Press Advertising and Fascist Dictates: Showcasing the Female Consumer in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany

Bianca Gaudenzi. Journalism Studies. Volume 14, Issue 5. 2013.


In June 1933, only a few months after the establishment of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new Chancellor, the advertising trade magazine Seidels-Reklame devoted a long article to the issue of how women should be represented in commercial advertisements. Craving for the advent of a new type of “truly German” advertising, the magazine gave a very detailed description of the “vamp-type” that had by that time become extremely common in the German press:

If we were to ask ourselves whether over the last few years advertising … was really representative of the German woman, our answer would be … it really was not advertising for the German woman at all. The empty puppets which were for example shown … sitting on a bar stool, their legs crossed, showing us their elegant artificial silk stockings or … washing their laundry in the basin so gracefully that one might fear for the beautiful red nail polish on their preciously shaped fingernails appeared alien to the majority of German women. A woman was “glamorous” when she was driving a car, when she was drinking coffee, when she was standing by the stove … National advertising no longer wants to spend millions on presenting a false, distorted image of German family life to the German woman. It quite simply wants to return, unpretentiously and naturally, to the German woman. (Seidels-Reklame, no. 6, 1933)

Bearing a close resemblance to Marlene Dietrich’s character in Der blaue Engel, this “degenerate” example of a modern, independent and provocative woman was indeed present in a substantial number of adverts which over the Weimar years had started flooding German—but also British, French or Italian—publications. Presented by Seidels-Reklame as alien to the national spirit, these commercial representations of womanhood were often promoted through what were described as “American-style” techniques, which based their effectiveness on persuasion strategies derived from applied psychology and market research (Seidels-Reklame, no. 6, 1933). This new “American” way of advertising advocated a standardised rationalistic approach to the promotion of goods through the implementation of a strong consumer-oriented focus that enabled it to target different social groups by appealing to their individual wishes and aspirations (Schudson 1993; De Grazia 2005).

Initially made popular in Europe by the activity of a few American advertising agencies, these techniques were quickly adopted and adapted to the different national frameworks by a growing number of advertising professionals’ networks which had emerged after the First World War in Britain, France, Germany and to a lesser extent even in Fascist Italy (Ross 2007; Schug 2004; Arvidsson 2001). While displaying appreciable similarities across several European countries, these developments fed into much wider processes of marketisation and professionalisation that characterised the expansion of the press as well as the advertising industries in a remarkably parallel fashion. Far from bringing about an integral homogenisation of European advertising, over the course of the interwar period these structural changes did nonetheless not only significantly redefine the relationship between press and advertising but also led to the creation of the first professional associations, schools and agencies which animated the Advertising World Congress held in Berlin in 1929 (Ceserani and Falabrino 2000; Westphal 1989).

What Seidels-Reklame made even more explicit, however, was the significance attributed right from the dawning of the Third Reich to a “truly German” (Seidels-Reklame, no. 6, 1933) representation of women in light of the central role that both the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships ascribed to them as key agents not only for the achievement of demographic and racial objectives but also for the implementation of their economic and autarkic policies (Messina 1987; De Grazia 1992; Pine 1997; Stephenson 2001). Given unparalleled visibility by the massive growth of the press, advertising was immediately recognised as an indispensable means to propagate “healthy” images of womanhood and became the object of an intense crusade against “foreign” and “corrupted” tendencies which the Nazi regime did not hesitate to translate into very prompt and generally quite effective measures (Seidels-Reklame, no. 6, 1933).

As early as spring 1933, the newly established Propaganda Ministry devoted with unprecedented vigour to the cause of bringing German advertising under close scrutiny in order to force its Aryanisation and reorganisation according to the principles of the so-called Nazi new order. By September 1933, a new Law on Commercial Advertising had instituted the Werberat der Deutschen Wirtschaft, the Advertising Board of the German Economy, which imposed the necessity of a permit to be part of the advertising profession. This helped to orchestrate the liquidation of unwelcome titles and catalysed financial support for the regime press organs. Parallel to this, the Werberat and its affiliates invested an unprecedented number of resources to create a series of campaigns aimed at increasing the consumption of German goods, avoiding waste and educating women in household management and consumption modes (Sennebogen 2008, 113-180).

Despite the unrivalled efforts invested by the Third Reich in the process of expurgating and reshaping the advertising industry, this was by no means confined exclusively to Nazi Germany: almost a decade earlier the Fascist regime in Italy had devoted much energy to the physical or financial suppression of unwanted publications by diverting their advertising revenues, and had since exercised constant control over the press and advertising (Ceserani and Falabrino 1981). In the Italian case, restrictions and censorship—albeit in a far less consistent and coherent way—were exerted first by Mussolini’s Ufficio Stampa and later through the infamous veline of the Italian Press and Propaganda Ministry—soon renamed Ministry for Popular Culture. The personnel of the veline swamped the headquarters of Italian publications on a daily basis (Ottaviani 2004).

