WEB POSTER EXHIBITION - Viral posters "Keep calm and carry on"

"Keep calm and carry on", anonymous designer,
75 x 50 cm, colour lithography, 1939

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Just before the outbreak of World War 2, when many people in England were affraid of possible german mass bombings or even an invasion, the British government printed 2.5 million copies of a poster "Keep calm and carry on" and planned to put it on the streets in case of an attack to prevent widespread panic. As it turned out, the posters were not needed, and were probably destroyed and forgotten after the war.

In 2000, an original copy was discovered in a bookshop in Northumberland, and soon was reprinted and commercialized on T-shirts and coffee mugs. For a long time, it was believed to be the only surviving copy, until another 30 posters were discovered; in any case they are a rarity now. Christie's auctioned one in 2012, estimating it's value at about 1000 GBP (about 1500 US$), it was finally sold however for 12500 GBP (about 20'000 US$). Last week, another copy went up to 15'625 GBP (about 26'000 US$) and these posters have become cult items.

What may have contributed to their popularity is the advent of the social media websites, in particular the image sharings sites like Facebook, Flickr and Pinterest. Many people began to modify and parody the text, and also the design, and publish their new version. I became aware of these digital posters maybe one year ago, and began to collect them, naively assuming that I could catch most of them, like for example the Rosie the Riveter posters. However, I soon realized that the "Keep calm" epidemy is much bigger, and still in full bloom. On Pinterest alone there are hundreds or even thousands of "Keep calm" pinwalls, with typically a few hundred different pictures each, some going over a thousand. While the number is still tiny compared with the number of youtube views of the Gangnam style viral video (about 2'000 million), posters are finally entering the internet age.

My collecting came to an abrupt end when I discovered a website that generates "Keep Calm" posters, similar to the Shepard Fairey / Obama poster generators. You can enter your own text and the program will produce a corresponding poster; maybe you can find my version in the picture below. About 8 Million "Keep calm" poster versions have been downloaded so far!

Another boost for the wide distribution of these pictures is the universal availabilty of smart phones. A desperate mother told me that she found "Keep calm" posters on the phone of her teenage daughter who was exchanging them freely with her friends. Suddenly it became clear to me why Keep calm and kiss me and Keep calm and lets have a baby were the most frequently re-pinned (i.e. most popular) posters in my small Pinterest collection, followed far behind by Keep calm and quit Facebook. This has nothing to do with traditional poster design rules. Who would have predicted that 450 years after Romeo and Julia, amorous conversations would now take the form of exchanging suitable "Keep calm" posters? Posters are not dead yet!

Below are about 335 variations of the poster "Keep calm and ..". High resolution versions and sources are on my Pinterest pinwall Keep calm.

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