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Propaganda: What it is and How to Recognize it

Updated on April 18, 2013
Can I recognize when propaganda is being used on me?
Can I recognize when propaganda is being used on me? | Source

The Definition

Propaganda is a type of advertising. Propaganda consists of information used to promote or publicize a particular point of view. The information in propaganda often misleads, and it is often political in nature. Propaganda also consists of the act of using misleading or biased information as a political or advertising strategies.

A fallacy is a mistake in rhetoric, or persuasive techniques. Fallacy-based reasoning often serves as the center of propaganda.

World War I propaganda poster.
World War I propaganda poster. | Source

Examples of Propaganda

Here are six of the most common types of propaganda techniques used in advertising and politics.

  • Bandwagon: The bandwagon approach appeals to people's desire to belong. It stems from the idea, "Hey everybody's doing it. They can't all be wrong," or "Hey, everybody's doing it – I should do it, too." For example:
    • All the other schools in the District require students to wear I.D.s. This school can’t be different.
    • Rice: 1 billion Chinese people can't be wrong.
  • Either/Or Fallacy: The either/or approach is also called black and white thinking. Only two options are given, forcing people to make a choice. Normally one of the choices is bad, so in truth there is only one correct choice: the propagandist's. For example:
    • Are you willing to donate $10 today, or do you support environmental destruction?
    • Learn how to identify fallacies, or you're stuck believing everything you hear.
  • Snob Appeal: The snob appeal relates to people's need to feel superior to others, or at least a better type of person. For example:
    • Some schools do not care enough about their students to protect them. We’re better than that. Our students must wear IDs.
    • Why read those boring email loops that everybody else does? You need more intellectual stimulation. Read the Logic Loop, be more logical than the rest.
  • False Analogy: With false analogy, two situations that are only superficially similar are compared with deeper connections made. For example:
    • Schools are like offices. Therefore, since office workers must wear business attire, our dress code prepares students for the business world.
    • Employees are just like nails. Since you have to hit a nail on the head to make it function properly, so we must do with employees.
  • Appeal to Fear: The appeal to fear techniques taps into people's natural concerns for health and safety. With this propaganda technique, people feel as if their health or safety is in danger. For example:
    • There are a lot of dangers threatening our students. We don’t need unidentified people adding undue risk.
    • Which works better for you: 1 hour of daily exercise or 24 hours of daily death? (This example also uses the either/or fallacy).
  • Name-Calling: With the name-calling approach, a negative label is attached to a person or concept. This negative label usually has nothing to do with the situation at hand, or it may exaggerate one aspect of the situation. For example:
    • Employees who don't regularly answer their emails are suspicious, like rats. We don't want rats running around our office, do we?
    • Mr. Senator doesn't support increasing funding to welfare? Well, I didn't know Scrooge had run for office.

Rolls Royce works hard to promote its brand as a luxury car.
Rolls Royce works hard to promote its brand as a luxury car. | Source

Propaganda in Advertising

While it is true business may not be putting forth a political message in their advertisements, propaganda techniques still exist in advertising.

  • Bandwagon: Bandwagon is used in advertising by companies trying to optimize the group mentality. The premise lies in the idea that if the product is good enough for the group – often a desirable crowd – then it is good enough for you. On the flip side, such advertising might relate negatively: Buy this product, or you're one of "those types" -- a type no one wants to be – or, at the very least, left out.
    • McDonalds offers the classic example: "Over X billion people served." All those billions of people can't be wrong, can they?
    • Alcohol companies, especially beer or vodka: Ads show a happy group of people in a clean bar drinking a particular brand of beer while watching the Big Game.
    • Appealing to manliness: Real men use Macs or drive Dodge Ram or use Axe aftershave. If you don't use these brands, you're not a "real man," right?
  • Snob Appeal: Designer brands are created around the idea that people want to feel superior; they make billions of dollars on the truth that people will pay more to own a snob-worth brand. However, this approach can also be used for other values.
    • Starbucks appeals to people's desire for getting exactly what they want: "If your coffee isn't perfect, we'll make it over. If it’s still not perfect, make sure you're in a Starbucks. It's not coffee, it's Starbucks."
    • L'Oreal: You're worth it. (Of course I am!)
    • Marines: Do you have what it takes? (I hope so…)
  • Name-Calling: Advertisers usually use name-calling by drawing a comparison between their product and their rivals; obviously their product is much better, suggesting the rival's product is bad. They attach the negative label of "bad, smaller, skimpier, less-healthy…" to the other product.
    • Campbells: "How do you like your chicken noodle – with MSG, or without?" Campbells does not have MSG; therefore the other brand is less healthy.
    • Burger King: "Big Mac? Seems more like a medium." The whopper is much bigger than the so-called "Big" Mac.
    • Medicine: Take just one pill a day (to relieve pain, allergies, etc) instead of every four hours. The implication is that the other brand is ineffective.

