you can’t simply divorce the aesthetic from its content.

  4. “The article then goes on to quote Hitler at length talking about something that Americans who worked in advertising at the time already believed: that the masses are morons who respond only to simple messages repeated thousands of times.”

    Messages Like “Change we can believe in.”

  5. In US it was not only the ad-industry that loved Hitler. Check TIME 1939 Man of the Year.

    Time’s “Man of the Year” isn’t (or at least wasn’t) meant to signify the most awesome person in the last 12 months, but rather “who had the biggest impact.”

    For good or for ill (I vote ill) you can’t deny that Hitler was a pretty significant player on the world stage in 1939.

  6. It’s easy for us to demonize Hitler (not that it requires much work…) but we do like to forget that at that time, many politicians in the US openly agreed with Hitler and were shameless anti-Semites.

  7. The power of psychology of the masses, and mass media, was just being discovered in that era.

    Carrie McLaren misses the fact that this type of actual, practical demonstration of the techniques pioneered on Madison Avenue is an important milestone in the history of the mind. It taught us a lot, even if its lessons were mostly learned in retrospect.

    Until you come up with a time machine to kill Hitler as a baby, don’t you think it’s important to learn that lesson instead of recoiling from it?

  8. Dogwin’s Law: “As a discussion of Nazis or Hitler grows longer, the probability of a comparison to Barack Obama approaches 1.”

    — MrJM

  9. TIME did not name Hitler Man of the Year as an honor. There are a lot of people who were important for dubious reasons named MOY. (Stalin, Khomeni, Putin).

  10. MRJM:

    You can learn the lesson AND recoil from it. Understanding that the power of advertising can lead to the rise of Hitler should make you more circumspect about how you sell soap, not more proud.

  11. “TIME did not name Hitler Man of the Year as an honor. There are a lot of people who were important for dubious reasons named MOY. (Stalin, Khomeni, Putin).”

    Here you can see the power of mass psychology at work again. TIME lets the public know, in this instance, who they should hate.

  12. @#10

    Until you come up with a time machine to kill Hitler as a baby, don’t you think it’s important to learn that lesson instead of recoiling from it?

    My take is that Carrie is pointing it out precisely so we learn from it.


    we do like to forget that at that time, many politicians in the US openly agreed with Hitler and were shameless anti-Semites.

    This is an excellent point (let’s also not forget notorious Nazi-funders Ford, ITT, et al) and speaks to the larger issue raised in this post: mass propaganda/advertising will always feed on ignorance of the audience. In our time, we in the US were raised to believe that the US fought WWII because of Nazi policies. That is just another example (albeit more insidious) of mass propaganda at work.


    Messages Like “Change we can believe in.”

    Well, yeah. I personally think over-simplified, repetition instead of actual information is bad even if I agree with the agenda, as I do with the Prez.

  13. Every year Time announces a Man of the Year. And every year they have to explain that naming someone Man of the Year doesn’t imply that they approve of the guy.

  14. “My take is that Carrie is pointing it out precisely so we learn from it.”

    If you get that lesson, good. I don’t see that point being made. At the very least the misreading of the entire point of the meaning (much less the connotation) of the word “free” as evidenced by the commentary, “that unfortunate connotation of freedom!” …Any middle-schooler should be expected to have interpreted that passage as manifestation of profit motive from the for-profit advertising industry.

  15. #3 brought up Prescott Bush and his support for the Nazi’s but don’t think it was only conservatives that liked and supported Hitler. Joseph Kennedy (the father of JFK) was a huge supporter of Hitler and advocated leaving the Brits to their own and siding with the Nazi’s, and this was while he was the US ambassador to the UK.

    For a while before the truth of what Hitler was actually doing, there were lots of people who suggested we side with him and fight the Soviets.

    It’s easy to look back today and see he was a very evil man but at the time it was much more blurry as to who he was.

  16. I’m well aware of the difference between free speech and free beer. That comment was a joke.

  17. “It’s easy to look back today and see he was a very evil man but at the time it was much more blurry as to who he was.”

