The early history of promotional video: Propaganda

Promotional video has a long and rich history. From music videos to television advertisements and digital app promos, video is still one of the best tools in your arsenal when it comes to promoting your product, brand, or service. In this series of posts, we’ll be exploring the history of promotional video to demonstrate how dynamic and ultimately powerful video content can be.

We began this series by looking at the history of music videos, one of the most popular and shareable mediums for promoting records. Record labels were better able to sell their products by utilising a totally new audiovisual medium for them. In this sense, music videos were both promotional and a product in themselves to be consumed by audiences.

 Propaganda image of fist

No discussion of the early history of promotional video content is complete without an exploration of the history of political propaganda. Many of the most influential propaganda videos had a huge impact not just on promotional direction, but also on filmmaking as a whole.

Conflict tended to characterise the early 20th century. There was the two World Wars, but state governments also faced domestic threats from dissenting or differing ideologies, which they perceived as standing in the way of often utopian yet brutal political projects.

At the same time, video technology was undergoing major advances. Film was becoming cheaper and, from the 1920s onwards, the cinema had become an undeniably grand, popular—and most importantly, affordable—pastime. “Cinema in the First World War was a noisy affair. It was full of participation, noise, people speaking, agreeing, disagreeing, booing, shouting, so it wasn’t just something to sit back and consume—this was something [that] audiences could participate with. [Gradually], the authorities realised it could be a very powerful means of communication with mass audiences,” highlights Professor Jo Fox of Durham University.

During the First World War, propaganda was relied upon heavily in order to try and boost the number of people enlisting to go and fight overseas. Film was part of this, and was used widely to boost recruitment and portray the country as winning the war.

 Boots on the Odessa steps from the Battleship Potemkin film

Governments quickly sought to capitalise on filmmaking in order to try and legitimise their rule in the face of contemporary conflicts. The Soviets were early adopters, eager to cement their position after only seizing power a few years prior. Funding was poured into huge, big-budget Eisenstein productions like Battleship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Although these were ostensibly viewed in the way we might view a film like The Avengers—an action thriller—they were also intended to tell a certain kind of story about the ruling party as revolutionaries who seized power from a corrupt, unjust monarchy. Decades later, the Nazis were keen fans of film propaganda, with Joseph Goebbels in particular harbouring a keen interest in filmmaking and the film industry. Despite their anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi message, films like Triumph of the Will are still lauded today for their revolutionary technical achievements.

Early propaganda demonstrates that video is an incredibly powerful medium, and that specific messages and meanings can be encoded into video to produce certain outcomes and reactions in viewers. We may laugh at the over-the-top nature of propaganda videos today, but at the time, they were an incredibly effective means of legitimising the rule and support of certain groups.

We might think of propaganda as something belonging to the past, but we forget that video propaganda is still used today to promote the interests of certain groups and cause the people who view them to fear and believe in them. As we will see in our next post in this series, political propaganda films would come to have a big impact on the world of advertising—from videos promoting cigarettes to car adverts.