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SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.)

International relations lecturer and author Jeffrey Whyte requested the use of images from this article in publishing a book titled The Birth of Psychological War.

The vast majority of my articles on the history of psychological operations study wartime operations. This article is a bit different. It explores an American peacetime operation aimed at determining the ability of the airdropped propaganda leaflet to spread information.  

I first wrote briefly about Project Revere in a November 1967 article entitled "Leaflets over America" in The Aerial Leaflet. At that time I expected to write a major article in the near future. I never did so. The data has been filed away in a manila envelope for the past 38 years. Perhaps it is finally time to write that long-awaited story. I recently started to sort out my saved references such as: The Findings of Project Revere, Formulas for Spreading Opinions, The Momental Models for Diffusing Attributes, Civil Defense Leaflet Test, The relationship between Numbers of Leaflets Disseminated and Communication Achieved, and a host of other research documents.

At the height of the Cold War, in those years just after World War II and prior to the Korean War, the United States Air Force joined with academia to predict the reliability of the diffusion of a test message dropped from the air. Project Revere was established to test the distribution and effects of airborne messages and to discover formulas that would guarantee a high probability of maximum diffusion and compliance with leaflet instructions in future conflicts and wars. The name for the project was meant to remind the public of Revere's historic ride and the spreading of his message in a time of national emergency. It was selected because American citizens would recognize the patriotic importance of the project and be more motivated to take part in the project, which required the filling out of the leaflets, and interviews. They would be less motivated if it was considered just a mere scientific experiment.

Because of the Korean War, it has sometimes been surmised that this experiment was to produce better propaganda leaflets for use against North Korea. In fact, it was meant to produce better propaganda leaflets for any friend or enemy in peace or wartime.  

Stuart C. Dodd explains partially in: Can the Social Scientist Serve Two Masters? He says in part:

The Air Force wants to know how far, fast, fully and how effectively a message would be apt to spread through a given population. Their “Four F’s” were to be answered with as high generality as possible. They wanted us to study the basic principals of message diffusion.

Ron Theodore Robin mentions the project in The making of the Cold War enemy: culture and politics in the military-Industrial Complex, Princeton University Press, 2001:

The most notable academic fine-tuning of World War Two theories for the Korean Theater was Project Revere, a military-civilian investigation of communication processes carried out between 1951 and 1953. Funded by the Air Force and directed by University of Washington sociologist Stuart A. Dodd, Project Revere represented an ambition attempt to codify in mathematical terms the “reception” of airdropped leaflets and the “diffusion” of their content. For these purposes, the Air Force provided Dodd and his associates at the University of Washington with a budget of $300,000, a particularly large sum by early 1950 standards.

Dodd’s mandate was to increase the affectivity of military psychological warfare in Korea. However, he chose to carry out his mandate in markedly different surroundings. Sensing no contradiction in terms, Dodd targeted a variety of American towns in Washington State and elsewhere.

Melvin Lawrence DeFleur and Otto N. Larsen say in The Flow of Information: An Experiment in Mass Communication, Transaction Inc., New Brunswick, NJ, 1958. They say the amount of money made available to researchers was $320,000. The U.S.A.F wanted to test how news is reported when the usual sources are lost. In particular, they wanted information about the spread of information from leaflets dropped from the sky. In 1952 the United States was fighting in Korea and the USSR had long range missiles and atomic bombs. A way to quickly communicate with the public when major cities were destroyed and there were no electronic means of communication could be very important. In 1966, after the Freedom of Information act was passed, a reporter discovered that one of the Air Force officers who was liaison with one of the research teams was CIA. The plot thickens. This turned out to be part of Operation MK Ultra, a mind control study that was discredited and abandoned after there was a discovery that many people had been given LSD without their knowledge, and at least one committed suicide. But, after all was said and done, there was a need for this research, and it was possible that in a major emergency, aerial leaflets would be needed, and more research must be done on their effectiveness. Some comments by the authors:

Approximately 20 pre-tests were invented and explored to varying degrees during the first year; then 10 tests intended as more definitive experiments were carried out in the second year; and finally, analysis and reporting consumed the third year.

The original plans for retesting Revere findings in other cultures under other conditions such as Japan, Korea, North Africa, Spain, etc., were changed when there was a reorganization of Air Force research in psychological warfare.

