Skip to comments.Propaganda: Nobody Does It Better Than America.
Posted on 08/08/2002 9:00:42 PM PDT by enrg
Propaganda: Nobody Does It
Better Than America.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting and having discussions with people who came to America from countries known for their adherence to totalitarianism: China, Russia, and former east European satellites of the Soviet Union. When we discussed how the state managed to control public opinion under totalitarianism, these people would usually produce a weary, knowledgeable, cynical smile and point out that propaganda in those countries was really done quite incompetently. If you really want to know propaganda, they said, you need to study American propaganda technique. According to them, it is, undeniably, the best in the world.
"How can that be?" I asked, honestly puzzled.
Propaganda in those countries was too obvious, they told me. As soon as you read the first sentence you knew it was a bunch of propaganda, so you didnt even bother to read it. If you heard a speech, you knew in the first few words that it was propaganda, and you tuned it out.
"But," I then queried, "How do you know when its just propaganda?"
The expatriates explained that bad propaganda uses obvious terminology that anyone can see through. Anyone hearing the phrase "capitalist running dogs", knows hes listening to incompetent propaganda and tunes it out. Lousy propaganda, these knowledgeable but jaded individuals would tell me, appeals to an abstract theory, to a rational thesis that can be disproved. Even though communists had total control of the press, the people just tuned it out (except for those who were the most mentally defective). Most people, they assured me, just went about their lives as best they could, paid lip service to the state, and just tried to keep out of the way of the secret police. But hardly anyone really believed the stuff. The result, after many decades of suffering, was the eventual collapse of the old order once The Great Leader expired, whether his name was Brezhnev, Mao, or Tito.
American propaganda, however, is much cleverer. American propaganda, they patiently explained, relies entirely on emotional appeals. It doesnt depend on a rational theory that can be disproved: it appeals to things no one can object to.
American propaganda had its birth, so far as I can tell, in the advertising industry. The pioneers of advertisinga truly loathsome bunchlearned early on that people would respond to purely emotional appeals. Abstract theory and logical argument do nothing to spur sales. However, appeals to sexiness, to pride of ownership, to fear of falling behind the neighbors are the stock in trade of advertising executives. A man walking down the street with beautiful women hanging on his arms is not a logical argument, but it sure sells after-shave. A woman in a business suit with a briefcase, strolling along with swaying hips, assuring us she can "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, but never let you forget youre a man" really sells the perfume.
Lets take a moment and analyze the particular emotions that this execrable ad appealed to. If you guessed fear, you win the prize. Women often have a fear of inadequacy, particularly in this confused age when they are expected to raise brilliant kids, run a successful business, and be unfailingly sexy, all the time. That silly goalfoisted upon us by feminists and popular cultureis impossible to reach. But maybe theres hope if you buy the right perfume! Arguments from intimidation and appeals to fear are powerful propaganda tools.
American advertising and propaganda has been refined over the years into a malevolent science, based on the assumption that most people react, not to ideas, but to naked emotion. When I worked at an ad agency many years ago, I learned that the successful agencies know how to appeal to emotions: the stronger and baser, the better. The seven deadly sins, ad agency wags often say, are the key to selling products. Fear, envy, greed, hatred, and lust: these are the basic tools for good propaganda and effective advertising. By far, the most powerful motivating emotionthe top, most-sought-after copy writers will tell you, in an unguarded momentis fear, followed closely by greed.
Good propaganda appeals to neither logic nor morality. Morality and ethics are the death of sales. This is why communist propaganda actually hastened the collapse of communism: the creatures running the Commie Empire thought they should appeal to morality by calling for people to engage in sacrifice for the greater good. They gave endless, droning speeches about the inevitably of communist triumph, based on the Hegelian dialectic. Not only were they wrong: their approach to selling their (virtually unsellable) theory was not clever enough. American propagandists (we can be jingoistically proud to say) would have been able to maintain the absurd social experiment called communism a little longer. They would have scrapped all the theory and focused on appealing images. Though the Commies tried to do this through huge, flag-waving rallies, the disparity between their alleged ideals and the reality they created was just too great.
One tyrant who did take American propaganda to heart was Adolph Hitler. Hitler learned to admire American propaganda through a young American expatriate who described to him, in glowing detail, how Americans enjoyed the atmosphere at football games. This American expatriate, with the memorable name of Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstängl, told the Führer how Americans could be whipped up into a frenzy through blaring music, group cheers, and chants against the enemy. Hitler, genius of evil as he was, immediately saw the value in this form of propaganda and incorporated it into his own rise to power. Prior to Hitler, German political rhetoric was dry, intellectual, and uninspiring. Hitler learned the value of spectacle in whipping up the emotions; the famed Nuremberg rallies were really little more than glorified football halftime shows. Rejecting boring, intellectual rhetoric, Hitler learned to appeal to deeply emotional but meaningless phrases, like the appeal to "blood and soil." The German people bought it wholesale. Hitler also called for blind loyalty to the "Fatherland," which eerily echoes our own new cabinet level post of "Homeland" Security.
