Flyers can come winging their way in to your life in any number of ways. The local take-away restaurants are forever putting them through your letter box, you can be handed flyers as you walk through a Shopping Centre and you can even pick them up at a church service. They are a cheap and easy mass marketing tool that can generate local interest quickly and effectively. But why are they called flyers? They are in fact leaflets, circulars and handbills as well, but for some reason the name has stuck, and that reason is really quite interesting.
Small advertising pamphlets have been around since the invention of mass printing over 400 years ago, and have been used as a way of spreading commercial, social and political messages to a broad population through all that time. But they had to be handed out, and this took time and often the efforts of a large group of people. The development of flight, however, offered a whole new way of getting the message over to a large number of people. As early as October 1870, when Paris was under siege from the Prussian army, leaflets were taken up in a balloon which was flown out of the city and over the Prussian lines. The leaflets proclaimed:
“Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people, shall we always throttle one another for the pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of independence.”
Once over the enemy, the printed leaflets were dropped in their thousands in the hope of disheartening the troops on the ground, who couldn’t be prevented from getting hold of the message by their commanders as they littered the fields below. So with the birth of this airborne form of propaganda, the term “flyer” was born.
The invention and development of aircraft at the beginning of the 20th Century allowed the practice to expand in proportion to the range and capacity of the aircraft that carried them. Flyer printing became a key activity for those responsible for getting a message across, and as well as being used to send messages to enemy forces, they were used to inform, encourage, dishearten and threaten civilian populations, depending on the aim of the propaganda. Those aims were often humanitarian, as in the case of US aircraft dropping flyers over Japanese cities in WWII prior to bombing raids to give the civilians a chance to leave the area before they bombed factories and military bases.
Flyer printing and distribution was also seen as an effective way of countering the propaganda that civilian populations received from their own governments. Dictatorships, in particular, paint a picture of an attacking force as a rampaging evil bent on destruction that can only be held at bay by the regime in power, and use this fear as a means to keep a disgruntled population in check. In turn, the force that seeks to remove the dictator tries to reassure the population that they are in fact liberators who are making great sacrifices on their behalf to free them, and the world in general, from their oppressors. We say this recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. As modern aircraft allow the flyers to be spread throughout a country without much interference from the dictator and his forces, they are a low-cost and peaceful way of encouraging dissent in the hope that it will lead to an increase in the support the local population is willing to offer the invaders.
This method of using printed flyers has been used with varying degrees of success for the last hundred years, and covered all the major conflicts from the world wars to the latest occupation of Afghanistan. So next time someone hands you a flyer, just think about why the name of that little piece of paper can have so much significance.