Whereas during the 1920s advertising restrictions in Italy had a primarily suppressive character, the new Nazi guidelines and especially the launching of the autarkic crusade prompted the Fascist regime to acquire a more proactive attitude towards the politicisation of commercial advertising. If in Germany the purging of the advertising profession was implemented through forced membership of the Werberat-controlled NSRDW, the National Socialist Association of German Advertisers (Westphal 1989), Italian advertisers were constantly monitored not only through the activity of the Ufficio Stampa and the veline but especially by the local prefects, which through a wide network of informants kept under surveillance many advertising agencies—including the U.P.I., Unione Pubblicità Italiana, in charge of providing crucial financial support to the Fascist press (Gaudenzi 2010, 135, 197-216).

If the interaction between the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships in terms of their ideology, propaganda or military alliance has long been one of the central themes of the extremely prolific historiography of fascism, and more recently of “generic fascism”, empirical contributions on the comparative development of consumer policies and practices in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are still extremely scarce. This is despite the regimes’ evident common ideological background and similar controversial stance on consumption (Sennebogen 2005; Scarpellini 2011; Wiesen 2012).

It is precisely this similarity that makes the advantages of approaching this issue from a cross-cultural perspective evident. An empirical and systematic comparison of how the Fascist and Nazi regimes factually related themselves to modern press advertising, and the actual impact of their policies, will first of all contribute significantly to our deeper understanding of the regimes’ ambivalent attitudes towards modernity, consumption and economic imperatives. Secondly, it will also prompt wider reflections on the veracity of the totalitarian paradigm and on the interaction between soft and hard power, between cultural influences and political forces in the context of the evolving world of interwar journalistic and commercial culture.

While providing an in-depth and nuanced analysis of a substantial selection of unique press sources within a specifically comparative framework, this article consequently constitutes an innovative and original contribution to the cultural history of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships as it sheds light on how the regimes actually interacted with commercial culture and modern media—and by extension on the broader historiographical debates relating to the totalitarian nature of the Fascist and Nazi regimes and their ambivalent interplay with modern economic forces and modernity itself.

Prompted by the development of their autarkic agendas on one side and by a growing rapprochement in consumption matters on the other, by the mid-1930s both dictatorships were actively involved in an increasingly entangled effort to transform the world of commercial advertising into the herald of a new fascist understanding of consumption and society. This took place on two complementary levels. On the one hand, the activities of the Propaganda and the Press Ministries, the State Police and the Gestapo succeeded rather promptly in excluding professionals of Jewish origins and political dissenters from the journalistic and advertising sectors and in silencing any dissenting voices (Tranfaglia, Murialdi, and Legnani 1986; Bohrmann and Toepser-Ziegert 1984-2001). On the other, a growing number of prominent trade journals, networks and agencies catalysed the work of the newly Aryanised and fascistised advertising profession towards the creation of modern, carefully organised campaigns that actively fostered the expansion of the national economy.

While campaigns to encourage the consumption of national products and services surely did not constitute a novelty within the broader scenario of interwar Europe, what was new was the central importance that the Fascist and especially the Nazi regimes attributed to them. This was a direct consequence of what could be described as advertising’s qualitative as well as quantitative difference from political propaganda: by appealing to very individual desires and expectations, advertising was able to effectively target consumers in their private sphere, usually left untouched by propaganda, which by definition addressed people as a mass to be nationalised (Gaudenzi 2010, 47ff). Covering an increasingly significant proportion of their pages, moreover, advertisements had long ceased to constitute a discrete section of German and Italian publications and now strongly influenced not only their visual appearance but also their contents. Over the interwar period the models and lifestyles propagated by press advertisements subsequently acquired a central relevance for both the Fascist and Nazi regimes, not only as target of their censorship but also as potential vehicle for their propaganda.

This proved all the more relevant when considering the unprecedented level of exposure from which these images were able to benefit as a consequence of the growth of press advertising, which in turn prompted and was propelled by the expansion of the German and the Italian press (Hempfling 2007; Forgacs 2000). If in fact in 1919 most of the Italian publications still contained very few adverts, by the mid-1930s German and Italian illustrated newspapers and magazines—which now reached a total circulation of several million copies—were literally filled with advertisements publicising a large variety of products and services, as in the case of La Domenica del Corriere or the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Ross 2008; Forgacs and Gundle 2007; Borscheid and Wischermann 1995). These changes provided visual evidence of the broader developments that characterised the newspaper industry during the interwar years on a European scale, both on the technical and structural level.