    No it wasn’t.

    So it was true – the American Protestant press and the Nazi persecution of the Jews

    This book had the shock effect that its author intended, and became a minor bestseller in Holocaust studies circles. It shattered forever the illusion that American Christians didn’t know about the Holocaust, and laid bare the moral question, still debated to this day: If they did know so much, why did they do nothing?

    We knew, we approved of what Hitler was doing. We are all equally guilty.

  18. It’s like I always say, if that art school had just kept him on for another year he would have got a job advertising beans and saved us all a lot of trouble.

  19. The other interesting Hitler/Madison avenue connection is Edward Bernays. Anyone vaguely interested in propaganda should look him up.

    He was Freud’s double nephew, he created the term Public Relations, he taught the CIA how to cover up its coups, he got women smoking cigarettes, persuaded the US goverment to abandon railways and invest in freeways, and he wrote a charming little essay called “The Engineering of Consent” that became Goebbels bible… so much so that Goebbels wanted him to work for the nazi’s, despite the fact that he was Jewish.

    Bernays believed that democracy can’t work but traditional authority is eroding rapidly, so what “democracies” need is a class of professionals who could rule by attaching ruling agendas to base sentiment and widespread psychological needs (security, hope, whatever).


  20. @Carrie McLaren: You might want to work on your delivery. There’s not much to indicate that there is any humor in your post. That isolated ‘joke’ is well camouflaged amidst the other handwringing.

    On Bernays, I’d be VERY surprised if he didn’t have some involvement in the article, at least as some patron of the ad industry.

  21. Larry Tye wrote an fascinating and relevant book called “The Father of Spin,” which documents the early 20th century career of a Mr. Eddie Bernays, whose over-the-top innovations of marketing attracted the attention of Goebbels. Goebbels credited Bernays’ book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” with giving him a lot of good ideas for Nazi propaganda tactics.

  22. For more on Bernays, I highly recommend watching Adam Curtis’s “Century of the Self”


    which you can of course, find in YouTube/GoogleVideo.

    It makes clear to me why the War on Terror is yet another one of these mass psychology manipulation strategies that are played upon the world by our leaders.

  23. @#9: Thank you MRJM, thank you. :-) It’s a gift. Please don’t ask me to teach you my wisdom because it’s something which cannot be transmitted; when I leave this world I will take it with me.

  24. Bernays and Goebbels met, if I remember correctly from his autobiography also called _The Engineering of Consent_. Goebbels praised Bernays’ _Propaganda_, and that he used it as a textbook. Bernays was one of Colonel House’s boys back in the Treaty of Versailles days after WWI, the first official propaganda outfit of the US.

    About the only thing Bernays admitted to regretting was his campaign to get women to smoke.

    I tried to arrange a video conversation between Noam Chomsky and Edward Bernays at one time. Bernays expressed great admiration for Chomsky and asked for a copy of his _Manufacturing Consent_. After reading it, he refused to participate in the project.

  25. Elias Canetti points out Hitler’s repeated incantation of “millions” had a mesmerizing effect on his audience.

    In one speech http://www.hitler.org/speeches/02-01-33.html we have

    “millions of the best German men and women”

    “Millions of the industrial proletariat”

    “millions of unemployed”

    “millions of peasants, bourgeois, and workers”

  26. The more I think about it, the more compelling the parallels between Mad Men and the hierarchy of the Nazi regime become…

    “Wütende Männer” anyone?

  27. Bill Streeter

    Early 20th century progressive intellectuals loved fascism. You can find all sorts of praise for Mussolini from all the leading lights of the left in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

    It was only when Stalin decided that he didn’t like the competition and started calling fascism a movement of the political right in the mid 1930s that American leftist intellectuals became less enthusiastic about it.

