Keep Calm and Carry On

March 20, 2012


“Keep Calm and Carry On” was a propaganda war slogan advertised on posters by the British government in 1939 at the beginning of WWII. The slogan’s purpose was to boost the U.K.’s morale in case of invasion. Back then, as it wasn’t widely distributed (2,500,000 copies were printed, but it was put up in limited numbers), not many knew of it, and no one knows who designed it. But in the year 2000, the poster was recovered and has since been re-issued by many private sector companies and even used as a decorative theme for a variety of other products. Only two known surviving examples of the poster existed outside of the government archives until a collection of around 20 originals were brought to the Antiques Roadshow in 2012 by the descendant of an ex-Royal Observer Corps member.

The poster was actually third in a three-part series. The other two posters read, “Freedom Is In Peril. Defend It With All Your Might” (400,000 printed), and “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” (800,000 printed). These were all distributed, as the Ministry of Information thought that the events in the first few weeks of the war would demoralize the British populace. Planning the posters began in April 1939; by June, designs had been prepared and in August, they went out to the printers, to be put up within 24 hours of the war outbreak. The purpose of the posters were that they were designed to have a uniform device, a design connected with the Ministry of Information, and have a unique and recognizable font with a message from the King to those he governs. The crown icon was chosen to head up the poster instead of a photograph. The slogans were invented by civil servants, with Waterfield, a career civil servant, coming up with “Your Courage” as “a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in everyone of us and put us in an offensive mood at once.” These posters were created as “a statement of the duty of the individual citizen.” During the war, the “Your Courage” poster was actually more popular, since it was very large, the first to be put up, and the first of the Ministry of Information’s posters. The press, who were afraid of being censored, created a backlash, and so much of the material related to these posters has been kept by archives.

The “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was discovered in 2000 in Barter Books. Because Crown Copyright expires on artistic works created by the United Kingdom government after 50 years, the image is now in the public domain. So the store’s owners, Mary and Stuart Manley, could reprint copies at customer request, as did others, inside and outside the U.K. It has since inspired a variety of mugs, doormats, clothing, baby clothes, and other products from many different vendors, as well as a book of inspirational quotes. There are even parodies of the poster with a similar typeface, but a changing of the logo or phrase (for example, “Keep Calm And Aim For The Head”) have been sold as well.

The Bagehot column in The Economist says that the poster’s popularity is because of a “nostalgia for a certain British character, an outlook” and “it taps directly into the country’s mythic image of itself: unshowily brave and just a little stiff, brewing tea as the bombs fall.” The message is current in light of the late-2000s recession and is an unofficial motto of British nurses; the poster now appears in staff rooms on hospital wards. Merchandise has been sold by the bulk by American financial firms and advertising agencies and is even popular, ironically, in Germany.

The poster has since appeared in many places, from the prime minister’s strategy unit at 10 Downing Street, the United States embassy in Belgium, and the Lord Chamberlain’s office in Buckingham Palace. 41,000 posters have been sold from 2001 – 2009. The poster and its subsequent parodies have appeared in many forms of pop culture, from the Mario videogames to Prince William and Princess Kate’s marriage.

In August 2011, a United Kingdom-based company called “Keep Calm and Carry On Ltd” tried to register the slogan as a community trademark in the European Union after being unable to trademark the slogan in the U.K. They even issued a “take-down request” against a distributor of Keep Calm and Carry On products. Some have wondered whether the registration can be challenged, since the slogan had been widely distributed prior to registration and is not “recognizable as indicating trade origin.” Trade Market Direct, a British intellectual property advisor and U.K. trademarketing service, has submitted an application to cancel the trademark since the words are too widely used for one person to even own exclusive rights. The company is now attempting to trademark globally in the U.S. and Canada.

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