If the introduction of new rotogravure machines enabled newspapers and magazines to include a growing number of high-definition images, significant changes in the corporate and economic structures of the press industry came to crucially redefine the relationship between press and advertising, which became the main revenue source for newspapers and magazines alike. No longer a mere ornament of upscale periodicals, from the mid-1920s commercial advertising contributed massively to the financial wellbeing of the press and strongly influenced its content and appearance. In the case of women’s magazines, for example, commercial adverts occupied an average of 15-20 per cent of the total space (Gaudenzi 2005, 193 ff). Even in the N.S.-Frauenwarte, which prided itself on being the only official women’s magazine of the National Socialist party and whose circulation, prompted by subscriptions, grew up to one and half million copies by the beginning of the Second World War, the advertising space increased from 14 per cent in 1932 to almost 20 per cent in 1939 (Gaudenzi 2005, 74; ALA-Zeitungskatalog, published by ALA Anzeigen Aktiengesellschaft, Berlin 1939).

Protagonists of this boom were a growing number of sometimes improvised advertising experts, often ex-journalists, which over the interwar years underwent a startling process of professionalisation. This development presented significant similarities with the advancement of the journalistic profession and enabled “a disreputable profession of hucksters to be turned into a highly disciplined corporation of professionals, one that could be trusted to communicate wisely and effectively with a Volk that had been transmogrified from hagglers into heroes” (Swett, Wiesen and Zatlin 2007, xvii). Although far from the levels of specialisation that they would achieve in the post-1945 period, the German and Italian interwar advertising and press industries presented themselves as extremely thriving worlds in constant pursuit of recognition.

While the Weimar years witnessed the prompt transformation of printed German réclame into an indispensable tool for the economic success of large national companies, during the 1920s Italian press and advertising activities remained largely concentrated in the “industrial triangle” of Milan, Turin and Genoa, and was otherwise limited not only by a still fragmented market but also by the high illiteracy rates and poverty that plagued large sectors of the Italian population (Ross 2007; Forgacs and Gundle 2007). By the end of the 1920s, though, notwithstanding the vexations of the Fascist regime, Italian advertising had experienced a sustained increase that presented many common features with its more developed German or French neighbours—not only in its structure, as the new main source of income for the national press, but also in its appearance and methods, which displayed a growing tendency towards American techniques and models (De Grazia 2005; Arvidsson 2001).

As a simple glance at virtually any German or Italian publication of the early 1930s testifies, the growing number of adverts conceived by improvised or trained professionals obviously tended to present a huge variety of models and techniques that varied according not only to the product they advertised but also the media they were advertised in—ranging from a small rudimentary drawing for obscure dieting pills published in local newspapers such as Il Resto del Carlino to a full-page Hollywood testimonial photo advert for beauty creams in upscale women’s monthly magazines like Die Dame. As several commentators did not fail to recognise, however, by the early 1930s a significant proportion of these adverts already adopted modern, American-style methods and realistic imagery that coexisted side by side with modernist bold typefaces or conventional watercolour drawings (Aynsley 2000; Salaris 1986). Within this varied panorama, the most evident and controversial example of the widespread inclination to assimilate Americanised ideals and images was embodied by a very glamorous representation of modern and self-assured women, which were depicted in fashionable and sometimes provocative clothing and make-up and often smoking, driving or more generally leading an independent life of their own (Gundle 2007, 92-106; Messina 1987).

As Seidels-Reklame‘s harangue revealed, the diffusion of these images was perceived as extremely pernicious by the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships not only from an ideological and cultural perspective but also for its evident negative repercussions on the national economy. Traditionally in charge of the household, women were usually considered responsible for most of the purchases carried out by each family. According to Werben und Verkaufen, one of Germany’s most credited advertising magazines, during the course of 1935 90 per cent of all purchases were made by women (Werben und Verkaufen, no. 3, 1935). Even more importantly, both the Fascist and the Nazi dictatorships entrusted women with the role of custodians of the racial and political health of the national community. Both regimes consequently spared no effort to ensure that commercial advertising contained “adequate” images of women, which were to be displayed in their “natural” setting, the household, attending to their “natural” duties of mother and more generally always conform to the model of healthy and faithful members of the Fascist racial community (Mondello 1987; Koonz 1987).

Censorship was repeatedly implemented in the case of models that were considered either “extraneous to the national spirit” or too provocative. This was particularly true in the Italian case, where repressive tendencies emerged with greater frequency due to their coalescence with traditional Catholic morals. Although images of voluptuous and healthy women were partly encouraged as they fitted the strategy of giving children to the nation, depictions of women in what were described as “scanty clothes” consequently never ceased to constitute one of the Minculpop‘s main concerns throughout the Ventennio. In July 1933, for example, Il Popolo di Roma was reviled for an editorial on fashion showing women in bathing suits: “Il Popolo di Roma has been reproached for publishing photographs of naked women on the third page, while on the first page there were photos of the Pope.” To avoid the repetition of similar blunders, Polverelli—head of the Ufficio Stampa at the time—told the newspapers “to avoid publishing photos of naked women as they constitute an anti-demographic element” (Ottaviani 2004, 43).