If you study Nazi propaganda, you will be struck by how well it appeals to gut-level emotions and imagesbut not thought. You will see pictures of elderly German women hugging fresh-faced young babies, with captions about the bright future the Führer has brought to German. In fact, German propaganda borrowed the American technique of relying, not so much on words, but on images alone: pictures of handsome German soldiers, sturdy peasants in native costume, and the like. Take a look at any American car commercial featuring rugged farmers tossing bales of hay into the backs of their pickups, and youve seen the source from which the Nazis borrowed their propaganda techniques.
The Germans have a well-deserved reputation for producing a lot of really smart people, but this did not prevent them from being completely vulnerable to American-style propaganda. Amazingly, a nation raised on the greatest classical music, the profoundest scientists, the greatest poets, actually fell for propaganda that led them into a hopeless, two-front war against most of the world. Being smart is, in itself, no defense against skilled American propaganda, unless you know and understand the techniques, so you can resist them.
American politicians learned, early in the twentieth century, that using emotional sales techniques won elections. Furthermore, they learned that emotional appeals got them what they wanted as they advanced towards their long-term goal of becoming Masters of the Universe. From this, we get our modern lexicon of political speech, carefully crafted to appeal to powerful emotions, with either no appeal to reason, or (better yet) a vague appeal to something that sounds foggily reasonable, but is so obscure that no one will bother to dissect it.
Franklin Roosevelt understood this, which is why he called for Social Security. Security is an emotional appeal: no one is against security, are they? Roosevelt backed up his campaign with a masterful appeal to emotions: images of happy, elderly grandparents smiling while hugging their grandchildren, with everything in the world going right because of Social Security. All kinds of government programs were sold on the basis of appealing images and phrases. Roosevelt even appealed to Americas traditional love of freedom, spinning that term by multiplying it into the new Four Freedoms, including Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Well, what heartless human being could possibly be against that? The Four Freedoms were promoted with images of parents tucking their children cozily into bed, and a happy family gathered around a Thanksgiving dinner, obviously free from want. The campaign was also based on that most powerful of all selling emotions: fear. If you dont support Social Security, the ads suggested, you will live your last years in utter destitution.
Putzi Hanfstängl, viewing Roosevelts evil brilliance from Nazi Germany, was probably jealous.
American advertising executives learned the value of presenting a single image or slogan, and repeating it over and over again until it became ingrained in the publics consciousness. Thus we are all aware that Ivory Soap is so pure that it floats: a point that has been repeated for the better part of a century. Im not sure why I should be impressed that a bar of soap floats, but on the other hand, its not intended that I think that far. Politicians now sell their programs the way the advertising creeps sell soap: they dream up a slogan and repeat it over and over again. Thus we get empty slogans like The New Frontier, The New World Order (that one was poorly chosen; it sounds too much like an actual idea), or Reinventing Government (an idea that everyone should favor, except that the idea behind it really means Keeping Government the Same, only no one is supposed to think that far). Empty grandeur sells political products.
Both German and American politicians carried the use of banners to new heights. Flags are impressive emotional symbols, particularly when waved by thousands of enthusiastic people: its a rare individual who can resist the collective enthusiasm of thousands of his fellow human beings, cheering about their collective greatness. Putzi Hanfstängl understood this, advising Hitler to fill his public spectacles with not just a few, but countless thousands of swastika flags. The swastika, too, was a brilliant stroke of advertising and propaganda: it has become, in the public consciousness, the official emblem of Nazism, even though it had nothing to do with Germany. In fact, swastikas were used by ancient Hindus and American tribes, but Im not aware of it being used by anyone in Germany prior to Hitler.
Now observe how Americans in the current crisis have taken to displaying huge flags on their cars. Flags are not rational arguments; they are instruments for whipping up the Madness of Crowds. Observe how many Americans have, with a straight face, called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag desecration, oblivious to the obvious contradictions such an amendment would have with the rest of the Constitution. But again, if you learn nothing else about propaganda, learn that it must not appeal to rationality.
Politicians dont just use warm, fuzzy images to sell us on the road to tyranny. They also need emotional appeals to intimidate their enemies. Thus the small percentage of the population that really does use thought and reason more than emotion must be demonized. Roosevelt managed this with some masterful propaganda strokes. Those who opposed him were Isolationists, and Malefactors of Great Wealth! (The gut-level emotion appealed to here is envy.) Roosevelt thus showed himself to be an early master of what former California Governor Jerry Brown called "buzz words"; that is, words intended to silence counter-argument by appealing to unassailable emotional images. No one is for Isolation, and almost everyone reacts to an appeal to hate anyone who has a lot of money. The latter appeal, of course, had great power during the Great Depression, which Roosevelt managed to maintain for the entire length of his presidency, all the while blaming others for its evils. Was this guy an evil genius, or what?
