Fortunes of war

In a mere 50 years the UK economy has swung from one extreme to another. During World War Two, prices were rigid and big-name companies found themselves forced to co-operate rather than compete. Then came peace and the single most important fa

Imagine walking into your local supermarket and all the shelves are empty except one. Necessities are allocated by coupon. Brand names of certain products are removed, with different flavours indicated by numbers. Newspapers have only four pages – with a limit of 40 per cent advertising space. Prices are fixed to prevent competition. Credit and hire purchase are banned. And if you are not registered with the store you cannot have couponed products at all. This was Britain on VE Day, 50 years ago.

The contrast with today is staggering: marketers are now able to raise and lower prices virtually at will, there are hundreds of different brands and own-labels, dozens of TV channels and thousands of magazines and newspapers to advertise in; credit is the standard form of payment.

Fifty years ago the economy was turned upside down by war. Car production virtually stopped. The Government commandeered retailers’ storage space – including Marks & Spencer’s main office in Baker Street which became headquarters for the Special Operations Executive. Retailers such as Boots, Woolworths, Dorothy Perkins and Sainsbury’s, which had experienced massive growth in the Thirties, closed many stores because of bomb damage.

When war broke out in 1939 the Government had contingency plans in operation to run a war economy. The Ministry of Food was established, and people were issued with Ministry of Food Ration Cards and given coupons for their food. Items such as sugar, butter and bacon were the first to be rationed, followed by tea, margarine, cooking fats and, later, clothing.

Prices were fixed and competition eliminated to protect the market share of smaller companies that had closed. They also shared the profits of larger companies which were allowed to remain open.

Companies had to co-operate. Cadbury and Rowntree combined to make National Milk Cocoa – from 1943 onwards – in response to demands from the Ministry of Food for a high-protein drink. This was supplied through works’ canteens to those under 18 years of age. The product was withdrawn in 1945 because it had a tendency to congeal.

British companies helped each other when stocks were low to assist the war effort. Cadbury had only four wartime products: two bars and two drinking chocolates, which were variously made with powdered milk or no milk.

Some companies were able to turn the war to their advantage. The lack of refrigeration benefited Supply Pressed American Meat (otherwise known as SPAM). It was imported from the US in vast quantities because tinned pork shoulder kept longer than fresh meat.

Cadbury used the lack of refrigeration as a selling point. One ad said: “There is no other dairy product that keeps as long as milk chocolate, without costly refrigeration. That is why milk chocolate is such a good way of preserving summer milk.”

Some brands were able to dodge Government restrictions. Although the Ribena name was dropped, the Beecham product was issued free to babies under a ministry label, and then to expectant mothers and nursing mothers. “The country’s entire blackcurrant crop was given over to the production of this syrup. The makers of Ribena were entrusted with most of the production,” says a SmithKline spokeswoman.

Other companies were not as fortunate. Mars launched Milky Way and Maltesers during the war – but only Mars bars were available in the UK. A spokeswoman says: “Mars bars were only supplied to UK grocers and allied forces canteens around the world.” Mars encouraged consumers to slice and share the bars.

Major advertisers tried to keep their brand names in the public consciousness, even though many of their products such as biscuits, soft drinks, cars, tyres, soap-flakes and fireworks were unavailable.

Advertising wasn’t easy. Newsprint was rationed until December 1956, rendering any systematic advertising campaign virtually impossible. National newspapers were restricted to four pages. Newspaper circulation promotions were banned, sale-or-return abolished and ads were restricted to small sizes because of the shortage of newsprint.

Most advertising was on behalf of the Government and the war effort. Between March 1940 and June 1945 Gov-

ernment expenditure reached 9.5m, with about 34 dep-

artments using advertising.

Ads featured information about ID cards, air-raid shelters, encouraging the land army to “Dig for victory”, economy in the home, avoiding venereal disease in the services, spending, eating and saying less and generally conserving more. But the Government’s most successful work was in convincing the British

people that rationing and austerity was not only necessary, but enjoyable.