One of Mel DeFleur’s students at Syracuse University told me a bit about him:

In 1994, Mel held an endowed chair at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was quite a character. He held the rank of sergeant in the USMC. He took part in many landings and battles in the South Pacific during the Second World War. He never talked about it much, saying he'd lost a lot of buddies. One thing I learned that he was up at the top of Mt. Suribachi when the famous flag-raising event occurred.

He was great storyteller, like the story of how he decided to get a college education. He said he was sitting in a foxhole full of mud on some island, eating some slop, and it was wet and cold and raining. Over across the way he could see some officers sitting down to eat in a nice dry tent being served on nicer tableware than a mess tin. It was the same slop but the accommodations were certainly more inviting. He asked himself, what's the difference between me and those officers? The answer was clear - A college education.

Mel passed away in February 2017.

This was just one of many partnerships between the Government of the United States and major universities to study improvements in propaganda dissemination and message diffusion. The Central Intelligence Agency contracted with American University to prepare a handbook on leaflet dispersion by balloons. Johns Hopkins University later prepared studies on methods of dissemination and density of leaflet distribution. However, the Washington University project was the first major study to scientifically observe all the phases of a leaflet operation from start to finish.

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Gold Shield Coffee Leaflet

Some of the pretesting of the project is mentioned by H. Taylor Buckner in “A Theory of Rumor Transmission,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, spring, 1965. He says in part:

In this study, a message (Gold Shield Coffee—Good as Gold) was started with 17 per cent of the residents of Issaquah, Washington, on Monday, July 16, 1951. On Tuesday, July 17, an airplane passed over town and dropped 30,000 leaflets containing the first half of the slogan and informing the residents of the 305 occupied housing units that there was a slogan known to one person in five in the town. The leaflet also stated that if the slogan was known when the coffee company representative called, the respondent would receive a free pound of coffee. On Wednesday, July 18, an adult from almost every household in town was interviewed. Among the questions asked was, "Whom did you tell?"

A paper entitled “Project Revere – Leaflets as a medium of Last resort” clarifies further. It states that this was the first of the Project Revere experiments. The community was given half of the slogan of a coffee company, and then leaflets were dropped telling them that they would be given a prize if they knew the entire slogan. Interviewers came to each home with a pound of coffee. To win that coffee, the interviewee needed to know the slogan and be able to identify the pathway through which he received or passed the information.

The Bells are Going to Ring!

[Author’s note] A quick aside. One would think that this use of the postcard as an advertisement calling for action and involving the phones would be quite rare and invented by the Revere crew. It seems to have been around for quite a while. The above postcard requires a 1.5-cent stamp on the address side. There seems to be no date for the use of that fee, but we do know that the cards were a penny to mail until 5 April 1925 when the price was raised to 2 cents. So that tells us the campaign was earlier than 1925. We then discover that Kellogg was introducing the cereal PEP. We know that was done in 1923. So that indicates the cards were most likely sent out in 1923 or late 1922. One wonders of the Revere staff was aware of these earlier campaigns.

Another rumor experiment was started at Whitman College where selected students were told a number of rumors had been planted at the college (12 different) and a student who could record all twelve was eligible to win $300. The twelve messages were in complete (ten words and two images) and incomplete (eight words and one image) form.

The Project Revere Pretest Album gives the codes for the early tests:

Pretest A – Thurstone Rumor
Pretest B – University of Washington Campus – Civil Defense
Pretest C – Coffee “C-Ville” diffusion of Commercial Slogan
Pretest D – Salt Lake City Civil Defense Theme – Operation Pioneer
Pretest E – Pilot Study (Enemy Bomber) Four Towns – Leaflet Density and Repetition
Pretest F – Kirkland School Contest
Pretest G – Boise Ground Observer Corps Theme
Pretest H – Whitman College Rumor - Recording Contest
Pretest I - Phone chains
Pretest J – Episode Jesus Christ
Pretest K – Episode Flowdrop
Pretest L – Operation Fort Lewis
Pretest M – Operation Chain tags - Four messages
Pretest O – Blood Bank
Pretest P – Role of Children in Diffusion
Pretest Q – Camp Orkila

During the three-year project, the USAF dropped [all numbers hereafter are approximate] 51 different messages on 27 different experimental leaflets over 30 communities. About three quarters of a million leaflets were dropped on about three quarters of a million citizens in the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Alabama. The numbers vary somewhat, with DeFleur saying 51 different messages in 44 flight missions over 35 unwarned communities. Many of the messages were very similar and it is possible that the researcher looked at two leaflets and either called them the same or different.

