V for Viral.

I came across an interesting viral campaign from the 1940s this week. Yes, the 1940s. Clearly it wasn’t viral in the sense we know today, but this could possibly be the best example of a viral campaign I’ve ever seen, and it pre-dates the internet by around 50 years.

One of the best remembered slogans from World War II was ‘V for Victory’. Winston Churchill’s trademark two finger salute (not that kind) symbolising victory and freedom is almost as famous as his ever-present cigar. But this symbolic gesture was not invented by Churchill.  The campaign was actually launched by the BBC in 1941 after  Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice,  suggested in a radio interview that the ‘V’ symbol could be adopted by the people as a show of defiance against the Nazis in occupied Europe. As he poetically put it,

“The occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [would] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.”

The BBC then appealed to its listeners to take heed and show support for the Allies by integrating the symbol into every day life , sending a clear message to the Nazis that the fight was not over. The letter ‘V’ in morse code is represented by three dots and a dash, which the BBC adopted as the call sign of all BBC European services and is still used today on Radio 4 at the top of the hour before the news. Soon the letter V began to appear in different forms all over occupied Europe; according to Icons.org.uk ,

People in Nazi-occupied territories were told to chalk Vs on walls, and to make the V signal whenever possible. Teachers could call children to order by clapping the signal, and train drivers could make it using their whistles. Every time someone knocked on a door or rang a church bell, they should use the rhythm of Victory.”

The BBC project ‘People’s War’ which ran from 2003-2006 has collected over 47,000 personal memories from those who lived through the war and has some great stories about the ‘V’ campaign. ‘V’ even had its own merchandise, like this lovely girl is modelling above, it also appeared on badges and stamps.

The celebrity endorsement from Churchill and other world leaders cemented the symbol into history.  As the end of the war was announced,  Churchill ordered searchlights to be directed towards St. Paul’s Cathedral in London forming a ‘V’ on its walls as victory was secured.

This small, peaceful act of defiance and solidarity used en masse empowered the people, provided an antidote to the dominating swastika and boosted morale during the despair of war.

Forget adverts disguised as cool videos and skateboarding cats; before viral was viral, there was ‘V’.


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