Just before the Second World War, Leni Riefenstahl made “Triumph Of The Will”.
It was a brilliant piece of propaganda.
And a visually stunning film.
It begins with Hitler coming to a rally in Munich.
The camera shows the shadow of his plane moving over the ground like a giant cross.
The symbolism reads like the arrival of The Saviour.
She features overhead shots of massed Nazi parades, with long shadows.
Every shadow moving in perfect unison.
Graphically powerful enough to be virtually abstract.
Massive blocks of soldiers marching in faultless precision.
Like an army of robots.
Capable of trampling anything in their path.
This is a military tsunami.
This film is a master class in cinematography.
It’s not just propaganda, it’s art.
So how did the British propaganda ministry respond?
Just like most advertising experts.
They said, “The public are worried about these Nazis.
They’ve conquered Poland, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and France.
Now there’s only the English Channel between them and us.
It’s having a bad effect on morale.
They look unstoppable, we need to change that view.”
So they did what most clients and agencies would do.
They tried to find something positive to say about their product or brand.
But unfortunately there wasn’t a lot positive to say.
The British Army had left most of its equipment at Dunkirk.
Just about the only thing they had left was motorbikes.
So they showed that.
Dozens of soldiers driving through fields in motorbike-and-sidecar outfits.
Covered in branches for disguise.
With a jolly, Mr Cholmondeley-Walker type VO.
“These chaps will ready to give Adolf a warm welcome, when he drops in for a cup of tea and a cream bun.”
(I’m not kidding.)
As you can imagine, this didn’t do much to convince the public that the British Army could stand up to Nazi supermen.
So it didn’t do much for morale.
In fact it had the opposite effect.
Everywhere it was shown it lowered morale.
Cinema audiences booed and threw apple-cores at the screen.
This film just showed how weak we were.
And that was really scary.
There was a new dance craze in England at that time called “The Lambeth Walk”.
A film editor was just playing about on his own one evening.
He took Leni Riefenstahl’s film and gradually recut it, frame by frame.
In those days there was no video editing.
Everything had to be done by hand, with scissors and glue.
He recut every frame until he had the Nazi soldiers walking backwards and forwards in exact time to the tune “Doing The Lambeth Walk”.
They looked like they were dancing.
He’d made them look silly.
Which meant they weren’t so scary anymore.
He showed it to a few friends and they loved it.
Eventually, he managed to get it shown at a cinema.
And it was such a hit that it was shown at every cinema in the country.
And it continued right through the war.
Because it actually lifted morale.
People began laughing at the Nazis.
And when they laughed they weren’t scared.
What was brilliant was the understanding of how people’s minds work.
We don’t have to prove we can beat the Nazis.
We just have to prove they can be beaten.
And we can do that in the way that the British have always done best.
Taking the piss.
Making them a laughing stock.
It breaks the spell.
That editor understood what the propaganda ministry didn’t.
That the answer isn’t always about the left brain: logic.
Sometimes it’s about the right brain: emotion.
But the experts didn’t understand that.
They were restricted by logic.
And when that didn’t work, they had nowhere to go.
Luckily the editor didn’t have experts to tell him what he could and couldn’t do.
He was free to make an intuitive leap.
So he did what felt right.
He took the piss.
The editor took an intuitive leap and it worked.
Because the editor didn’t have to listen to experts.
Because experts wouldn’t have understood taking the piss.
Because experts have learned not to think like ordinary people.