War Bonds

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During World War I, the U.S. government raised $5 billion to help pay for its war efforts through the sale of Liberty Bonds, enlisting the aid of celebrities such as actor Douglas Fairbanks. But in general, when people use the term "war bonds," they are referring to those sold during World War II. This is largely because both the number of bonds sold and the scale of the media campaign to promote them were considerably greater than during World War I. World War II was also the last U.S. war to be financed by the sale of bonds.

From May 1, 1941, to Jan. 3, 1946, the Defense (later War) Savings Program, a division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, sold $185.7 billion worth of war bonds through a series of radio spots and print ads, posters, sales drives and mailings. The media provided free space and time estimated to be worth more than $250 million.

Through the War Advertising Council, led by Young & Rubicam's Chester J. LaRoche, agencies donated their services to create advertising for the bonds.

Various segments of the population were targeted with specific appeals. For example, new parents received certificates designed by Walt Disney Studios urging them to buy bonds for their babies. The Inter-Racial Section of the War Savings Program, headed by William Pickens, the field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, targeted the African-American population.

The youth market was also included. Comic book publishers carried ads and columns urging readers to tell their parents to buy bonds and exhorting the youngsters to buy 10¢ defense stamps. The covers of Batman and Superman comics appealed to readers to buy war bonds with slogans such as "Keep those bullets flying" and "Slap a Jap."

The advertising and sale of war bonds went hand in hand with the broader strategy of the ad industry known as "A War Message in Every Ad." Many businesses, such as the California department stores May Co. and Foreman & Clark, promoted the purchase of war bonds as part of their regular advertising.

Bond drives featuring celebrities were another sales tool. In a single day in 1943, singer Kate Smith sold $40 million in bonds in a 16-hour radio session. Actress Loretta Young sold bonds at a Kiwanis meeting, and Hollywood star Betty Grable auctioned off her stockings at a fund-raising event.

Overall, bonds accounted for about a quarter of the U.S. government's costs of waging World War II—and sparked some of the most colorful advertising efforts of the day.

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