Eighteen types of diffusion curves and mathematical models were devised to verify the results of the test.  The Human Resources Research Institute, Air Research and Development Command, Maxwell Air Force Base monitored the research. The study generated 17 technical reports to the Air Force and 54 papers in journals. In addition, numerous studies and articles have been published since the end of the project.

Stuart Carter Dodd discussed the experiment in "Formulas for Spreading Opinions," The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 4, winter 1958. Some selected comments are:

Why did the Air Force contract for research on leaflet operations? They told us in effect: We need to learn principals for predicting and producing message diffusion from airborne leaflets. We have dropped over 2 billion leaflets with very little firm knowledge of their effect. We must be ready to drop billions more, perhaps in very different situations.  

What rules, for example, can you find for deciding how many leaflets to print or drop? What rules may be discovered for guiding the pilots as to where to drop most effectively? What rules for best timing? What rules may help us write the most potent leaflets? In short, what principals may maximize the effect of the leaflet weapon? 

The Washington Public Opinion Laboratory of the University of Washington in Seattle became partners with the USAF in the project. They were paid $330,000 to do the mathematical research and prepare the models. The Lab considered the study a "coveted opportunity to begin testing an interactance formula or hypothesis." The formula would predict any social action as a product of a few necessary, standardized, and measurable factors. The testing would follow the steps of the scientific method using current mathematical models. The leaflets were seen as an unusual research opportunity.

For the purpose of the test, the entire operations was broken down into 7 distinct phases.

  1. The Policy Stage. What would the leaflets say? How to produce a wanted conclusion?
  2. The Planning Stage. What is the look and the language of the leaflet?
  3. The Printing and Packaging Stage. What color? What type? What font? Etc.
  4. The Delivery Stage. 50 measurable factors. Speed, altitude, release equipment, etc.
  5. The Diffusion Stage. What happened when the leaflet hit the ground? Did people hand it around (physical diffusion) and tell each other the message (social diffusion).
  6. The Compliance Stage. Did the leaflet finder comply with the request on the leaflet?
  7. The Evaluation Stage. Can we predict the diffusion of a leaflet message? If so, how?

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Project Revere Salt Lake City Postcard

The best way to discuss the project is to study the test in one community. For the First experiment we have selected Salt Lake City Utah, 26 July 1951.  The Air Force dropped 55,000 leaflets in two groups from a USAF C-47 in a test called "Operation Pioneer". The first half was disseminated over a residential area at 2:00 a.m. The second half was dropped over another residential area 12 hours later at 2:00 p.m. The leaflets bore a secret mark so that the testers could determine where the leaflets had been distributed. The leaflets were 5 1/2 x 7 inches in size, bright yellow in color. They were in the form of a postcard addressed to "Civil Defense, % Postmaster, Salt Lake City, Utah." The leaflet asked the finder to fill out a number of civil defense questions, check when, how, and where the leaflet was obtained and to place it in a mailbox. The postage was paid.  

Of the 55,000 leaflet postcards, 3,940 were returned by mail. 94% were properly filled out. There was no appreciable difference between the returns from the day and night drop. Newspapers and radio stations were asked not to report on the project. Pollsters could then interview people in the community in person and by telephone to determine how many had heard of the leaflets and were aware of the data in them. This way, the diffusion of the data was uncontaminated by the press.

Ninety percent of those citizens who mailed in a completed leaflet stated that they had found it on the same day that it was dropped. The people interviewed face-to-face turned out to be more honest and more accurate than those interviewed by telephone. This seems to verify the PSYOP belief that face-to-face communication is the most important form on contact. One conclusion of the test was that "It appears that great caution should be exercised in interpreting results of telephone interviews." It is a pity that the political pollsters seem to have ignored this data over the past 50 years.  

The answers to some of the questions on the leaflet are interesting. When asked what they would do if the leaflet was a warning of an enemy attack the answers included:

Go to basement; Go to cellar; Crawl under bed; Stand under door; and my personal favorite; Pray a lot.

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Project Revere Pretest E Salt Lake City Leaflet

A second form of leaflet was prepared to test leaflet density and repetition. This pretest E was dropped on Tenino, Castle Rock, Morton and Winlock. Four bundles were dropped on four straight days in the first two towns and four bundles just on a single day in the last two towns. The text is:

One visit from an enemy bomber could send refugees and wounded pouring into your town. Are you prepared to help care for them?