It achieved this by projecting the idea that everybody

was equal. Ration books were issued to the Royal © Family and members of the Cabinet, although the well-off managed to get around rationing by eating in restaurants and trading on the black market.

In such circumstances, marketers had few options. Encouraged, however, by the Advertising Association, some continued to advertise in a limited form. The AA ran ads telling companies that goodwill was a valuable asset – a message which needed to be sustained through advertising.

“Don’t allow interest in your product to languish in war-time. Maintain regular contact with your public, and so keep alive the prestige and reputation built up for your products in past years,” said one ad.

Companies donated newspaper ad space to the Government, with “Space presented by…” running underneath. And because goods were allocated rather than aggressively sold, the nature of promotion also changed. The public was encouraged to consume less and conserve more. The State urged them to use products sparingly and make them last longer to help the war effort. “Viyella socks that do not shrink save more coupons than you think,” ran one message.

Van den Bergh set up the Stork Cookery Service to answer housewives’ questions on balanced diets during rationing. The accompanying advertisements said: “This service is sponsored by the makers of Stork margarine in the confident belief that when victory has been finally achieved, Stork margarine will once again be

available to the discerning housewife.”

But appealing to consumers through reminder campaigns was no preparation for the competitive onslaught from overseas manufacturers that followed the war.

Although the British economy had increased self-sufficiency in food production from 30 per cent to 80 per cent in the war years, and far outstripped German production levels, after 1945 British companies became vulnerable to more commercially aggressive US manufacturers which had not suffered the same privations.

Coca-Cola, for instance, had managed to avoid sugar rationing in the US because it convinced the authorities that its soft drink was a necessary part of the patriotic war effort. It was specially shipped to GIs stationed abroad.

Like other multinational companies, Coca-Cola was able to operate commercially in Germany throughout much of the war. It was supplied until 1942, when the Nazis banned it. In his book For God, Country and Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast says German Coca-Cola representatives gave “Zieg Heil” salutes to swastikas at sales conventions. The firm even launched an orange-flavoured drink in Germany in 1941 with a name which Germans believed celebrated the “fantastic” Third Reich and Nazism – Fanta. It continued to be distributed as a product of Coca-Cola Gmbh throughout the war.

Nestlé sold its products in Germany and Italy throughout the war.

The end of the war did not bring about the end of rationing. Bread rationing was introduced in 1946 and lasted for two years, while regulations on soft drinks were lifted and competition re-introduced in October 1947. Food rationing lasted until 1954 – the year before commercial TV was introduced.

Multinational firms needed to return markets to their pre-war state. Assisted by aid through the Marshall Plan, US companies were able to exploit markets as they were being rebuilt.

But it was not only greater levels of investment that helped kick-start the British economy and suck in imports. The post-war settlement also provided the single most important contribution to marketing: the Welfare State. Unlike the US, Britain had always suffered from a restricted consumer market because of the relative impoverishment of the working class.

Marketers in this country have always tried to find ways to alleviate the problem of saturated consumer markets by introducing credit facilities. However, during the war it became apparent that welfare provision could actually free restricted markets.

Massive State intervention provided nutrition to the poorest sections of the community. In 1938 one third of the population was chronically undernourished. By 1940 to 1941 food rationing had eliminated this problem.

The Welfare State – in the form of free education, health and social security – assisted the growth of consumer markets. For the first time, the mass market was able to afford consumer goods such as cookers, refrigerators, washing machines and cars.

Despite growth of the Welfare State and the liberalisation of trade over the past

50 years, advertising copy is an area which has had more regulation imposed upon it.

One Cadbury ad from the war would never see the light of day today: “Children have sudden hunger-pangs unknown to adults… A food like Milk Chocolate… gives them all the goodness of the milk the Government wants them to have. By all means ask for Milk Chocolate. There’s not much left, but it’s worth trying to get it for the children’s sake.”