Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Are We Obsessed with Keeping Calm?

I came across a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster for the first time this past summer. One of the higher-ups at the office I interned at had taped it to the outside of the glass walls of his office. I walked past the small poster several times a day and I found myself drawn to its simple mantra. After this initial introduction, I began to notice the poster everywhere—framed as an art piece in magazines, on notebooks and stationary sold at Barnes & Noble and tote bags and coffee cups— and I was intrigued. When and why did this slogan become an obsession?

It turns out that the poster was commissioned as part of the series by Britain’s temporary Ministry of Information during the beginning of WWII as part of an effort to boost morale. The first two posters in the series were widely distributed during the war and read, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory,” and “Freedom is in Peril Defend it with All Your Might.” The third “Keep Calm” poster that’s so popular today was to be released only if Germany invaded Britain and so the posters were never circulated. Despite the favorability today, the campaign was criticized by the British media and seen as a failure. Of the more than 3 million “Keep Calm” posters printed, only seven survived to this day.

In 2000, Stuart Manley, the owner of Barter Books in Alnwick, England and his wife, discovered one of the remaining posters at the bottom of a box of books they bought in an auction. They framed the poster in their shop and when it became a customer favorite, they began selling reproductions. The poster has become a kind of logo for Britain, representing the ‘stiff upper lip’ the country is known for, and became especially popular in 2009 at the start of the financial crisis. By March 2009, the couple had sold 40,000 copies of the poster as its popularity spread.

The poster’s appeal spreads beyond its British roots. I was drawn to the message of the poster before I knew its history because the simple prose reminds us not to sweat the small stuff (something I try to remind myself on a daily basis). The minimalist design and bright red color has made the poster a trendy (and inexpensive) art piece and because its part of public domain, anyone can reprint the poster and create variations on its theme. The slogan has been adopted throughout the world (even in Germany!) as the unofficial recession motto. Creative parodies of the posters, for example, “Now Panic and Freak Out” with an upside down crown, have also become popular. It’s strange that this wartime inspirational message has become a commodity, but clearly the message resonates with many on an emotional level that’s hard to criticize. A quick google search and you can find the slogan in pretty much any variation, color and on every piece of merchandise you can possibly imagine.