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Propaganda: Believe it or NOT


The Politics of Persuasion

I.  Introduction

Every day, you are being “sold” countless images that shape your opinion of the people and things in your environment.  Most of us like to believe that we are intelligent enough to see through this charade, and form our own educated opinions. 

To see how this is not the case, please take this Multicultural Awareness Quiz.  (We will do this in class, but if you missed it, take the quiz now and follow the link at the bottom to see how you did.  Use your back button to return to this page.)


To follow this WebQuest, it will be necessary to answer questions that look like this in your Daily Portfolio.  Since this is writing for your own benefit, you may as well be honest with yourself.


Activity #1:  Most people answer only 3-4 of the questions on this quiz correctly.  How do you feel you may have been misled or misinformed on these issues, by whom, and why?  Which answers surprised you the most? How do certain segments of our culture benefit by promoting these ideas?



II.  Propaganda Techniques

Techniques for selling ideas fall into eleven general categories:

A.  BANDWAGON: The basic idea behind the bandwagon approach is just that, "getting on the bandwagon." The propagandist puts forth the idea that everyone is doing this, or everyone supports this person/cause, so should you. The bandwagon approach appeals to the conformist in all of us: No one wants to be left out of what is perceived to be a popular trend.

EXAMPLE: Everyone in Lemmingtown is behind Jim Duffie for Mayor. Shouldn't you be part of this winning team?

B.  TESTIMONIAL: This is the celebrity endorsement of a philosophy, movement or candidate. In advertising, for example, athletes are often paid millions of dollars to promote sports shoes, equipment and fast food. In political circles, movie stars, television stars, rock stars and athletes lend a great deal of credibility and power to a political cause or candidate. Just a photograph of a movie star at political rally can generate more interest in that issue/candidate or cause thousands, sometimes millions, of people to become supporters.

EXAMPLE: "Sam Slugger", a baseball Hall of Famer who led the pros in hitting for years, appears in a television ad supporting Mike Politico for U.S. Senate. Since Sam is well known and respected in his home state and nationally, he will likely gain Mr. Politico many votes just by his appearance with the candidate.

C.  PLAIN FOLKS:   Here the candidate or cause is identified with common people from everyday walks of life. The idea is to make the candidate/cause come off as grassroots and all-American.

EXAMPLE: After a morning speech to wealthy Democratic donors, Bill Clinton stops by McDonald's for a burger, fries, and photo-op.

D.  TRANSFER: Transfer employs the use of symbols, quotes or the images of famous people to convey a message not necessarily associated with them. In the use of transfer, the candidate/speaker attempts to persuade us through the indirect use of something we respect, such as a patriotic or religious image, to promote his/her ideas. Religious and patriotic images may be the most commonly used in this propaganda technique but they are not alone. Sometimes even science becomes the means to transfer the message.

EXAMPLE: The environmentalist group PEOPLE PROMOTING PLANTS, in its attempt to prevent a highway from destroying the natural habitat of thousands of plant species, produces a television ad with a "scientist" in a white lab coat explaining the dramatic consequences of altering the food chain by destroying this habitat.

E.  FEAR: This technique is very popular among political parties and PACs (Political Action Committees) in the U.S. The idea is to present a dreaded circumstance and usually follow it up with the kind of behavior needed to avoid that horrible event.

EXAMPLE: The Citizens for Retired Rights present a magazine ad showing an elderly couple living in poverty because their social security benefits have been drastically cut by the Republicans in Congress. The solution? The CRR urges you to vote for Democrats.

F.  LOGICAL FALLACIES: Applying logic, one can usually draw a conclusion from one or more established premises. In the type of propaganda known as the logical fallacy, however, the premises may be accurate but the conclusion is not.

EXAMPLE:Premise 1: Bill Clinton supports gun control. Premise 2.  Communist regimes have always supported gun control.  Conclusion:  Bill Clinton is a Communist.

We can see in this example that the conclusion is created by a twisting of logic, and is therefore a fallacy.

