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Propaganda: handing over your mind


2. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would be angry.
3. Why then do you feel no shame in handing over your mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who tries to persuade you for his own advantage?
– A.C. Grayling (2011) The good book: a humanist bible (p.23)

Etymology of propagana: 1718, from Mod.L. propaganda, short for Congregatio de Propaganda Fide “congregation for propagating the faith,” committee of cardinals established 1622 by Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions, prop. abl. fem. gerundive of L. propagare (see propagation). Modern political sense dates from World War I, not originally pejorative.

The Committee on Public Information (CPI) was a US government agency created to influence public opinion regarding participation in World War I. It used every medium available to create enthusiasm for the war effort and enlist public support. Among those who participated in the CPI’s work was Edward Bernays. In his 1928 book ‘Propaganda’ Bernays wrote that the “intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses was an important element in democratic society” and that the manipulators “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country.” Instead of propaganda, he coined the euphemism “public relations.” Life magazine named him one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

In the 20th century the word propaganda developed the following meaning:

The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation.

Propaganda uses information (words, images, sounds, etc.) to manipulate people’s behaviour or beliefs. Regardless of whether the message is true or false, it is always manipulative.  The target of a successful propagandist will feel that s/he has made a voluntary choice,  even though s/he was never given a real chance to do so.  And later, only very effective counter propaganda will be likely to effect a change.

During and after World War II the world witnessed the power of Nazi propaganda, especially their use of film, to promote anti-Semitism and the horrific consequences of that message. It was then that communicators distanced themselves from the concept of propaganda and the word became a pejorative. Therefore our advertisers, marketers, public relations officials and public information officers no longer call their product propaganda.  Nevertheless, that is what it remains, and it is, in fact, around us in all aspects of life.

Most people think of propaganda as synonymous with lies.  And while any piece of propaganda can convey a lie, the best is usually true – true in that the specific things it says are true, even though its implications (the message(s) people take away from it) may be false.  For example, the CEOs of major U.S. tobacco companies testified before a Congressional committee, raised their right hands and swore to tell the truth, then proceeded to say repeatedly that they believed nicotine was non-addictive.  The key word here is ‘believe’. They may well have held that belief.  If so, their statements were true.  Proving otherwise would be difficult, if not impossible.  However, their intended message, that conveyed by the weight of their testimony, their companies’ advertising and the positions they’d taken in courts throughout the land, was that smoking was not harmful.  Given the evidence produced in their own research labs, and those of independent researchers, they could not honestly say that it was safe; only that they believed it to be so.  It is a subtle but very important difference.  They knew that people listening to them would hear what they wanted them to, even though they hadn’t actually said it.  Intangibles like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc., things for which the executives could not be held to account, explain why many people ended up hearing something different than was actually said.  This type of behaviour is one of the major tools in the propagandists’ arsenal. The specific things one says are true, but the larger message one wants the listener to take away is not.  If pressed, or taken to court, the propagandist can plead innocence and apologize for any misunderstandings; but they can do it in a way that maintains the big lie.

The first rule of parity involves the Alice in Wonderlandish use of the words “better” and “best.” In parity claims, “better” means “best” and “best” means “equal to.” If all the brands are identical, they must all be equally good. So “best” means that the product is as good as the other superior products in its category.

The word “better” has been interpreted to be a comparative and therefore becomes a clear claim of superiority. The only time “better” can be used is when a product does have superiority over other products in its category or when the better is used to compare the product with something other than competing brands. An orange juice could therefore claim to be “better than a vitamin pill,” or even “the better breakfast drink.”

The second rule of advertising claims is simply that if any product is truly superior, the ad will say so clearly and offer some convincing evidence of the superiority. If an ad hedges the least bit about a product’s advantage over the competition you can strongly suspect it is not superior–may be equal to but not better. You will never hear a petrol company say “we will give you four miles per gallon more in your car than any other brand.” They would love to make such a claim, but it would not be true. Petrol is a parity product, and, in spite of some clever and deceptive ads no one has yet claimed one brand of petrol better than any other brand.

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