Keep Calm and Cut it OUT!

Keep Calm and Cut it OUT!

I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough. You have got to make it STOP. I’m begging you. If you, or someone you know, or someone who knows someone you know is thinking about producing a poster, or a t-shirt, or a print ad or ANY type of advertising material with some tortured rip-off of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, don’t let them. Talk them out of it. 

If you are somehow not aware of this whole “Keep Calm and…” craze, I would like a spot in the corner of your doomsday bunker. You are obviously completely off the grid.

If you ARE aware of the craze then you probably own a t-shirt telling people to “…Chive On” or “…Cupcake On” or any of half a million other lame and annoying final couplets parodying the phrase. Some of them don’t even start with “Keep Calm…”. Sometimes the entire message will be replaced with something else but the design and the look of the piece will be mimicked. Those are even more annoying. They don’t even retain the economy of words and very British feel of the original. 

Seriously…just STOP IT! 

I’m sorry, I really need to Keep Calm, here. Aaaaaahhh!! Now I’m doing it, too!

Although everyone is giddily ripping it off, the original “Keep Calm…” poster is somewhat obscure. It was  part of what is widely considered a failed public relations campaign. The plug was pulled on the whole thing and all of the posters printed were SUPPOSED to have been destroyed. But, NOOOOOO…a couple dozen of them survived and now we have all of THIS!

In 1939, England was under the reign of King George VI (the same King George portrayed by Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”). It was obvious to the King, Churchill and the various Ministries of government that Germany was going to attack Great Britain. Many feared Germany would launch a ground invasion.

In April of ’39, officials from the Ministry of Information (MOI) and His Majesty’s Treasury roughed out three posters to be used at various stages of unrest and in the event of an attack. Work progressed on the wording and design of all three posters over that summer. The three designs were finalized by early August of 1939 and then printed by His Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO).

The first two posters were not as forward as the “Keep Calm…” poster. Telling someone to “Keep Calm…” indicates the person being instructed is somehow agitated. The first two posters made more general statements about the populous and about the situation. The first said, on a field of dark green: “FREEDOM IS IN PERIL; DEFEND IT WITH ALL YOUR MIGHT”.  The second, on a sedate blue background said: “YOUR COURAGE; YOUR CHEERFULNESS; YOUR RESOLUTION; WILL BRING US VICTORY” where “your” in each phrase was underlined. Both appeared under the same Tudor Crown icon that appears on the “Keep Calm…” poster. The Tudor Crown was the “logo” of the house of King George VI and its use was intended to give the posters the feel of a proclamation from the King. The first two posters were released immediately.

The third, the “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” poster, was not immediately sanctioned for public display. Two and a half million of the posters were printed between August and September of 1939 by the HMSO. It was determined they would be kept in storage, to be released only in the event of serious air attacks or invasion. The “Keep Calm…” posters were printed on a field of bright red. Even though the message itself was calmly British, the red color along with the all caps typesetting was saying, “oh, crap…we are in TROUBLE!”

The first two posters…no pun intended…bombed. The campaign was a huge failure. Many people claimed they didn’t even see the posters. Those who did see them felt they indicated the huge disconnect between the government and the attitudes of the citizenry. The posters pointed up the fact that the royals and civil servants were not aware of the mood of the people.

The campaign was costly and entirely missed the mark. The whole thing was shut down by October of 1939…with 2.5 million “Keep Calm…” posters still in storage.  Starting in April of 1940, those poster stocks were pulped as part of Britain’s “Paper Salvage” campaign.

If they’d gotten ’em all, we wouldn’t have this mess today! A handful survived. The poster was largely forgotten until 2000 when Stuart Manley of Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland (a town of about 8000 in the North East region of England) discovered one of the posters in an old stack of books he had purchased at auction.

Manley found it quaint and somehow moving. He framed the 29.5  inch by 19.75 inch wide poster and hung it by the cash register in his shop. His customers also enjoyed the poster and requested reproductions. Manley obliged, mayhem ensued. Estimates put the number of parodies and rip-offs of the poster at nearly a million worldwide. It has been called “the most iconic image of the 21st century.”

It was thought that fewer than a dozen of the original two and a half million posters survived. Manley had a copy and there were copies on file in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum in London.

Then, in February of 2012, Moragh Turnbull showed up at the British version of “Antiques Roadshow” with 15-20 of the posters. Her father had been a member of the “Royal Observer Corps”, a British Civil Defense group. He was given a stack of posters to put up in case of attack. After the campaign was cancelled, he never turned them back in for pulping.

When told the iconic posters were originals, and she might have the largest and most valuable store of the items in existence, Turnbull said she was “gobsmacked”.

Gobsmacked…that’s exactly how I’m going to feel if I see another lame parody of the poster. Seriously, cut it OUT!

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

Illustration provided by Allen Stare

The original campaign as created in the summer of 1939. It has been declared by design historians as a “resounding failure.”

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