If such a disaster occurred, how many refugees could you take into your home?

Talk this problem over with your family and friends.  

A Civil Defense Representative will call at you house to get your answer.

A friendly airplane dropped this leaflet just as it might do in an emergency

Signed: D. E. Barbey
State Civil Defense Director.

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A second version of “One Visit” Leaflet

As in many tests of the Project Revere leaflets, this same vignette was used on a second leaflet with a slightly different text. Notice that in this version the finder will not be visited, but instead called on the telephone:

One visit from an enemy bomber could send evacuees pouring into your town.

If such a disaster occurred…how many refugees could you take into your home?

A Civil Defense Representative will call to get your answer. Be sure to talk it over with your family and friends so everyone in this community will have heard about this.  

A friendly airplane dropped this leaflet just as it might do in such an emergency when usual means of communication are not available.

Signed: D. E. Barbey
State Civil Defense Director.

It is clear that this leaflet was not to be mailed back to the testers. Instead, it was hoped that the finders would discuss the contents with their neighbors and the numbers could be counted during personal interviews.

Newsweek Magazine of 13 August 1951 mentions the project in an article entitled “Postcards From Heaven.” Some of the article is:

As Salt Lake City milkmen made their rounds at 1 a.m. on July 26, occasional raindrops filtered down from cloudy skies. Suddenly the air was filled with fluttering, oversized postcards that drifted to the streets, sidewalks, and lawns of the city’s East Bench residential district.

Twelve hours later, housewives and husbands still chatting excitedly about the aerial visitation again spotted boldly lettered 5 1/2 x 7-inch black-on-yellow cards spinning earthward. This time many could glimpse a two-motored plane from which the messages were spewing.

“Urgent,” each missive read. “If this were an enemy leaflet dropped to warn you of an atomic attack coming today, what would you do?”

The article goes to say that curious citizens scanned newspapers, called radio stations, civil defense authorities and the police in vain. All of them received the same answer; “This is a test. Please follow instructions.” An Air Force C-47 had made eleven passes over sectors of the city having population densities of from 7,700 to 16,000 persons per square mile. Aerial photographs had been taken of the postcard dispersal, while ground crews photographed and counted coverage at specific intervals. Meanwhile 30 interviewers made a house-house canvass, and telephone crews tallied reactions. Children had a field day. They climbed trees and drainpipes to collect the cards. One 9 year-old collected about 50 of the postcards and opened a small business selling them for a penny apiece.

There were numerous pretests as the social scientists prepared to test their leaflet theories. One was called “Operation Chain Tags” or “Operation M” and compared the results of asking leaflet finders in four matched communities to either “earn a dollar,” “help civil defense,” “help scientific research,” or “be a modern Paul Revere.” The last theme, one of patriotism, was found to be the most potent.

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Blood Bank Leaflet – Pretest O

Another pretest, “Operation Blood Bank,” explored the possibility of changing attitudes toward donating blood. It also tested variant forms of a leaflet with the same general message. 28,000 leaflets containing 28 different messages were dropped on Monroe, Washington, a community of 1,556 people. The leaflet above is message #3 which has a message on the back explaining that the King County Blood Bank both collects blood for the armed forces and banks blood for civilian use. It states that the blood bank will be open on Wednesday, 4 June 1952, and asks finders of the leaflet to donate.

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Blood Bank Leaflet Poster

Although documentation says that there are 28 different Blood Bank leaflets I notice that in this officially prepared poster they depict 30 such leaflets. Perhaps two were not disseminated for some reason. Project Revere – Pretest O – Final report indicates that 344 individuals responded, each seeing an average of almost 4 leaflets, and that altruistic appeals for blood for servicemen were more effective that requests for blood to be “banked” for future individual use.

The researchers then prepared “Operation Krishna,” which told Seattle residents of a man claiming to be Jesus Christ and measured their reaction.