  28. Another form of repetition was that AH practiced and repeated his stage persona – a whole lot. The filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was an invaluable asset as she made her studio and film production equipment – from cameras to developing tanks – available for Hitlers private usage. She lit him and shot scenes as he practiced the dramatic arts for his speeches, so he could study and analyze them like a Hollywood Mogul reviewing the daily rushes, re-shooting, re-scripting, and refining his technique and delivery over and over to develop the greatest impact. Film was the teleprompter of it’s day and Hitler was an ardent practitioner.

  29. @#2

    You must have never heard of fraktur. The fraktur fonts were abolished after WW2 mostly because they smell of Hitler.

    Helvetica was a great sucess, mostly because it had absolutely no connection to the old Europe that existed before 1945!

    The Helvetica and Bauhaus type of Europe existed before 1945 only in very small leftwing artist circles, only in the 1950s it became mainstream.

  30. Hmmmmm…repetitive figures such as “congress shall make no law” and “…shall not be infringed” don’t seem to have penetrated in certain circles. Of course, certain circles may not have read that particular “ad.”

  31. If anyone care to look up the information, several books on this subject have been written.

    One of these sources is available online:
    Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler by Antony C. Sutton.

    Although the book has several flaws, Charles Higham’s, Trading With the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot is well worth a read. You find that one of Hitler’s most ardent supporters was Henry Ford, author of the International Jew, and one of many industrialists who helped Hitler come to power with direct (and indirect) financial aid.

    Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler’s Rise to Power also directs its investigation into the money trail behind Hitler’s rise to power and focuses less on his “magnetic personality”. Pool’s research, like the two previous suggestions, tries to show how industrialists sought to profit from the regime, how other European (and American) leaders, afraid of “Bolshevism”, assisted in propping up Hitler against their fears while ignoring the internal behavior of the National Socialists in the process. Much of this activity went well into the Second World war with many companies breaking the Trading with the Enemy Act by doing business with Germany while Germany was committed to a war of aggression with America.

    Just a quick FYI.

  32. the American media have gone far beyond the simple message. Between focus groups, subliminal messaging, spin, and newspeak, we now live in an Orwellian world where real meaning has been lost in favor of bare knuckles, win at all cost greed and hunger for power.

    The tools of Goebbels, Stalin, and Mao are now refined and redefined to sell soft drinks, politicians, and breakfast cereal, all without meaning or depth.

  33. I don’t know how Time felt about him, but Princeton’s freshman class voted Hitler the “greatest living being” in October 1939 (a month after he invaded Poland, almost a year after Kristallnacht), and again in October 1940 (after the fall of France).

  34. “Propaganda” in Portuguese also means only “advertising”. This makes complete sense, the English use is the one that seems distorted to me. “Propaganda” stems from “propagate”/”spread aroud”, just as “advertising” stems from “advertise”.

  35. Hayek’s book has it exactly right: Hitler was the socialists’ Man Who Could Get Things Done.

    This was also around the time Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer for reporting on what a great utopia Stalin was building, while millions of Ukrainians were being systematically starved to death by the Soviet regime.

    raised much excitement, made many changes.

    So… Hitler promised Hope and Change.

  36. Coroallry to Dogwin’s Law: “In any discussion of Nazis or Hitler, the probability of a comparison to Barack Obama being preceded by a comparison to George W. Bush is exceedingly high, which the odds of this being noticed by people complaining about the Obama comparison is exceedingly now.”

  37. Wow. I’m shocked… just shocked!

    You’d almost think that people in the 30’s didn’t know hitler was going to start a war and kill a few million people just because they happened to be gay, mentally ill, romany, jewish or whatnot.

    1. Most people were shocked at the end of the war by what they found in German-occupied territories. The Third Reich didn’t exactly advertise what they were doing in the concentration camps.

  38. First of all, I don’t know, for the life of me, how or why or how, for fucks sake, anyone can compare either G.W. Bush or Obama to Hitler. Its just bullshit.

    Second of all (I’m not a history or political scholar), it seems to me, whether you’re talking about socialism, fascism, communism, or whatever ism you’d like – its easy to to tell who the bad guys are. They are the ones who, in even the slightest way, take into account the race of people as a factor in the world’s problems.

    Its evil and stupid.

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