The propaganda cleverness used in successfully branding anti-war people as Isolationists is breathtaking. After all, a rational person (ah, keep in mind, thats not a common individual) realizes that those who oppose war are the exact opposite of isolationists. The Old Right at the time called for peaceful, commercial relations with all nations, based on neutrality in foreign affairs. If anything, those who oppose war and meddling in other countries affairs are the opposite of Isolationists as they really stand for open, profitable relationships with other countries. The people who stand for such ideas do not "sell" them by means of strictly emotional appeals, so they tend to lose the propaganda wars. When Roosevelt succeeded in whipping the country up into a war-frenzy after steering us into the Pearl Harbor fiasco, the Old Right realized their opposition to the war was hopeless.
The role of the government propaganda camps known as public schools cannot be discounted in all this. Schools are not so much centers of learning as they are behavior conditioning camps in which children are taught to be unquestioningly obedient to authority. Since reason and morality are the death of propaganda, schools busy themselves with systematically stunting students ability to reason and think in moral terms. Because the government owns the propaganda camps, its not surprising that the beneficiary of the propaganda is almost always the government. Americans accept obvious absurdities because they were drilled into their heads, year after year, in the government propaganda camps until they became true and unquestionable. Thus, everyone knows Roosevelt got us out of the Great Depression, even though the worst depression years were precisely those in which he and his party controlled every branch of government. Everyone knows Lincoln was a great president because he saved "government by the people" and freed the slaves, even though he became a war tyrant and only freed the slaves when it was politically convenient to do so. Wilson, everyone knows, made the world "safe for democracy", evidently by instituting a draft and getting America involved in a European war that was fought for reasons no one to this day can fathom. When minds are young and pliablegovernment experts understand this principleyou can fill them with nonsense that is practically impossible to root out. Laughable falsehoods in effect become true because everyone knows them to be true.
Advertising executives learned, early on, that companies could not be too obvious in using their propaganda. If their agenda could be clearly seen, then it could also be rejected. The answer to this problem was the American propaganda technique of the "independent expert" and the "guy on the street." One of these appeals to our timidity before authority, and the other to our smugness when dealing with someone at or below our perceived social level. Of course, these two techniques are really just two sides of the same coin. In product advertising, sports heroes and celebrities are used to sell corn flakes because no one would listen to the president of Kellogg telling us why corn flakes are so good. In selling detergent, plain-looking housewives are preferable to sexy models because they look just like us. In political propaganda, "experts" are often trotted out to tell us, in convoluted, circular reasoning, why minimum wage laws are really good for us, why a little bit of inflation is good, or why we just cant rely on the free market for something so crucially important as education. Or, using the "guy on the street" approach, we are told to support idiotic wars because the common soldiers ("our boys"), cannot function unless they know we stand united behind them. If the rare sensible person tries to argue against war, he is accused of making things harder for "our boys."
This brings us to the latest iteration of masterful American Propaganda: the War on Terrorism. Any attempt to explain why the terrorists (crazed as they obviously were) felt motivated to attack the World Trade Center is looked on as "siding with the terrorists." Indeed, Ashcroft and Bush have said, in so many words, that if you dont support them in everything they do, you stand with the terrorists. Ashcroft and Bush have evidently studied their propaganda lessons from World War II, when Roosevelt silenced all opposition by accusing anyone who stood against him of undermining the war effort. Anyone who suggests we should not risk World War III by invading the Middle East is alternately accused of siding with the terrorists, of slandering the memory of those who died, or (of course) of not "standing by our boys" in times of great need. Its easy to feel alienated in a nation of flag-wavers singing patriotic hymns. The fact that they are marching lockstep to a world in which the government will monitor their e-mail, snoop into their bank accounts, and eventually throw them in jail for voicing opposition doesnt seem to bother them one bit.
Now, most libertarians or otherwise thoughtful people will react with dismay when told that most of their fellow human beings react so unthinkingly to sock-you-in-the-gut emotional propaganda. Unfortunately, most people are not capable of really thinking things out. Most people really do buy perfume because of the emotional imagery. Most people really do believe the "independent expert", whether in politics or buying a car. Most people want to go with the crowd, or follow the leader. To do otherwise requires independent thought and the willingness to be ostracized, which is an unbearable psychological burden for many.
