Saturday, September 22, 2012

Propaganda 101: Overview

Hey! Did you know four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum? How many of you have heard that one before? It’s from a gum commercial. 

Commercials are a form of propaganda. It’s using the media in an effort to influence you, the viewer/listener/reader. They want you to buy into the benefits of their product or service. No prob, it’s what they do. Just keep that claim in mind about the dentists, and we’ll look into other areas where we are vulnerable to propaganda.

A government uses propaganda as a tool to steer its culture and control its people. If you didn’t before, you know now. Prime examples include the Nazi propaganda machine in World War II. Adolf Hitler had an entire country convinced they were super men, superior to every race on the planet, and the Jewish people were the enemy of mankind. Look at this example:
The poster's caption, translated, is "Warmongers, War extenders." The intent is obvious. The Jew is portrayed as a sinister enemy, evil and cold. Here's another:
The Caption, again, says, "Long Live Germany!" and portrays Adolf Hitler as a messianic figure. The dove in the background settles on him the same way a dove settled on Jesus at his baptism, and God's favor shines down from above.

So we see two purposes of propaganda: dehumanize the enemy, and draw popular support for your agenda.

Germany wasn't the only player in the propaganda war. Here are some examples from our side:
This portrays a grotesque German sowing the seeds of war and destruction. The style, a la Salvador Dali, is stark and shocking in its content, made to disturb the beholder to action.
Here's one that plays on every parent's fear: That of protecting our children from the shadow of Nazism.
And this last one portrays the German as a demonic figure, watching from behind every corner to spy on us.

These are all very open examples. There is no doubt about what they are trying to do, and that is to bend public opinion in their favor, to coerce cooperation from the masses.

Surely, you say, you should be able to spot propaganda from a country mile and dismiss it, right? What if I suggested you were being subjected to propaganda on a more subliminal level, and not only letting it happen, but being bent by it? We can't always help it.

Let's look back at our dentists in the sugarless gum commercial above, and apply it in a slightly different way. "Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum."
This seems to say that eighty percent of all dentists recommend this particular product to their patients. That isn't what this says at all, and here's how the numbers shake out:

First, let's take a look at how the question is phrased. "Do you recommend sugared gum or sugarless gum for for your patients?" Like there's another choice? Ever been in one of thos polls where none of the answers fits how you really think? That's deliberate. It's so they can juggle the numbers later to get the results they want.

Second, on our gum commercial, is the sample. Let's say the team polled five hundred dentists. four hundred and ninety of those dentists might have wanted to say it doesn't make a difference to them, but that's not an option on the poll. So they settled and said, yes, if their patient HAD to chew gum, sugarless would probably be the way to go. The other ten dentists just got disgusted with the pollster and hung up or chased them out of the office with a drill.

The final results are based on a sample of the poll results. So the pollsters take five samples, hand-picked, and leave in the result from one of the psycho-dentists. That makes four out of five dentists surveyed, doesn't it?

Commercials aren't the only place you see this kind of covert propaganda, either. The news media, political parties and others use these tactics and others to shape opinion and coerce public support for their agendas.

In future posts, we'll examine some of the ways the public swallows things they normally would lynch someone over. Next week, we'll look at the role of a willing press. See you then.


  1. Interesting.
    No doubt, ad agencies know how to work demographics. But we all do this--from the early experience of knowing whether Mom is more likely to say "yes" than Dad, right up until the more sophisticated preying on fears (which is the main strategy of the war propaganda).
    I handpick my target audience for my books--I wouldn't market them to lovers of historical nonfiction, for example.
    In a poll, of course I'd select a skewed audience...

  2. Very interesting, Cyrus. During a college course in archetechural design, I think it was, this very topic was discussed at length... More specifically, "positive propaganda" or how some propaganda/brainwashing is spread for the good of all. Are you old enough to remember when once you finished that can of Coke, it was perfectly acceptable to toss it right out the car window? Well, I do!

  3. ...and in case you don't know me by my nickname, the above comment is by Joelle. =)

  4. Jodi, I got ya. Glad it gets one thinking. I actually had a class on propaganda in high school, and learned that it isn't so much what is said, but also what ISN'T said that is critical. We'll discuss some more of that next week.

    Thanks all for stopping by and commenting!

  5. Ah, interesting topic. I agree that propaganda surrounds us. I shall look forward to your next post.