While voluptuous models were banned for their provocative, supposedly anti-demographic nature, the Dietrich type or the “crisis-woman” was condemned as a quintessential embodiment of a “sterile” and “corrupted” distortion of women’s truthful purpose and nature (Ceserani and Falabrino 1981, 214). In their stead, the Werberat and the Minculpop championed modest, healthy-looking women as true incarnations of the fascist “new order” (Reinhardt 1993; Pinkus 1995). As the organ of the WerberatCommercial Advertising, put it in 1936: “So from today we will create German advertising. Here where until now smiled a half-undressed puppet comes a Hitler girl with plaits … That is how we advertise ‘in the German way’” (Wirtschaftswerbung, no. 14, 1936). To what extent press advertising actually conformed to the Werberat and Minculpop guidelines in representing the “true essence” of German and Italian women remains to be seen.

Advertising the Modern Woman

In 1934, while imparting his views on feminine beauty from the pages of the renowned design and household magazine Domus, art critic Calzini warned against any deviation from the “historical” notion of the superiority of Italian pulchritude:

Anyone who travels knows, anyone who explores the roads of Italy sees it. Even today in the countryside of the Abruzzo or Siena or Romagna, alongside the low-grade cinemas where the shameless American advertising displays in the form of sterilised and standardised type of Venus born from the froth of Hollywood, authentic, beautiful Italian women walk tall with bread baskets on their heads or solemnly carry children in their arms like queens in exile. (Calzini 1934, as quoted in Gundle 2007, 97)

As Calzini’s rhetoric exemplarily underlined, the question of how women should look and behave in the fascist “new order” was perceived as acutely problematic by ample sectors not only of the fascist institutions but also of the intelligentsia and the wider public both in Italy and in Germany. Women’s behaviour consequently represented a constant friction point throughout the Ventennio and the Third Reich (De Grazia 1996, 337-358; Gori 2004; Guenther 2004). Confined to the “small world” of domesticity and childcare by two intrinsically misogynistic dictatorships on the one hand, entrusted with the higher purpose of bearing children to the nation and integrated into fascist women’s associations on the other, women’s schizophrenic treatment was emblematic of the regimes’ own internal inconsistencies and divisions.

Such schizophrenia appeared particularly magnified in the German and Italian press, which continued to resort to a variety of models—first and foremost the two archetypes of feminine beauty presented as antithetic by Calzini: on one side, the sturdy and solemn woman peasant devoted to her home and family, on the other, the sensual and self-assured femme fatale focused on the realisation of her own desires and life. The endurance of representations that did not conform to the fascist ideal was definitely not induced by a lack of determination on the regimes’ part. In light of the potentially disruptive nature of these “sterile” and “foreign” models, the Fascist and the Nazi dictatorships resorted not only to draconian censorship measures, as we have seen, but also to a significant number of editorials, pamphlets, household management classes and propaganda campaigns aimed at creating the “new” fascist woman consumer (Reagin 1998; De Grazia 1992).

Albeit with varying results, it did not take long before the impressive efforts made by the Werberat and the Minculpop in reorganising commercial advertising bore their fruits. As countless contributions in some of the most prominent trade magazines testified, this was due not only to repressive institutional measures but also to widespread mechanisms of self-censorship actuated through a range of journals, associations and bureaus which, while in operation in the journalistic and advertising professions of many other European countries, in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany reached a whole different dimension (Villani 1972, 43ff; Gaudenzi 2010, 144). The most evident product of this transformation was a very strong emphasis on corporative and collective forms of advertising, which were promoted through hammering campaigns where products and services were no longer advertised as individual brands but rather as the result of the collective effort of several manufacturing companies—as in the case of the national campaigns for the consumption of Italian beer or German milk.

While collective pushes for the consumption of national foodstuffs like milk or beer were rather common across war-time and interwar Europe, the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships invested an unprecedented amount of resources in the creation of specifically autarkic and “educational” campaigns (Ceserani and Falabrino 2000, 100ff; Reagin 1998). These were promoted by a variety of organs and institutions such as the Committee for the Economic Enlightenment of the Volk (R.V.A.), the Werberat‘s armed wing, or La Pubblicità d’Italia, Fascist Italy’s sleekest advertising magazine funded by the U.P.I. with the support of the Minculpop. Here, promotional strategies for collective campaigns figured quite heavily by virtue of their adaptability to the regimes’ anti-individualistic and corporative claims.

In all these cases German and Italian women were usually depicted in their roles as prolific mothers and impeccable fascists attending to the health and indoctrination of the national community. Often quite similar to political propaganda, these advertisements resorted to very natural representations of modestly dressed housewives surrounded by their children. These depictions of women cheerfully performing their daily chores were usually steeped in Nazi Blut und Boden ideology or idealised notions of bucolic life and classicist Romanità, recurring themes in the rhetoric of the Fascist Ventennio.

A very good example of this was a series of drawn advertisements prepared by the U.P.I. to promote the consumption of national vegetables.

