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The Evolution of Civilian War-Related Advertising in France
(Originally published in Journalism History, 19, Autumn 1993.)
By Ross F. Collins
Part One: France
and the Press In War
France and its newspapers suffered terribly during World War I. The declaration of August 4, 1914, preceded a blast of 320,000 German troops through Belgium and onto French territory in less than a month. Paris was under threat; tens of thousands of French troops were sacrificed within a few days to stop German General Helmuth von Moltke's armies from taking the capital. Worried politicians and anti-press generals succeeded in slapping a severe regime of censorship on French media, covering every news story, every feature, every advertisement.
In fact, advertisers were shocked into silence: newspaper advertising fell to nearly nothing those first few weeks of battle. But advertisers soon returned, and they discovered that if the war were here to stay, it could be used to sell.
Because France alone among the western powers was occupied, because the demographic shock of slaughter was so high, and because the French press had thrived so vigorously before the war,(1) research covering French commercial newspaper advertising during this period can offer researchers a sigificant opportunity to study a neglected facet of wartime press activities. In France advertising, and indeed all printed material, suffered more strongly under censorship than in any other Western fighting nation, including authoritarian Germany.(2) The enthusiasm with which censors suppressed or delayed publications, along with war-caused paper shortages, inflation, and staff losses, guaranteed that only the strongest could survive the four and one-half years.(3) It was, noted France's eminent modern press historian, the end of the "golden age of the French press."(4)
Perhaps this is why not only advertising, but French press activities in general during the war years are so understudied: historians prefer to forget a painful and sometimes embarrassing period.(5) It does not explain, however, why historians generally have neglected the wartime press in Europe and North America, most notably advertising during this period. This study attempts to establish modest baseline parameters for this neglected archive, by making a systematic analysis of advertising in 3,082 editions of two major French dailies, every issue from June 15, 1914, through December 31, 1918. (These papers did not publish Sundays, as is common practice for French dailies.)(6)
This study makes a modest attempt at an approach to French media history called "autonomiste" by Albert,(7) in which the role of the advertisement is analyzed through its approach to wartime themes. I have tried to categorize strategies within advertisements, and to chart their evolution of the course of four and one-half years of conflict.
All war-related civilian advertisements from two large provincial dailies are studied, Le Petit Provencal of Marseille and Le Petit Meridional of Montpellier. Both newspapers were major voices in the south: Le Petit Provencal, with an apparent circulation of about 100,000,(8) was one of the largest of five dailies in France's second largest city. Le Petit Meridional, circulation about 70,000, was largest of two papers in this politically important university city.
Both were "journaux d'information," that is, influential papers designed to appeal to a mass audience. France also had its politically polemical press, called "presse d'opinion," newspapers containing long columns of politically-slanted news and commentary. But by World War I, especially outside of Paris, these papers carried tiny circulations and little influence.(9)
Nevertheless, the newspapers studied displayed a tendency to favor politically "leftist" politicians and policies, especially Le Petit Provencal, voice of blue collar class and trade unionists in France's most gauchiste provincial city.(10)
These two papers were analyzed not only for their significant influence, but because as "left-leaning" dailies they tended to become less docile dealing with censorship, and because they were geographically far from Paris and somewhat less influenced by public opinion from the capital.(11) World War I censors generally in France reached far beyond anything encountered by United States publishers. Local censors actually visited each newspaper office daily to read every word of both advertising and news copy.
Needless to say, the scope of the study is limited; I only hope to provide a starting point for researchers who wish to study wartime advertising in a free-press democracy whose advertising and publishing industries were influenced by the war more heavily than any other. How were the war's powerful effects on French society used to make appeals for commercial products? As perception of the war in the news columns and on the street evolved, how did advertisers change their treatment of the war theme? This study traces war as approached by marketers in print.
To begin, it is helpful to chart actual permutations in advertising-to-copy ratios throughout the war. Ad ratios can give a picture of the relative prosperity of the newspapers compared to pre-war standards because these mass-circulation papers, like most in France at this time, relied primarily on ad revenue for income.(12) Pre-war ad ratio of Le Petit Provencal was 20 percent, of Le Petit Meridional, 17 percent. If these ratios seem low to American press historians, it must be pointed out that, unlike U.S. newspapers, French newspapers never could count on American-sized advertising ratios, and still cannot.(13)
Advertising dropped to only 4 percent in Le Petit Provencal, and only 2 percent in Le Petit Meridional during August 1914, the first month of war. By December of that year, Le Petit Provencal had reclaimed its pre-war ad ratio, but Le Petit Meridional could only reach a ratio of 4 percent. This difference is difficult to explain. By 1917, however, both newspapers could count on a ratio at least equal to that sustained before the war; in the case of Le Petit Provencal, it actually was greater, at 22 percent. This ratio shows that despite the war's disruptions of daily death tolls, shortages, strikes, and rapacious inflation,(14) commercial advertisers in France soon returned to their normal business. Studies of British, Canadian, and U.S. advertising during the war agree that wartime advertising in those countries also returned to normal volume.(15)
Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <www.ndsu.edu/communication/collins>
Part Two: Themes During the First Years