Returning to the scientific concept of the project, the mathematical formulae and models are complicated enough to "cross a Rabbi's eyes" as Tevya might say in Fiddler on the Roof. To simplify and summarize the concept we can say that leaflets were dropped over different communities in different ratios (leaflets to inhabitants), at different times, and shortly afterwards the inhabitants were questioned by phone and personal interview in an attempt to discover how far, how quickly, and how accurately the information on the leaflets had spread. The assumption was that the data gathered from this peacetime drop over American towns would be accurate enough to help determine the way that leaflets should be prepared and dropped over enemy towns in a time of war. In the words of the report:

The mission of Project revere was to gain information about the employment of airborne leaflets over friendly American populations. It is possible that many of the generalizations about the use of leaflets over targets in the United States may apply to foreign, hostile cultures; but fuller evaluations must be based on data gathered in other research projects. 

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"One Raid" Leaflet

Jennifer Gabrys depicts a second Project Revere postcard in her booklet Airdrop, Book Works, London, 2004.  This is a two-part leaflet. To the left is a postage-paid perforated postcard addressed to "PROJECT REVERE, Washington Public Opinion Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle 5, Washington." The leaflet at right  depicts a silhouette of a bomb and the text: 

One raid by an ENEMY BOMBER could paralyze radios, telephones, newspapers.

IN SUCH A DISASTER leaflet like this could be dropped from airplanes to give official instructions.

YOU are an important part of this scientific test to find out how effective leaflets are for spreading vital information to everyone. 


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The Back of the “One Raid” Leaflet

The leaflet on the back depicted Paul Revere on his famous ride and a civilian awaked by his shout looking out the window. To the left is a questionnaire on the back of the postcard similar to the one used in the HRRI leaflet depicted at the end of this article. The message on the back of this leaflet exists in numerous variations. I have seen 17 different messages and there could be more. I quote four of the texts:

It isn’t just anonymous strangers who benefit from national defense. Your friends, your own family, SOMEONE YOU FEEL VERY CLOSE TO might need the instructions printed on leaflets. Fill out and mail the attached postcard to show you’ve seen this test leaflet. Leaflets like this could do the job of a modern Paul Revere.

There is NO INTERRUPTION to the need for developing up-to-date national defense weapons – such as leaflets. Don’t interrupt this program of weapons research. Fill out and mail the attached postcard to show you’ve seen this test leaflet. Leaflets like this could do the job of a modern Paul Revere.

EVERYONE is safer when they know just what to do when disaster strikes. You can contribute to the safety of MILLIONS OF PEOPLE by helping to make leaflets effective for spreading national defense instructions. Fill out and mail the attached postcard to show you’ve seen this test leaflet. Leaflets like this could do the job of a modern Paul Revere.

NO ONE CAN FORCE YOU to fill out and mail the attached national defense postcard. But you can do it VOLUNTARILY. To mail or not to mail – the choice is for you to make. You can either ignore this text or you can play a part in it of you own free will and show that you’ve seen this test leaflet. Leaflets like this could do the job of a modern Paul Revere.

A great deal of information was gathered from this test. Much of it was published in The Findings of Project Revere - A Non-technical Report on Leaflet Message Diffusion. One of the organizations submitting the report is the Psychological Warfare Research Division, Major James L. Monroe, Chief. That name caught my eye because Monroe is the officer credited with designing the Monroe Leaflet Bomb during WWII. The Revere Report covers every aspect of the test, from preparation, delivery, diffusion, evaluation, to suggestions for further research.    

Washington University went to great pains to prepare an in-depth study of the value of the printed airdropped leaflet, and one hopes that American PSYOP troops are aware of the findings and still follow some of the policies today. There is far too much data to mention in this short informal look at the project, but we will mention some of the more interesting findings. The reader should understand that we have arbitrarily selected a few items of particular interest from hundreds of statements and conclusions.

The Leaflet as a Medium of Communication. 

The long-term effect makes leaflets a more lasting media than radio or loudspeakers. Research indicates however, that the long-term effect can easily be exaggerated. The continued presence of leaflets has little effect after a day or two. Cut off from newspapers, radio and television, leaflets provide a quick way of reaching such communities with information and instructions. 

