When the National Security Agency released a cache of its vintage security posters earlier this year, one of the things people keyed in on was the goofiness of the whole enterprise. Take for instance the poster contrasting the moon with a filing cabinet, encircled with the words “Before you worry about OUTER SPACE, worry about THIS SPACE.” Or the Thomas Kincaid-like scene of a snowbound cottage with “Security is always in Season” inscribed beneath, in a font that looks more suited to a Christmas card from grandma than to a warning not to commit treason.
But beneath the corniness, there’s something harder-edged. Browsing the collection of 1950s-1970s images, what struck me most was not their kitschiness, but rather their uncanniness. Where other advertising of this era set out to sell things, these images were designed to make viewers more careful, conscientious, dutiful, loyal—even a bit scared.
The posters (released in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request by the website Government Attic) were produced by the NSA's Security Education Program, and apparently posted in NSA offices in an effort to make employees more “security conscious.” Similar images, it turns out, were being created at the same time by the NSA’s Soviet counterparts.
In both cases, the goal wasn’t simply to inspire pride among agency employees, or even to inspire patriotism. It was to give viewers the distinct impression that they were being watched, that their actions were being held in the balance. But to me, there’s something about the NSA posters that feels different, and somewhat more unsettling. It’s the way that they combine government propaganda with the language and aesthetics of a vanished world of mid-century American print advertising.
Print ads at mid-century had a set of distinct features. One was their diction and typography, which merged telegraphically peppy clichés with Emily Dickinson-style dashes and ellipses: “You can give this sparkling drink to babies—and without any qualms... Seven-Up has a special fresh, clean taste that appeals to everyone at your house—be he nine months, nine years or ninety.”
Another was their commitment to a specific, highly romanticized vision of American life. They spoke to a nuclear family that was Christian, white, and traditionalist. The NSA posters trafficked in this vernacular, making frequent reference to Christmas, babies, and churches.
It’s hard to imagine the NSA launching a similar campaign today. And that’s not only because of what could be charitably called the agency’s recent public relations challenges. It’s also because the print culture that helped define the look of the 20th century United States has passed into history. When was the last time you saw a poster—a real poster, not a sign that says “Employees must wash hands” or the like—in a place of business?
And when was the last time you truly stopped and paid attention to an ad in a printed newspaper or magazine? Appealing to consumers in print has become such a foreign practice that Don Draper and company come off as kitschy, despite the Mad Men actors playing them straight.
The visual vernacular of mid-century print advertising, of course, is still recognizable today. But it’s almost exclusively deployed in satirical versions of the aesthetic’s earnest former self. Smiling faces, well-coifed hair and lawns, space age flourishes. A happy dog in the corner, a shiny car in the background. Whiteness abounding. What once signaled wholesomeness has been repurposed by artists like Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons to highlight the contradictions of our times.
This, perhaps, is why the NSA posters seem so strange to us today: they look somehow fake, as if they were the tongue-in-cheek creations of a 2010s graphic designer. The historical lineage reaching back to the earliest state broadsides and patent medicine advertisements has culminated in… irony.
Radio and TV helped reduce the centrality of these sorts of images. The internet has basically killed them off. If the NSA posters were to be duplicated today, on a functional level, they wouldn’t be posters at all. They’d be a carefully worded email, a message broadcast to a Slack channel, or a targeted ad on Facebook or Twitter.
Public posters and print ads were not an American invention. But the strange demands of public life in the 20th century US—the combination of consumer-friendly optimism and deep-seated apocalyptic fear—made them distinctive, even weird. We’ll never see their likes again.