Beginning in the late nineteenth century, wealthy Americans became obsessed with the motorcar. The development of the gasoline motor in 1893 brought the age of the automobile rolling into the twentieth century.2 As early as 1905, when 86% of all automobiles sold ran on petroleum fuel, gasoline-powered cars dominated the market.3 Once Henry Ford created the assembly line for the Model T a few years later, cars became an icon of the American way.

Unfortunately, the good times would not last for long. When the Great Depression arose, automobile sales plummeted as the nation watched its savings disappear. In the end, Americans took to the road with what was often the only possession they had left: the family car. Driving across the country, looking for work and a better life was a common cause of motor-propelled migration. As the demand for gasoline rose exponentially, the United States was thrown abruptly into World War II. Although the need for fuel to power tanks, airplanes, and ships overseas soon came to the forefront of national importance, many Americans were hesitant to give up what they saw as an essential commodity.

Previous researchers, including Stanley Cunningham, Nicholas Cull, David Culbert, and David Welch, have aimed to establish the power of “traditional propaganda.” Cunningham defines this term as targeting a mass audience with the intent of rousing support by presenting ideas and facts as convincingly as possible.4 Creating effective propaganda takes a well-organized and clever strategy, involving both fact and fiction. Findings have suggested that some level of truth must be incorporated into the message for it to be persuasive.5 Additionally, researcher Stanley Newcourt-Nowodworski identified a form of messaging known as “black propaganda,” which is used to portray the subject as a villain or vicious monster.6 With the gasoline-rationing campaign, the government did not employ “black propaganda” often; rather, it used more simple forms of manipulation, such as dramatic captions about the war and the fuel shortage.

When the Office of War Information instituted a formal campaign to carpool, conserve, and ration gasoline in 1942, the public was immediately up in arms.7 Consequently, a failure of the fuel conservation movement seemed imminent with a high likelihood of angry outcries and protests. The only potentially effective response to this resistance was to psychologically manipulate and to persuade the hearts and minds of the American people. However, it wasn’t enough to create artistic posters and slogans for fuel conservation to be a success. Private businesses, as well as the government, lost billions of dollars in revenue and support due to the gasoline rationing. Despite the government’s strong push through the use of colorful and catchy propaganda posters, gasoline rationing during World War II was a failure.

A propaganda campaign, “distinguished from other forms of communication in that it is consciously and deliberately used to influence group attitudes,” can be traced back to the sixteenth century or even earlier.8 Most propaganda campaigns consisted of a photographic or artistic representation, such as radio and film advertising, of a conflict and the need for a resolution through the implied directions within the propaganda. Initially, the main reason for artistic propaganda was due to the high illiteracy rate among the public. For propaganda to be successful, there was a need for subtle psychological manipulation.9 Two ways to achieve subtle psychological manipulation are through positive or negative methods. The “positive” emotion method in a poster puts the cause on the offensive by refuting the enemy’s assertions.10 For example, declaring that an enemy’s statement is a boldfaced lie can focus attention on on the topic being addressed. The other method is the “negative” attempt, a defensive measure. Government leaders and propaganda offices have often depended on the belief that “if [a lie is] turned into a slogan, and repeated often enough, [it] is to be half believed.”11 The overall point of propaganda is to be as eye-catching as possible to draw a person in, then to persuade their emotions to encourage action on behalf of the cause.

In wartime, a propaganda poster’s message strived to inspire patriotism and to bring the populous together for the common good. Victory would never come if “you neglect to use every channel in your fight against [the enemy].”12 During World War II, officials in the Office of War Information hypothesized that if the government could inspire people to fight the Axis powers on the home front as well as overseas, victory was guaranteed. Thus, a campaign to ration was created. Rationing allowed the government to take control of all resources deemed important for the war effort—everything from food to clothing to scrap metal was collected.13

Unfortunately, the fuel-rationing campaign was a disastrous failure. The situation did not improve until a nation-wide program of forced ration cards and coupons began. Beginning in the spring of 1942, the general American citizen would receive a Class B ration car. (see fig. 6). It was specifically for passenger cars and provided for nineteen punches, based on the schedule of the Federal Register.14 There were 3,148,994 of these cards issued between May 15 and June 30, 1942. 15 The procedure still did not deter the majority of dissenter ; The American public found ways to keep their automobiles out on the open road.

The government had a strong interest in the use of rationing to help sustain the economy, while also providing for troops overseas. Rationing takes money away from certain commodities; for example, if a person can buy five gallons of gasoline a week and only spends $1.50, part of their income is left to spend on non-rationed goods. This excess cash, in turn, helps boost the economy. The conserved commodities can be used overseas or wherever they happen to be needed most at the time.16 Although valid in theory, it proved very difficult to convince an economically-uneducated public of the benefits for rationing.

The government saw fuel as be a major sticking point for both public and private businesses, and even tried to convince automakers to secretly go along with hopeful defense plans for the country, involving the heightened use of cars and fuel overseas.17Most members of the public remained unconvinced about the necessity of rationing and few, if any, attempts at encouraging conservation of commodities, like gasoline, made a considerable difference. In this case, the efforts to manipulate the public using propaganda repeatedly failed. Americans saw the government as trying to reverse the progress the economy had made since the 1920s. In an article for the Nation’s Business, Lawrence Sullivan reported about the clear negativity of the campaigns, especially the effort to ration gasoline:

“It took American business almost a quarter century to make the automobile a household necessity…might it be possible for [the government] by sheer authority of hasty and ill-considered executive orders, to undo all this work in six months?”18

The public saw rationing campaigns as bullying and a use of fear to manipulate the home front to a significantly reduced standard of living. Accounts of hoarding portrayed the widespread panic caused by the government. Yet, federal officials continued to produce new propaganda, and later resorted to forced ration cards, in the attempt to keep the war effort strong. The feelings and “needs” of the general public did not seem to matter.

Despite the overwhelming disapproval of the American public, rationing was increased. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the government increased their propaganda output of posters, films, and speeches. Posters were one of the more effective media to persuade the public; however, they continually failed to make a significant difference in the fuel-rationing campaign. The American public would not be voluntarily swayed by propaganda. Although the Great Depression only saw the total number of passenger cars properly registered increase from roughly 23 million to 28 million between 1930 and 1946, the government insisted that people not travel over a speed of 35 miles an hour.19 Unfortunately, the United States was still a country running on the “need” for cars, dashing down roads as fast as one pleased.20

The poster campaign for fuel rationing officially began in 1942. One of the first examples included the slogan “Should brave men die so you can drive…?”21 Appearing early in the year, the poster displayed a torpedo-stricken tanker clearly sinking with its crew on boar. (see fig. 1). Depictions such as these became commonplace, as more and more rations looked inevitable for the country. Shortages were on the horizon, especially in the winter months when fuel was used for vehicles as well as heating homes.Furthermore, it was difficult to deliver the fuel to the homes because of rations for vehicles. The fuel economy was a complete mess, and people were angry.

By August of 1942, predictions indicated that there would be a twenty-five percent shortage that would linger throughout the winter.22 Posters of torpedoed ships didn’t help heat homes or fuel cars for the home front; people were not swayed, only more disheartened with the government’s efforts to limit the needs of the public. A frustrated populace signified the end for the campaign.23 Rationing slowly eroded the home economy and quickly depleted morale. Although fuel was only a sliver of the commodities being held back, few believed giving up gasoline would do anything but inconvenience the average American citizen.