Preparing the Leaflet

The major criterion in the writing of a leaflet message is simplicity. A simple message, clearly and concisely presented, is more likely to stimulate social diffusion (person-to-person) of the message. The level of simplicity should be such that the material can be understood by young children. Graphic material can be diffused orally and it is remembered better than verbal messages. Use short words and short sentences. Differences in color and format are needed to indicate that different messages are on the ground and encourage reading of more than one version. "Safe Conduct" and "I Cease resistance" leaflets should be standardized and highly recognizable partly to assure the recipients that they will be recognized by infantrymen of the issuing forces if surrender is attempted. Safe conduct passes should be durable. Such leaflets may be carried around for months in a shoe, helmet or coat lining. Also, a durable safe conduct may appear more reassuring and authoritative and therefore, more likely to be honored if used. The predominant color in a leaflet should contrast with the predominant color of the terrain on which it is to be dropped. Colors should be selected which are known to be the favorites of the target population. Blue is preferred by Anglo-Saxon cultures and red is preferred in India. Yellow leaflets attract aphids and plant lice and the leaflets will be covered by them if dropped on grass. The most satisfactory color of the text is black regardless of the color of the paper.

Delivering the Leaflet 

There is little difference in diffusion of the message whether the leaflets are dropped during the day or during the night. If the leaflets are dropped during the day, the best time is early in the morning. The lower the plane, the more accurate the drop. A useful way of talking about the numbers of leaflets is to specify the number of leaflets per person in the target population or group. This number can be designated as leaflet ratio. One leaflet to one person is 1/1, 16 leaflets per person is 16/1, and so on. Low leaflet ratios are likely to result in a low degree of communication while high ratios (16/1 or greater) result in much higher degrees of communication but the relationship is a wasteful one of diminishing returns. For instance, a 1/1 ratio of leaflets to persons resulted in an 18% communication of the message. Raising the ratio to 4/1 did not quadruple the diffusion. It rose to 32%. At 16/1 the communication was 55%.  At 32/1 the numbers were not much better than at 16/1. It is not cost or risk effective to drop vast amount of leaflets when fewer will do almost as well. The relative degree of communication that is likely to be achieved and the risk that is entailed to accomplish it will be the primary considerations that determine the number of leaflets to be dropped. Leaflet ratios between 2/1 and 8/1 will probably achieve effective communication. In the case of urban areas, leaflets should be dropped to cover the entire area for maximum communications. Complete coverage of the drop area seems to be advisable in any population, which is known or suspected of having certain restrictions on its freedom to move about. There is reason to suspect that the same conclusion could be made with regard to leaflet drops on troops. If an infantry squad is unable to move out of its area and no leaflets drop within reach, it is less likely that they will be informed.

Diffusion of the Message

Contrary to expectation, learning about the message through conversation produced better recall that actually seeing the leaflet alone. The greater interest of two people speaking about the leaflet was more important than one person just reading a leaflet. More people will hear about the leaflet through conversation than will actually see the leaflet. People who actually find the leaflet are twice as likely to talk about it than those who heard about it. In areas where severe penalties are provided for reading or possessing a leaflet, the restraints are always less stringent for children. We can inform adults through the children. This should be taken into consideration when designing the leaflets. The leaflets should be children-friendly and designed to tempt them to pick it up. They will discuss the leaflets with their friends and bring them home to the adults. Leaflet messages are mostly passed within the first hour. The rate of growth steadily declines after the initial hour. About half of those who will ever learn the message do so within the first three hours, and at the end of the first day about 80% of the diffusion is completed. If action by the population is desired at a specific time, the leaflets should be dropped from 24 to 48 hours before the event is scheduled to take place. Distortion of oral messages is very high, in some cases only one percent of the original message remains after the message has been passed by five persons.

Suggestions for Further Research

A promising set of rules for writing "potent" messages was developed but needs testing. The study determined that there were 17 main type of leaflet appeals identified as intensity, duration, probability, permanence, continuity, and so on. The role of the airplane should be studied. Would a noisy aircraft stimulate curiosity and speed up the rate of diffusion? Can too many leaflets discourage the message diffusion just as too many commercials on TV "turn off" a viewer?

The Air research and development Command Human Resources Research Institute (HRRI) published a research digest entitled The Relationship between Numbers of Leaflets Disseminated and Communication Achieved in January 1954. The report was written by Otto N. Larsen under an Air Force contract with the direction of Stuart Dodd of the University of Washington Public Opinion Laboratory. This was one of a series of twelve technical research reports and research digests prepared by the Project Revere staff.

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HRRI Standard Leaflet

The digest discusses the procedure used in testing. Eight small Washington State communities ranging in population from 1,015 to 1,800 were selected as target sites for the test. A leaflet was prepared that warned the reader that one raid by an enemy bomber could paralyze all communication and thus leaflets could become an important source of information. Citizens were asked to mail one leaflet to Project Revere and pass out extra leaflets to others.