This rather rudimentary advert praised “the intelligent housewife’s necklace”, made of vegetables, which were presented as “jewels”—equally precious to a good housewife as her sons were to the Roman matron Cornelia (La Pubblicità d’Italia, November/December 1939; Gaudenzi 2010, 219). Leading a remarkably unostentatious and modest life, Cornelia embodied the figure of the mother par excellence and a symbol of Roman morals, ready to sacrifice herself entirely for her family and her country. It represented an ideal role model for Fascist ideology, not only as an example of selfless motherhood but also for the obvious reference to the glory of the Roman past. In this context, however, the reference to the Roman heroine sounded rather pompous and hardly suited to convince a woman to introduce more vegetables into the daily diet of her family.

As appears evident, for most of the 1930s a significant number of collective and autarkic advertisements definitely tended to employ forms of strongly politicised imagery and terminology that closely followed the Werberat and Minculpop‘s guidelines. This was especially true in the case of collective campaigns for national vegetables and fruits, as we have seen, but also artificial textiles or other Ersatz products which appeared with increasing frequency in the pages of German and Italian newspapers and magazines such as Das Blatt der Hausfrau or Il Corriere della Sera (Gaudenzi 2010, 216ff). The same cannot however be said for private commercial advertisements, which over the interwar years did not cease to promote a variety of models and lifestyles often in clear contrast with one another. These commercial insertions still constituted the large majority of advertisements present in the German and Italian press.

When closely analysing the advertising section of several German and Italian publications of the 1930s, including the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung or La Domenica del Corriere, the main, clear distinction that surfaces is the striking contrast created by so-called household products, such as foodstuffs, childcare and domestic goods—which targeted a mass audience—and what could be defined as luxury goods, non-essential and often expensive objects which were often advertised through the so-called “soft sell approach” (Marchand 1985, 10; De Grazia 2005, 264). A brainchild of some of the first research departments active in US advertising agencies, the “soft sell” method promoted the product no longer on the basis of its sheer practical benefits but rather of the lifestyle and social status that it symbolised and was consequently much more suited to publicise luxury products. In the case of the German and Italian press, this division is particularly apparent when upper- and middle-class magazines are compared. By virtue of its adaptability, advertising tended to address different social groups along broad class and gender lines with specific advertisements that better represented their lifestyle and status. This division was further reinforced by their different assimilation of fascist and autarkic ideals of consumption, which varied according to the social function of its target. Over the 1930s, middle-class women’s magazines were flooded with an ever-expanding number of advertisements regarding food, household and childcare products—not to mention the omnipresent medical insertions—which came to display an increasing level of politicisation. In comparison, upper-class periodicals were left largely untouched by propaganda and continued to project their dream world of elegant sophistication and opulence on their readers. As the following analysis will illustrate, however, the distinction was far from being so clear-cut. All these tendencies tended to coexist in the press and exposed their readers to multiform commercial appeals.

As a few commentators have already underlined, by the mid-1930s a marked tendency towards the adoption of more traditional representations of women had emerged in the commercial advertisements of several companies (De Grazia 2005, 275-283; Reinhardt 1993; Ceserani and Falabrino 1988). Advertisements for Persil washing products, for example, were often quoted by German specialised magazines as “beautiful examples of enlightening advertising” not only for the company’s ability to combine economic success with housekeeping guidelines but also for their natural representation of women (Die Deutsche Werbung, no. 11, 1934). The emblem of Persil’s success was its famous trade image, the “white lady”, which with her white dress, rosy cheeks and blonde hair embodied the pure and natural essence of German womanhood. Similar representations of women characterised the advertisements of many other household products. Italy’s most successful canned food company, Cirio, advertised its confitures “destined especially for the people” by depicting sturdy peasants or apron-clad housewives carrying children in their arms (Gaudenzi 2010, 226ff). Similar “natural” and “modest” illustrations were noticeable in the advertisements for several German food companies, such as the giant Dr. Oetker, Knorr flakes or Brockma minerals, where blonde housewives smiled at the reader over the heads of their lively children. Even campaigns which made clear use of modern, American-style techniques, as in the case of Kraft advertisements created by GfW (Society for Commercial Advertising)—one of Germany’s most successful agencies born from the ashes of the American agency J. W. Thompson—quickly incorporated National Socialist themes and imagery in their factual representation of German housewives (Gaudenzi 2010, 226ff).

