Selling The Product

I wrote this post about propaganda several years ago and with the election facing us in the near future (?) it seems even more relevant today than it was then.

As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods; usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!

Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.

The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!

To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution),

“the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.”

Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?

It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent not many years prior. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the rebels were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.

We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!


12 thoughts on “Selling The Product

  1. An excellent choice for a redux, my friend. We are being exposed to propaganda and gaslighting every day, and it is only going to get worse over the next six months. Unfortunately, many people would rather believe what they are told to believe than seek the facts, the truth.

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, you once again have offered an interesting and important comment. On the other hand, it is disconcerting that what you say is so apt in the contemporary context.

    As you rightly observe, Thomas Paine, et al, were not the only effective propagandists.

    One of the most well-known and successful propagandists was Josef Goebbels, Reich Minister for Propaganda and National Enlightenment under Hitler’s Third Reich. He laid out the principles of propaganda that seem all too familiar today:

    1. Propagandist must have access to intelligence concerning events and public opinion.

    2. Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority.
    a. It must issue all the propaganda directives.

    b. It must explain propaganda directives to important officials and maintain their morale.

    c. It must oversee other agencies’ activities which have propaganda consequences

    3. The propaganda consequences of an action must be considered in planning that action.

    4. Propaganda must affect the enemy’s policy and action.
    a. By suppressing propagandistically desirable material which can provide the enemy with useful intelligence

    b. By openly disseminating propaganda whose content or tone causes the enemy to draw the desired conclusions

    c. By goading the enemy into revealing vital information about himself

    d. By making no reference to a desired enemy activity when any reference would discredit that activity

    5. Declassified, operational information must be available to implement a propaganda campaign

    6. To be perceived, propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium.

    7. Credibility alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false.

    8. The purpose, content and effectiveness of enemy propaganda; the strength and effects of an expose; and the nature of current propaganda campaigns determine whether enemy propaganda should be ignored or refuted.

    9. Credibility, intelligence, and the possible effects of communicating determine whether propaganda materials should be censored.

    10. Material from enemy propaganda may be utilized in operations when it helps diminish that enemy’s prestige or lends support to the propagandist’s own objective.

    11. Black rather than white propaganda may be employed when the latter is less credible or produces undesirable effects.

    12. Propaganda may be facilitated by leaders with prestige.

    13. Propaganda must be carefully timed.
    a. The communication must reach the audience ahead of competing propaganda.

    b. A propaganda campaign must begin at the optimum moment

    c. A propaganda theme must be repeated, but not beyond some point of diminishing effectiveness

    14. Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.
    a. They must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses

    b. They must be capable of being easily learned

    c. They must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations

    d. They must be boomerang-proof

    15. Propaganda to the home front must prevent the raising of false hopes which can be blasted by future events.

    16. Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
    a. Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat

    b. Propaganda must diminish anxiety (other than concerning the consequences of defeat) which is too high and which cannot be reduced by people themselves

    17. Propaganda to the home front must diminish the impact of frustration.
    a. Inevitable frustrations must be anticipated

    b. Inevitable frustrations must be placed in perspective

    18. Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred.

    19. Propaganda cannot immediately affect strong counter-tendencies; instead it must offer some form of action or diversion, or both.

    [Based upon Goebbels’ Principles of Propaganda by Leonard W. Doob, published in Public Opinion and Propaganda; A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.]

    Perhaps we should not be surprised that Ivana Trump, Donald Trump’s first wife, noted in her divorce deposition that the only book she saw Trump read was a collection of Hitler’s speeches that he kept at his bedside.

    Is it a coincidence that Trump appreciated Hitler’s speeches, which were examples par excellence of Goebbels principles of propaganda? Mere coincidence?

    Unfortunately, I think not. Too much evidence to the contrary had confronted us daily ever since Trump descended the Golden Escalator to the cheers and applause of a hired audience.

    Trump’s staged descent was directly reminiscent of the opening scene from Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will showing a resplendent Adolf Hitler walking down an airplane’s staircase after descending from the sunny heavens to save Germany from a fate worse than its true destiny.

    In my estimation, this is well past coincidence. And, as Trump’s desperation increases, we can expect to see his efforts to employ Goebbels’ principles of propaganda even more intensively than he already has.

    Brace yourselves…

    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

      • Mr. Stark, let me add my compliments to your eerily pertinent summary. I believe the current president gifts are more than just selling, they are more toward the “art of distraction.” Bad news in the news cycle – distract. Hide what he is doing to environmental and financial regulations and oversight – distract.

        What concerns me most is the blind allegiance of his sycophants, not only to rationalize, but build on his distractions. China, WHO are not without fault, but they must be blamed more to distract from Trump’s mishandling.

        Goebbels would be embarrassed by Trump’s daily faux pas and would take control of his messaging. Likely, Trump would fire him too, when he became a liability or accepted too much credit. Keith

      • Keith,

        I think Trump not only engages in distraction; he IS a distraction, as well.

        The more we focus upon his outrageous conduct and seemingly mindless Twitter commentary, the less we focus on what key members of his regime are actually doing, namely —

        1) Effectively and efficiently dismantling those functions of government that (a) build and protect civil society, (b) support fairness and equity in the economy and democracy in the polity, and (c) protect the environment from the ravages of corporate greed.

        (2) Constructing a government that is merely an extension of corporate operations and autocratic interests and which operates effectively without oversight or accountability.

        (3) Removing sources of both competence and opposition within all agencies of government and the Party by replacing them with those who have pledged their loyalty to the regime and its leader.

        There is good reason that googling the term “idiot” will bring up Trump’s name, but we are wise to recall that he is a most useful idiot to those whose interests are manifest daily in the operations of his regime.

        Our country is in immediate peril, in my estimation.

        What will happen should Trump be re-elected in 2020 is both essential and frightening to consider.


      • Thanks Hugh. Jerry well said. If you have not read Michael Lewis’ “The Fifth Risk,” I encourage you to do so. He asked to read the briefing materials the outgoing department staff prepared for the Trump folks which went largely unread and the briefings unattended. He also spoke to these folks about their greatest risk concerns. Much of what you said will have scary examples therein. Keith

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