Propaganda is the presentation of ideas designed to persuade a group of people to think a certain way. Developers of propaganda often selectively present facts and information in a widely accessible format to ensure it reaches as many people as possible with a message that may be positive or negative in nature. While any campaign designed to persuade people can be considered propaganda, regardless of its message, most people think of it as a negative thing. Examples can range from anti-German posters used in the United States in World War I to public health campaigns intended to encourage parents to vaccinate their children.
Examples of Propaganda Techniques
Media creators working on a propaganda campaign rely on knowledge of human psychology, looking particularly at how people behave in groups, to develop effective campaigns that will reach the target audience. Some are more sophisticated than others, and many rely on subconscious biases that are already present in the general population. These can be exploited to make people feel a certain way, triggering the desired response to the campaign. Appealing to a person's emotions, for example, or selling the idea of happiness can change people's minds in a way that a thorough examination of the facts of an issue might not do, or at least not as quickly.
As people develop a campaign, they must decide on the most effective media presentation to get their point across. Posters and cartoons can be highly effective and may reach large audiences; a striking image with simple message can stick in people's minds. Radio and television can be used for campaigns involving more information, and may more effectively use a well-liked figure or a "plain folks" character to speak to the audience. People may also consider producing leaflets and books to disseminate information to their target audience.
Positive and Negative Examples
Many people have negative associations with propaganda because it was used as a particularly powerful wartime tool during the 20th century. Countries at war use radio and television broadcasts, posters, magazines, and other media to define the enemy. This also tends to have a dehumanizing effect, where people develop an “us versus them” mentality which may contribute to increased support for the war. People may be warned about the danger of shortages, for example, which makes them afraid and eager for military action to end the hostilities.
This does not necessarily mean all propaganda is negative in nature. Positive campaigns may use the selective presentation of information to reach as many members of the public as possible with the goal of promoting public health, safety, or other issues of public interest. In the US, for example, the Centers for Disease Control has a preteen and teen vaccination campaign that includes posters of happy kids, fact sheets, web buttons, and even a rap song to promote the message. Even with wartime propaganda, a campaign to warn people about the dangers of shortages could be used to encourage people to be less wasteful, to save more, and to do things like plant "victory gardens" to supplement their diets.
Examples of Appealing to Emotion
It is common to see an appeal to emotion, particularly fear, in propaganda campaigns; an example of this can be seen in public health campaigns to encourage women to avoid drinking during pregnancy. These campaigns may use images as well as descriptions of children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FES) to remind mothers to be careful about what they consume.
A similar example of an appeal to emotion can be seen in propaganda campaigns used in war to create terror or unrest. In World War II, both sides used radio broadcasts intended to reach troops on the opposing side. These broadcasts reported false information on troop deaths, military movements, and other events, with the goal of making troops afraid. Many of these programs featured women speaking in seductive voices and playing popular music, making troops feel at home before getting to the message at the heart of the broadcast.
Examples of Selling Happiness
Producers of propaganda may use techniques designed to suggest that people who believe the information presented will live better, happier lives. Some rely on an appeal to authority featuring a beloved, trusted, or well-liked public figure who provides quotes or appears on behalf of the campaign. This can create a positive association with the information provided, and may also lead viewers and listeners to think that they will be happy if they buy a product being sold, or comply with the directions from the campaign.
For example, campaigns encouraging people to buy War Bonds in the United States during the Second World War often featured pictures of happy families. These propaganda materials suggested that buying bonds was not only patriotic because it would help the country, but could also lead to greater happiness for consumers. Likewise, a government might suggest that its citizens are happier and healthier in a campaign aimed at attracting skilled immigrants.
Examples of Making People Pick a Side
Propaganda may rely on forcing viewers and listeners to pick a side with the use of tools like black and white logic, where people are presented with only two available options for how to feel or behave. Creators can also create scapegoats, rely on stereotypes, and use labels or name calling to make the target of a campaign into a generic "other" who threatens the familiar "us." Some notable examples of this type of propaganda were produced by Germany in World War II, where anti-Semetic campaigns were used against the Jewish public.
Keeping It Simple Examples
Creators and producers often stick to one or two simple points and repeat them frequently to make sure they sink in. They rely on very simplistic explanations and promotional tools in the hopes of reaching people and making them internalize and repeat the message. Slogans can be particularly useful for this; many people may be familiar with the slogan "loose lips sink ships" from the Second World War, adopted to remind people to be careful about discussing information critical to national security.
In addition, information may be presented by someone with a "plain folks" appeal. This character, often not a real person, is designed to appeal to people by seeming just like them. Speaking in simple terms, the character provides information on a social issue that may seem logical and reliable, but it often skips key facts.
Use of a plain folks character can be very common in political advertising. A campaign may present people who seem homey and friendly to promote a campaign and its programs; for example, a politician may want someone to provide a testimonial on the success of a program promoting small farms. A farmer, or an actor posing as one, could be asked to speak on behalf of the campaign as a friendly representative who would set a different tone than a politician in a suit.
There is considerable debate over the precise definition of propaganda, as the term often has negative associations. Governments may argue, for example, that material produced by them is informational and beneficial to the public, while comparable materials produced by a rival government are propaganda. Organizations can also have differing opinions on whether material could or should be classified as propaganda.
For example, an atheist group might feel that publications from a church are propaganda, while the church might feel that it is simply distributing information to interested members of the public. A pharmaceutical company might feel that a campaign raising awareness about side effects of a medication is scaremongering intended to frighten members of the public. The "eye of the beholder" problem can be a challenge when evaluating information to check for biases and errors. The International Potato Promotion Board, for example, might be a biased source on potatoes as a health food, while a nutrition agency could provide more accurate information on the subject.