G.  GLITTERING GENERALITIES: This approach is closely related to what is happening in TRANSFER (see above). Here, a generally accepted virtue is usually employed to stir up favorable emotions. The problem is that these words mean different things to different people and are often manipulated for the propagandists' use. The important thing to remember is that in this technique the propagandist uses these words in a positive sense. They often include words like: democracy, family values (when used positively), rights, civilization, even the word "American."

EXAMPLE: An ad by a cigarette manufacturer proclaims to smokers: Don't let them take your rights away! ("Rights" is a powerful word, something that stirs the emotions of many, but few on either side would agree on exactly what the 'rights' of smokers are.)

H.  NAME-CALLING: This is the opposite of the GLITTERING GENERALITIES approach. Name-calling ties a person or cause to a largely perceived negative image.

EXAMPLE: In a campaign speech to a logging company, the Congressman referred to his environmentally conscious opponent as a "tree hugger."


I. REPETITION: The product name or keyword or phrase is repeated several times, and eventually the listener comes to believe what is said.


EXAMPLE:  David Duke, a former Klu Klux Klan leader, appears in countless TV spots showing him with a flag. 



J.  EMOTIONAL WORDS: Words such as luxury, beautiful, paradise, danger, and economical are used to evoke positive of negative feelings in the viewer. (Similar to “name-calling.”)


EXAMPLE:  Can appear in the name of products, such as a Lexus (luxury), or “sports utility vehicle” (promotes the idea of fun, though buyers use them to ferry carpools more than for rough riding in the wilderness).




The viewer is led to believe one product is better than another, although no real proof is offered.


EXAMPLE:  Without actually making verbal comparisons, flattering photo of candidate is shown next to picture of the opponent speaking with mouthful of food.


Activity #2: By yourself, or in a group, write down one example (per person) for each of these eight propaganda techniques.


 III.  Resources


Who controls your information?

ogether in class, and as out-of-class assignments, we will read selections from Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking work on the manipulative role of media in capitalist democracy. 

In case you’re interested, Professor Chomsky, the most quoted man in America, has his own website and frequently responds to questions, usually within 3-4 days.  His site is:


Thought control is something we associate with totalitarian countries – the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Cuba, North Korea, etc.  If the United States is a democracy, and democracy requires the free flow of information, what is the function of communications media in a democratic society?


Now, consider the following:

Supreme Court Justice William Powell wrote that democracy requires free access to information:  “No individual can obtain for himself the information needed for the intelligent discharge of his political responsibilities … [But] by enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment.”  Within this explanation is the understanding that in a democracy, citizens should “have the opportunity to inform themselves, to take part in inquiry and discussion and policy formation, and to advance their programs through political action.”


… but consider the alternative view of the purpose of the media, expressed by others –


n         James Mill : “The media’s role is to train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government”

n         John Jay “those who own the country should run it”

n         Edward Bernays (a leading figure in the rise of the public relations industry) “Persuasion is the very essence is the democratic process. A leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding … Democratic leaders must play their part in … engineering … consent to social constructive goals.”



Class views the film:  Wag the Dog


 Examine the following common forms of propaganda:



Editorial cartoons

Political debates

Hoaxes and urban legends

Use of legitimate publications



Jihad for Kids

Newspaper headlines

Professional Cartoonist Index:

Persuasion webquest:

Persuasion webquest:



IV.  Project Assignment:

1.         Complete assignments #1 and #2 (in red)

2.         Select an current social/political issue

3.         Generate a single, effective, persuasive piece of propaganda that will convince others to share your point of view.

4.         Share/perform this propaganda with the class.

5.         You may work alone or with a group, as you prefer.  Those working in a group must produce proportionally more work (i.e. two students produce two pieces, etc.)




1.         50% of grade based on writing rubric distributed in class.  Do not ask if spelling, appearance, grammar, etc., count – This is an English class, EVERYTHING counts!

2.         30% of grade based on persuasiveness of argument, to be determined by vote of class.

            3.         20% of grade based on completion of each of the writing assignments, above.

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