Household products then definitely constituted the field in which the Werberat and Minculpop‘s dispositions were implemented more accurately. If it is true that the use of fascist and völkisch themes quickly crept into private commercial advertisements as a result of both institutional pressure and self-censorship, these represented only a part of the much more complex scenario of interwar German and Italian press advertising. For a start, not all household products adhered to the topoi of fascist and collective advertising. When it came to insertions printed on upscale women’s magazines, up until the early 1940s advertisements still depicted those sensual, glamorous ladies stigmatised by Seidels-Reklame who gracefully did their laundry in their silk nightgowns or instructed their maids on the most suitable product for their refined clothes. This was the case of Fewa “neutral washing product” advertisements, which were promoted with large colourful adverts on the pages of the now Aryanised upper-class magazine Die Dame (Lott 1985; Gaudenzi 2006, 49). It is clear then that even during the Fascist and Nazi years, commercial advertisements largely retained their characteristic of adjusting their motifs and imagery according to the targeted social group. The proneness of household advertisements towards conservative imagery could consequently be interpreted as a consequence not only of their adherence to the regimes’ guidelines, but also of their tendency to offer a realistic representation of the product within a specific social group. Moreover, at a closer look, household advertisements such as Cirio’s, Dr. Oetker’s or Kraft’s did not differ substantially from their pre-fascist predecessors and especially their post-1945 successors. They still maintained a strong emphasis on traditional representations of cheerful housewives devoted to their family, as required by the product that they were promoting (Gundle 2007; Ceserani and Falabrino 2000; Carter 1997; Weisser 1986; Thoms 1995). As in the case of the vast array of products advertised through Fascist and National Socialist symbols rather unsuccessfully banned by the regimes, from swastika-shaped bread loaves to swimming suits with Mussolini’s effigy (Sennebogen 2008, 278ff., Falasca-Zamponi 2007, 93; Westphal 1989, 44-50), political propaganda vigorously penetrated the realm of commercial advertisements. However, profits never ceased to constitute the primary aim of most commercial advertisements, which displayed remarkable similarities to their predecessors and successors.

This rationale was decisively more evident when it came to the so-called luxury products, objects or services with a high level of symbolic meaning whose promotion followed a very specific pattern (Berghoff 1999). Usually commercialised through soft-sell advertisements, products such as cars, cigarettes, holidays or cosmetics were often marketed as indispensable means to achieve a higher social status or a more sophisticated appearance (Baranowski 2004). In this case, far from adhering to Calzini’s nationalistic bucolic idyll, a considerable chunk of commercial representations depicting and targeting female consumers continued to identify with “shameless” advertisements that closely resembled their American counterparts. This was despite being created by advertising bureaus or professionals that had gone through the Fascist and Nazi mills (Arvidsson 2003; Westphal 1989; Ceserani and Falabrino 1988). Whether women actually had to carry bread baskets on their heads or not, when it came to advertising cosmetics or hosiery the most successful model remained that of the affluent, sensual and self-assured lady, which by playing on very personal dreams and expectations appealed to different classes of women in various ways.

If mass products such as Nivea (produced by the coercively Aryanised company Beiersdorf; Bajohr and Szodrzynski 1991) successfully managed to adapt their image to the Werberat‘s dictates by promulgating “enlightening” representations of fit young women in perfect communion with nature (Die Deutsche Werbung, nos. 17/18, 1940), an overwhelming proportion of upscale beauty products continued to resort to “degenerate” representations of sophisticated ladies which more effectively mirrored the value of the product. As a result, for most of the 1930s and up until the beginning of the war, middle- and upper-class publications were literally invaded by a series of campaigns for German, Italian and American cosmetics which usually offered a rather similar representation of “modern” women wearing make-up and elegantly or even provocatively dressed. The clear role models were Hollywood’s celebrities and starlets (Gaudenzi 2010). The first and foremost examples of this were a few rather controversial campaigns created to advertise American products, as in the case of the Palmolive adverts which by the mid-1930s swamped German and Italian publications, including political organs such as Donna Fascista, where Palmolive soaps were advertised as “made in Italy” (Mondello 1987; Gaudenzi 2010, 238ff). The same was, however, true in the case of campaigns commissioned to the nazified GfW for the extremely successful Scherk Mystikum face powder. The carefully made-up and charming women in these adverts for whom “one glance is enough” were praised by professionals for their modernity and effectiveness (Seidels-Reklame, no. 4, 1936; Werben und Verkaufen, no. 11, 1937).

The campaign illustrated by this advertisement, for example, focused on the correct use of the new “Scherk-Table” in order to “be able to purchase the type of rouge … that would most suit the buyer’s complexion and hair colour”. An extremely popular type of make-up in 1930s Germany, these advertisements represent a good example of the average insertions published in periodicals on a massive scale over the 1930s (Seidels-Reklame, no. 4, 1936). In usual GfW’s fashion, visages of impeccably made-up, seductive women were accompanied by a representation of the table itself, whose infallible qualities were praised by the accompanying copy (Gaudenzi 2010, 234).

Another good example of the average advertisement published in periodicals on a massive scale over the 1930s was produced by the Italian company Diadermina, where the Hollywood stereotype was even more omnipresent. Here, big photographs of glamorous American actresses or coquettish ladies dressed and made up according to the latest fashion prompted the readers to obtain “that beautiful complexion that is the dream of every woman” in order to “add distinction, perfect your elegance and spread around that seduction that inspires and gains immediate sympathy” (Gaudenzi 2010, 233). Not unlike its German counterparts, permed hair, plucked eyebrows and lipstick were a must in every picture and differentiated these advertisements sensibly from the standard representation encouraged by the Werberat and fascist propaganda.