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HRRI Standard leaflet (Back)

A postcard questionnaire was attached to the leaflet. The number of leaflets dropped ranged from 325 to 37,600 (a ratio of from one leaflet to every four people all the way to thirty-two leaflets per person). The leaflets were all dropped at about noon on a Wednesday spread over the towns as evenly as possible. The response was measured both by the mail-back postcards and field personnel who personally interviewed residents of the towns. Charts were prepared that showed the amount of communication that took place after the drop in each scenario. Citizens were asked if they had seen the leaflet and if they recalled the message.

Some of the conclusions reached by the author are:

Doubling the number of leaflets will not insure doubling the amount of communication or diffusion of a given message. Dropping from four to eight leaflets per person achieves maximum efficiency. Regardless of how many leaflets are dropped, only about one-half of the people will pick them up. Only about 6% of the people hear the leaflet messages orally from others. About 33% of the people never hear the message at all. More people saw the leaflet than knew the message, and more people knew the message than acted upon it.

The report ends:

The findings of this report have been derived from one carefully conducted test involving eight small target communities in western Washington in 1953. Under the controlled testing conditions described, the findings are confidently reported. However, the limits of their generalization are not known. Further tests under varying conditions should be undertaken.

In other words, the author is saying that the diffusion of communication from leaflets are one thing in a peaceful town under ideal conditions, but the numbers could be quite different in a time of war when the leaflets are dropped between bombing from the air and artillery bombardment, and the population is under stress from sleep and food deprivation.

Robin takes a slightly more positive approach in his conclusion:

The significance of Project Revere was…communication techniques developed in distinctly American surroundings were reproducible. Revere provided rules for the diffusion of messages reduced to mathematical formulas and purged of cultural qualifications...Elements such as ratio of leaflets per person of channels of diffusion were not culturally specific.

In the past few years there has been a lot of research and publication of the Project Revere data. In particular, there have been studies of the various towns targeted for research and the pre-testing during the early preparations for the actual study. One very interesting blog on this subject is entitled “Postcards from Heaven,” and sponsored by Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Seattle Times of 29 November 1953 mentioned the project nearing an end:

Project Revere, described by a researcher as an attempt to measure the “firepower of paper bullets,” tentatively is scheduled to end 31 December after two and a half years of study by 20 full-time investigators, aided by dozens of experts who visited the Washington University campus from all over the country.

In a series of controlled experiments, more than 1,000,000 leaflets were dropped on 30 cities and towns in Washington and other metropolitan centers as far away as Birmingham, Alabama.

The first set of tests was to discover the most effective number of leaflets to drop. Eight drops were made in Washington State and it was discovered that it is possible to drop too many leaflets. The second set of drops was to determine the effective of delivery patters. A third set determined the most effective appeal to action. The fourth test was to determine the effectiveness of repeated drops.

Help Paul Revere

The Dollar Leaflet

Each of the leaflets we depict in this article has its own Report booklet, each numbered and dated. It is possible therefore to look at any leaflet and find out all the data on its distribution, answers, and the possible meanings and percentages of those answers. Booklet U:52-235 titled, Project Revere, Pretest M, Final Report, offers a summary of the findings on the two leaflets above. I depict copies of the leaflet text as found in the booklet. Some of the findings on the two leaflets above are:

The Paul Revere theme stands out as the most effective of the themes. It gave the largest numbers of returns, and it had the largest number of people involved. An outstanding finding from these analyses is the rapidity with which these handbill messages can go through a community. Thus, with the “Help Paul Revere” motivation, the median getting-to-giving time intervals was ten minutes. The recipients rushed right out to pass on their handbills. At this rate, a person with three handbills could reach 2,000 people within two hours in peacetime.

The “dollar theme” was also outstanding. It had the highest compliance rate of all the leaflets. And the highest number of completed leaflets. However, the administrative difficulty and expense connected with giving away the dollar and getting a receipt for it somewhat counteracts these advantages.

This has been a very brief look at one of the most important and least known studies of the actual testing methods used and the results of a scientific leaflet drop. As I stated early in this article, there are close to 100 papers on this project so the interested reader can find much more detailed data on the subject. As always, I encourage readers with comments (or postcards or leaflets from Project Revere) to write to the author at

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