Looks like a scary outcome alright.
Looks like a scary outcome alright. | Source

Gullible or Savvy?

How many of the propaganda techniques did you recognize beforehand?

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Propaganda in Politics

The use of propaganda in politics is usually associated with World War I and World War II. However, political groups, politicians, and their campaign managers still use them today.

  • Bandwagon: The bandwagon approach was often used to encourage people to enlist or in some other way aid the war effort.
    • World War I: "Come on, boys. Give the Guard a Fighting Chance. Fight alongside your friends – Fill up the National Guard."
    • World War II: "Women: There's work to be done and a war to be won… NOW!" Join the ranks of women shown already working to help the war effort.
  • Either/Or Fallacy: You're either for us or against us – which means you're for the enemy.
    • World War I: "Shall we be more tender with our dollars than with the lives of our sons? Buy a United States government bond of the 2nd Liberty Loan of 1917"
    • World War II: "This world cannot exist half slave and half free. Fight for freedom." If you don't support the cause, you might as well support slavery.
    • Anti-abortion campaign: "I'm not pro-choice – I'm pro-life." The suggestion is that either you are pro-life or pro-death.
    • George W. Bush: To a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists."
  • Appeal to Fear: The propaganda technique of fear is almost endemic to war campaigns. However, politicians use it to further their views as well.
    • World War I: "Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?" Fathers would not want to have to admit to their children that they did not enlist during the war.
    • World War II: "Today, Germany is Ours; Tomorrow, the Whole World," with the rebuttal, "Oh, yea?" The implication is that failure to support the war effort will result in Germany's world domination.
    • World War II: "Loose Lips Sink Ships." Don't talk about what you know – it may result in lost battles and lost lives.
    • Dick Cheney: In a town hall meeting during elections, "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States." He is referring to the September 11 attacks.

    Snob Appeal: The snob appeal relates to our desire to be better than the enemy expected, or at least the best we can be.

    • World War I: "And they thought we couldn't fight – Victory Liberty Loan." We're better than the opposition expected.
    • World War II: Rosie the Riveter, "We can do it!"
    • Barrack Obama: “This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work," on the night before the election in Manassas, Prince William County, Virginia. November 3, 2008.

    False Analogy: Rather than explore the issues at hand, it is easier to make a positive or negative comparison that makes the speaker's side look good.

    • Cold War: "Red rape! In can happen here!" This fallacy, besides using the name-calling technique, equates Communism with rape.
    • Kenneth Lay of Enron: Compared attacks on his company after the Enron scandal to terrorist attacks on the United States. From Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
    • John McCain: During his campaign for president, "I am a Teddy Roosevelt Republican." McCain fashioned himself as a maverick in Roosevelt's image as a way to distance himself from the far less popular George W. Bush.
  • Name-Calling: Name-calling is often used to guilt the public into taking an uncomfortable action.
    • World War I: Lord Kitchener, British War Secretary, "Be honest with yourself. Be certain that your so-called reason is not a selfish excuse. Enlist today." This argument attaches the labels "dishonest" and "selfish" with someone who chooses not to enlist.
    • World War I: Are YOU breaking the law? Patriotic Canadians will not hoard food." Food hoarders are law-breakers and un-patriotic according to this argument.

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