What is the origin of the motivational poster. For a time in the late 20th century, a Successories poster was an essential feature of office décor. The format never varied: a black border, a bold-type word, and a forgettable platitude, like “Take the initiative and lead the way” or “The strength of the team is in each individual member.” The posters evoked a particular strain of management culture: earnest, a little out of touch, and resolutely unremarkable.
They hung in conference rooms and reception areas, as innocuous as the office fern, ideally engineered (as organizational psychologists later would find) to be almost instantly forgotten by the conscious mind. But the story behind the posters is far more dramatic than the placid scenes on their fronts. It’s a tale that includes a splashy public offering, rapid global expansion, and a precipitous fall. Successories played an unlikely, accidental role in the birth of meme culture, and in a specific brand of office humor that targets both workplaces and the hope of success within their confines.
The boom, bust, and rebirth of Successories mirrors the tumultuous changes in the offices it decorated, and in the stories workers tell themselves to get through the day.
The quotation quotient
Successories started in 1985 with a man named Mac Anderson, a serial entrepreneur with a solid portfolio of wholesome American enterprises: a travel company focused on the US Midwest, and a food distributor that Anderson’s website describes as “the country’s largest manufacturer of prepared salads.”
For his next venture, Anderson envisioned a product that could fill blank offices walls and empower all those the walls might hold. Working with a small in-house team of designers, he launched in 1985 a mail order catalogue selling posters, T-shirts, mugs, and desk accessories with the company’s proprietary designs. Successories bought the rights to freelance or stock images, chose a phrase, then tied the two together with a quote, often one pulled from Anderson’s vast personal library of inspirational texts.
The connection between the word and the image wasn’t always clear. “SERVICE,” one read, under a photograph of a waterfall. “VISION,” said another, with a photograph of an Outer Banks-type beach scene because . . . well, maybe because without vision, you can’t see a beach?
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One of the few early posters that broke the non-sequitur rule featured an image of an eight-person shell rowing across a placid river at sunrise above the word “TEAMWORK.” The shadows and the mist on the water obscure the rowers’ faces; they could be any gender, or any race, or any group of people in the world (at least, any group with access to a boat).
Teamwork, the copy read, “is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” The empty text, the faceless figures, the utter forgettability of the photograph itself—together, it added up to bland magic, a poster that could hang on virtually any wall in the world without offense, controversy, or distraction. It was the company’s bestseller and remains so to this day.
Poster power. Origin of the motivational poster
Anderson did not invent the motivational poster. Collections of quotable quotes date back as far as ancient Egypt. Victorians embroidered inspiring aphorisms onto samplers. Governments for generations have used motivational posters to nudge ordinary people toward hard things, like stoicism during the Blitz (Britain’s “Keep Calm and Carry On”) or factory jobs in wartime (the US “We Can Do It!” poster, often dubbed Rosie the Riveter.)
But the genre’s big breakthrough—its Gutenberg Bible, if you will—arrived in 1971, when Los Angeles-based photographer Victor Baldwin published a photograph of his Siamese cat Sammy clinging by its paws to a bamboo pole, above the caption “Hang In There, Baby.” The poster sold 350,000 copies in two years.
Baldwin was flooded with letters from people claiming that the sight of the plucky kitten (who in Baldwin’s original photograph looks utterly terrified) gave them the courage they needed recover from illness, accidents, and other setbacks. The poster inspired countless knockoffs, and identified a vast and previously untapped market of people who liked their pep talks in poster form.
The precise mechanism by which a motivational poster motivates is not well understood. Being exposed to a stimulus, even one as seemingly benign as an image on a wall, can have a powerful unconscious effect on later behavior, a concept known as priming. Researchers have found that an “honesty box” for coffee and tea in an office break room gets three times more contributions when a picture of eyes is posted next to the box instead of a picture of flowers. In another experiment, people picked up twice as much litter in a cafeteria when a picture of human eyes was on the wall.
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Gary P. Latham, an organizational psychologist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has conducted several experiments on the power of motivational posters. In one, 54 call center employees were randomly assigned to work in either a bare room, a room decorated with a photo of a victorious runner crossing a finish line, or one featuring a poster of smiling call-center employees. The workers who saw the runner raised more money than those in the empty room, and those who saw the work-related poster raised the most of all.
“They’ve been on my wall for 30 some odd years,” Latham said with a laugh. “I’d stopped seeing them.”
Posters “absolutely” have an effect on behavior, just not at the conscious level. Most people in Latham’s experiments don’t realize that they’ve seen a poster in the room, he said. Motivational posters are practically made to be discarded by the conscious mind.
Latham said he was once asked during a phone interview if he had any such images in his office. As he looked around the room, he was surprised to realize that it was in fact full of decades-old motivational posters that he, a scholar of motivational posters, no longer consciously registered.