Don’t blame the shopkeeper – food adverts demonstrate government control of wartime Britain

The government’s influence on the supply and demand for food available to British consumers during the Second World War went way beyond rationing, according to new research.  

Intervention by the Ministry of Food saw many famous food and drink brands replaced with standard versions while others were only allowed to be sold within specific areas. The study, which also analyses food, drink and confectionery advertising in the Daily Express and Daily Mirror during the war, demonstrates the extent of government control and how this drove the brands to become artful with their advertising. The study is published this month in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing.

The research from the University of Portsmouth, reveals additional measures to rationing that controlled food production, distribution and supply. ‘Zoning’ limited the production of certain products to specific areas and was designed to save fuel, vehicles, and man-power and rail haulage. ‘Pooling’ was the creation of a standard product, such as a single approved margarine, as manufacturers of similar produce were obliged to pool their resources and temporarily relinquish their own brand. The pooling of cheese production, which prohibited the production of all cheeses except cheddar, is why it is still the most popular of cheese in the UK today.

Mick Hayes, lecturer in Marketing and Sales, analysed advertising in some of the popular press of the day to show how the brands reacted to the strict controls by changing their advertising messages to keep consumers informed about, reminded of and interested in their products.

He found adverts in the Daily Mirror by Stork margarine, the top brand of its day, informing its customers that the product would no longer be available in order to help the war effort. Another advert shows why some confectionary was in short supply by illustrating the new zoned areas for sweets and chocolate. Fox’s Glacier Mints ran an advert telling people they would have to say goodbye to the sweets for the duration of the war, while Cadburys chocolate explained to customers that milk shortages meant their product would be replaced by special ‘ration chocolate.’

Mick said: “Brands’ reaction to the zoning and pooling controls was often to explain to customers why products were either unavailable or in limited supply, to apologise and ask for patience. The very clear implication is that consumers expected brands to maintain a supply and could respond negatively if they did not. Advertising messages were created to manage consumers’ expectations and to keep the brand fresh in people’s minds to help ensure their loyalty after the war had ended.

“Brands’ reacting to market conditions is nothing new. We think that strong powerful branding by the likes of Apple and Nike is something we invented recently but the concept has been around since the early twentieth century. Imagine today if there was only one mobile phone available for the next five years. Which brands would continue to remind us that they were still there so we could all go back to using the latest smartphone afterwards?”

Some brands used the general food shortages to promote their product as a substitute. As unlikely as it seems today, an advert by Weetabix in the Daily Express suggests that, while there was a shortage of meat, people would feel just as good eating their product and that it would even save using other products because unlike a bacon sandwich there was no need for butter! 

“The objectives of the controls was different to rationing, which was designed to distribute a limited supply fairly. Zoning and pooling attempted to ensure that the resources used to produce and distribute that supply were as efficient as possible. The policies played a fundamental part in helping British peacetime industry to reorganise into a more efficient wartime model. For example, by August 1943 the average miles travelled by each ton of biscuits had reduced by 50 miles from 158 to 108.

The effect on brands in the food industry was huge but manufacturers had no choice but to play their part to maximise efficiency and resources and help Britain win the war.

The Daily Express and Daily Mirror were chosen due to their high level of circulation. In 1945 their circulation was 3.23 million and 2 million respectively.

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