Despite marked stylistic differences, then, it appears evident that up until the first years of the Second World War advertisements did not altogether renounce their depiction of sensual and independent women whenever economic reasoning required it. It was only with the intensification of the hostilities that commercial advertising underwent its deepest transformation, visible on most publications still in circulation. While shortages of raw materials and the war effort drastically restricted cosmetics production, press advertising adapted to the impending needs and new roles of its female readers. Where there had been vamp types now stood women at work in factories or offices, wearing more practical clothes and much less visible make-up, as in the case of Kaloderma or Camelia advertisements (Gaudenzi 2005, 74-77). In short, the war seemed to succeed where the Werberat and the Minculpop had failed.

Kaloderma cosmetics’ advertising represents a particularly good example of this. Like many of its German—and Italian—competitors, Kaloderma women remained rather close to the glamorous type up until 1941. Things, however, changed drastically with the advent of total war. At this point Kaloderma, like many other companies, quickly adapted to “the requirements of a great era” with a series of advertisements that showed a previously unknown penchant for realistic imagery: “every woman, but especially those who work … need an efficient and rational skin care product”, “to be used parsimoniously” (Gaudenzi 2010, 241ff). Although still wearing lipstick and natural-looking make-up, these women were now depicted as indefatigable workers, with their hair tied and practical, simple clothes. More importantly, they were represented while practising professions such as factory or laboratory work that propaganda had, until that moment, officially destined to men exclusively, but were now in dire need of a female labour force. This trend did not last long, however. By the autumn of 1943 more than 80 per cent of German advertising professionals had been drafted into the Wehrmacht for military service and by the end of the year both German and Italian press advertising had effectively ceased to exist under the bombings (Schug and Sack 2004, 75).

As this brief analysis has shown, the actuality of some of Germany’s and Italy’s most widely circulated women’s or illustrated magazines was quite far from the totalising control that the Werberat and the Minculpop aimed at exercising on the realm of commercial advertising. While it is true that a significant proportion of commercial advertisements incorporated politicised messages and iconography, this process of politicisation unfolded along specific lines that reflected not only the type of product or service advertised but especially the social status of their target. With the important exception of the promotion of national or substitute products, in general, commercial advertising maintained a consumer-oriented focus that enabled it to target different groups by appealing to their individual wishes and aspirations. Even in a sphere as sensitive as the representation of women, advertising consequently continued to present a variety of models that often did not comply with the requirements of fascist ideology.


The historical narrative of commercial advertising in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany is a narrative of harsh repression and prevarication according to which the regimes were able to penetrate the advertising industry with their racist and nationalistic slogans and allegedly totally subjugate it to their own political aims (Sennebogen 2005, 119-147; De Grazia 2005, 275-283; Reinhardt 1993; Ceserani and Falabrino 1988). Within this scenario, advertisers usually tended to present themselves as impotent victims of the regime or courageous resistance fighters, or even—rarely—as open supporters of the “fair rules” introduced to regulate their profession (Villani 1972; Damrow 1981).

While accurately capturing the strikingly repressive nature of the German and Italian dictatorships, this narrative offers a rather incomplete interpretation of the reality of press advertising during the Fascist Ventennio and the Third Reich. If it is true that collective campaigns for Ersatz goods and for some household products displayed a marked absorption of politicised imagery and themes, a substantial section of commercial advertisements offered a decisively different picture, which plainly contradicted the regimes’ dictates.

As this article has illustrated, during the 1920s and 1930s Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany invested an impressive amount of resources not only in purging the advertising profession of most of its “undesired” members but also in altering the way in which women were to be represented in advertising. The actual impact of these measures, however, varied significantly according to the class of products advertised and proved far more nuanced even when it came to a subject as central as women’s role and representation within the fascist new order. Whereas repressive measures and self-censorship were often successful in ensuring the brutal Aryanisation and to a certain extent the fascistisation of the advertising profession, the vast majority of commercial advertisements displayed a remarkably limited absorption of the imagery and ideology urged by the regimes in matters of “commercial propaganda”—as advertising was renamed during the Fascist Ventennio and the Third Reich.

The reasons for this limited absorption were manifold. While collective, politicised campaigns and American-style commercial advertisements were often conceived by the same agencies, they maintained advertising’s paramount focus on the consumer. Consequently, advertisements adapted their contents and appearance not only to the product that they were publicising and the media which would be used for its promotion but especially to its targeted audience along specific gender, ethnic and class lines. The result was a plurality of models that often still made use of modern and “degenerate” representations of womanhood as these were considered more effective to advertise certain products to different social groups.