If you want to take heart, remember that the Vietnam War ended because a few people just continued to speak against it, despite the overwhelming government propaganda for it. The fact that a lot of the anti-war protesters were motivated by the wrong reasons (support of commies), doesnt matter in light of the fact they were able to turn the tide. They were right, even if for the wrong reasons. If advocates of freedom continue to speak against the creeping tyranny that our masters justify on the phony grounds of the War on Terrorism, we might just be able to prevent the transition from Republic to Empire. The thing about propaganda is that, once it is exposed for what it is, no one listens anymore. People tune it out, just as the slaves in Russia and China learned to tune out their official propaganda.
Yeah, it's cool being cleverer, ain't it? ;0)
Nota bene, libertarians. Nota bene...
They learned from the masters: government. WWI was the first
to use propaganda massively as part of the war effort. The
method of appealing to emotion more likely had its genesis
in the hellfire and damnation preaching found in nineteenth
Once you realize that advertising is lies,
you are on your way to surviving in this culture.
Once more, let me recommend John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education, linked on my profile page. Best $30 you'll ever spend. Eight chapters are online.
The best propaganda mixes truth with the lies, and he does this very well. I've got a flag on my truck. Interestingly enough, nobody told me to put it there, nobody forced me to put it there and nobody better try to take it off there. I put it there for one reason. You screw with one of us, you screw with all of us. As a Cowboys fan, I even found myself rooting for the Giants for a weekend.
The concept of Bush "whipping" us into a war frenzy is absurd. I STILL want to send two sidewinders into the dome of the rock and then see how many of those lizards we can take out when they slither out from under their rocks.
Those SOB's attacked us on our soil. This moron would sit there trying to "understand" them until they shoved a nuke up his *ss and hit the detonator. I don't want to understand them. I want them to understand that on September 11, 2001, they made the worst mistake they could have made.
I'd be thoroughly ashamed that this guy is from Texas, except I have no shame left, knowing Ma Richards and LBJ are also from here.
"Increase local flexibility," as long as they meet the fedgov's demands (wink wink). "You're perfectly free to do whatever you want, so long as what you want to do is what I want you to do."
Masterful propaganda. Fer the chillun.
I'll assume Joe sixpack sits on the right side of the fence. What if there was Jason pre-mixed-can wanting diplomacy instead (left side)?. Who do you appease?
GWB may think he needs to sway us to his way of thinking but the reality is that we are way ahead of him wondering why he is so god damned slow.
He does not need to sway the right, but he does need to sway the left and those who want action but can't decide what the action should be. He also needs to keep the people interested in this age of 2 second attention spans.
However I fail, as did the author, to make the connection seemingly impplied of some government agency or figure and our going to war with the Islamists of the ME.
By connection I assume you mean in terms of propaganda. So, correct me if i'm wrong, but don't you answer this question (?) with this statement:::::::: "GWB may think he needs to sway us to his way of thinking.....". Is this where the propaganda bit comes in?
OK. If you mean its implied i see where your coming form, but i don't see where he actually sais that.
I've got a flag on my truck. Interestingly enough, nobody told me to put it there, nobody forced me to put it there and nobody better try to take it off there.
I think the author is stating that nobody told you to put a flag on your truck but they did tell you what it stands for. Same Hitler told the Germans what the swastika stood for (even though in reality it didn't). I never knew the swastika was used by American tribes and and ancient Hindus. I'd really like to see an article that explains this, as it has also been found in a 3rd or 4th Century church in Macedonia.
The concept of Bush "whipping" us into a war frenzy is absurd
Again I don't see where it sais this. Unless you mean implied.
I think the article is quite good on explaining the use of propganda.
For starters, the demonizing of the enemy, is millenia old. It was well done, and stirred the populace , every bit as did Hitler and his use of music, flags, an ancient Roman salute, and a panoply of other things, NOT invented by, nor even particularly even associated with American advertizing or FDR ! Yes, the " twisted cross " is a VERY ancient Indian ( India, as in Hindu, as well as American Indian ) symbol. This IS common knowledge ! It's amazing that you do not know this.
This article is a Libertarian screed ; nothing more ! Its main purpose, which the author took his time to get to, was to Bash President Bush and the War on Terror. You are either guilless, or a fraud.
Yes, the " twisted cross " is a VERY ancient Indian ( India, as in Hindu, as well as American Indian ) symbol. This IS common knowledge ! It's amazing that you do not know this.
Well, its not that common. I assure you of that. There are many people who do not know this.
What you said.
I think I'll add here, though, that the purpose of propaganda like this piece is not so much to whip people into an emotional frenzy, but to make it very tedious to go through it and refute every point that needs refuting. Since the process of refutation is so tiresome, few people who recognize the untruths bother... and the people who don't have all the facts end up believing the propaganda.
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