This, as we have seen, was true for upscale women’s magazines like Die Dame or later Grazia, but also for the official party magazines N.S.-Frauenwarte and La Donna Fascista, as well as extremely popular illustrated magazines such as the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung or La Domenica del Corriere. Still in 1938 the virulently anti-Semitic N.S.-Frauenwarte was forced to acknowledge the persistent presence of foreign depictions of women all over the German press. The article juxtaposed images of “degenerate” showgirls and starlets from the Weimar years to pictures of young and fit girls practising sports or traditional dances. While the first were accompanied by the comment “You think: Charming and funny? We think: dirty and convulsive!”, the latter were described as follows: “You think: boring? We think: healthy and beautiful”. The editorial explained:

A look at what we have recently observed in publications, which are being presented to the German people in the millions, let us realize unequivocally just how deeply the Jewish pollution has infiltrated this particular area … Anyone who has recently monitored a number of periodicals might have noticed with great surprise certain tendencies that seem Jewish, all too Jewish, to us. What is presented here … as “woman” is precisely that demimonde type [Halbwelttyp] hostile to marriage and family, who is the living embodiment of the sterility …, a symbol of the previous epoch of decay. (N.S.-Frauenwarte, no. 17, 1938; Ascheid 2003, 2)

As the N.S.-Frauenwarte implied and my brief analysis of the advertising pages of late 1930s’ German and Italian publications confirmed, the reality of cultural consumption in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany varied greatly from the notion of a totalising control imposed by the regimes over commercial advertising. This was despite the triumphal claims of Werberat spokesman Brugger (1938, 148) according to whom by 1938 German advertising had been set free from “foreign” influence and “degenerate” representations of women, which instead persisted in the German and Italian press at least until the central years of the Second World War.

When it came to the vast majority of printed commercial advertisements then, it appears clear that both regimes failed to impose their “ferocious totalitarian will” (quote from Mussolini) on women’s depictions. Any marked political traits would have frustrated businesses’ demands by diminishing their commercial effectiveness. Notwithstanding the vicious policing to which German and Italian professionals were subjected through the activity of the Werberat and of Fascist informants (Ottaviani 2004; Westphal 1989; Ceserani and Falabrino 1988), the dichotomy between alluring sensual ladies and indefatigable domestic angels remained a constant in German and Italian advertising, which continued to favour the most effective means to ensure profit rather than political propaganda.

The primacy of economic imperatives however was only one of the reasons that contributed to this state of affairs. While harshly condemning the individualistic trends exemplified by bourgeoning American-style consumer culture, the Fascist and the Nazi dictatorships remained animated by diverse and conflicting trends in their attitude not only towards women but especially towards modernity and consumption (Ross 2007; Gundle 2008, 48ff). As a result, if anti-consumption slogans continued to characterise Fascist and Nazi propaganda, significant sectors of the Fascist and Nazi administration actively fostered the modernisation of the advertising profession by adopting American-style strategies and techniques of mass persuasion as a vehicle for the expansion of the national economy (Arvidsson 2003).

Rather than experiencing a total transformation at the hands of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships, the appearance of press advertising consequently presented a significant level of continuity not only with its Weimar-era and pre-fascist predecessors but especially with its Italian and West German post-war successors, and on the whole did not differ significantly from their European and North American counterparts. When it came to showcasing female consumers, the primacy of economic over propagandistic aims consequently remained a constant throughout the Fascist and Nazi regimes. Far from constituting monolithic totalitarian entities, the regimes did not substantially oppose the modernisation of press advertising as long as this contributed to the expansion of the national economy without openly opposing fascist policies. Finally, if we consider the amount of resources and attention that institutions like the Werberat, the R.V.A. or the ENIOS (Italian National Board for the Scientific Organisation of Labour, supported by former Corporations’ Minister Bottai) devoted to commercial advertising during the fascist years, it could be argued that the pro-consumption sectors of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships did not oppose the modernisation of the advertising profession for another, exquisitely political reason. Whereas the regimes’ attitude towards consumption was extremely fragmented and largely failed to impose the totalising control it aimed at exercising over the imagery and content of commercial advertisements, the Fascist and especially the Nazi dictatorships were rather successful in purging the advertising profession of most of its racially or politically “undesired” members. As a result, the persisting multifaceted appearance of press advertising could be imputed not only to the heterogeneous nature of the regimes and to the primacy of economic concerns but also to the symbolically stabilising function that advertising came to perform over the course of the 1930s in both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

According to this scheme, by envisaging a future of affluence and prosperity for all members of the racial national community, the advertising sections of German and Italian publications supplied to the eminently political aim of encouraging consensus—or at least acquiescence—by projecting on the masses of consumers-to-be visions of a modern consumer society which should soon be within their grasp (Gaudenzi 2010). Whether sensual Marlenes or strong queens in exile, German and Italian women were consequently allowed to dream as long as this enabled them to endure the horrible realities of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships until their bitter end.