Extreme Propaganda:
A Curriculum Guide

by Robert Gluckson, M.A.

Use this curriculum guide along with the propaganda films to develop these abilities:

  • learn common propaganda techniques
  • study people's attitudes and government objectives
    during wartime
  • see the behavior changes that the producers sought
    to create
  • analyze media content for propaganda appeals -- in
    film, news, and advertising
  • apply these analytical skills to modern media

What is propaganda? How do governments, politicians, and even advertisers use it to affect our behavior?

Propaganda is a message with a purpose. The message is crafted using a variety of persuasive appeals -- called propaganda techniques -- that may give only one side of a story, or slant a story in a certain way. The goal is to affect our behavior.

It's not necessarily wrong to create or consume propaganda -- in fact, the term originally described messages from an early church.

What's needed is for viewers to understand how the messages work so that we can evaluate them on our own terms, choosing whether to accept their premises andRide with Hitler propaganda poster conclusions.

It can be hard to see propaganda, and also hard to deflect it. Movies are the most powerful communications tools ever created, some with huge budgets, masterful directors, and great actors.

On the other hand, some older propaganda films are so obviously biased we can easily see what the creators were up to. Recognizing their attitudes gives us insight into the times when the films were created. Recognizing the propaganda techniques in these older movies helps us to see them used in more modern creations.

What is the difference between news, public relations, and advertising? Public relations is much like propaganda: messages that present a particular point of view with the purpose of persuasion.

Propaganda has always been with us: it represents a particular point of view for the purpose of behavior change. This can be subtle, as in the case of government propaganda films, or posters that promote brushing your teeth. They can be more sophisticated, in the form of advertising that features the propaganda appeals.

The onset of World War I led to the American government's massive involvement in a propaganda campaign to encourage citizens to join the war effort. At first, most Americans (including the President) were against the U.S. joining the war, especially against sending American soldiers as armed combatants. But as the war involved more and more allies and affected U.S. international trade, the government sought to change public opinion. The newly developed fields of psychoanalysis and public relations were applied to a massive campaign that included five million posters, the largest government promotion effort up to that time. In addition to promoting enlistment, it sought support for recycling and funding the effort with war bonds.

Advertising, Public Relations, and News

What is the difference between news and public relations? The basic difference is that news is supposedly objective, while public relations uses the news media, planting stories to positively influence public opinion. Advertising is an out-and-out commercial transaction: ads are paid for. But it goes further than that, as the distinctions and ostensible purposes of each form of communication blur.

News is supposedly objective. But we've seen how news has certain functions -- warning, surveillance, etc. The impact of news varies by proximity. For example, in the Seattle area, any news related to Boeing has importance to thousands of people (Boeing affects the entire Puget Sound economy) -- even on college teachers! Boeing press releases (pseudo news stories, written by Boeing press agents) are often printed verbatim, or taken as gospel.

And what news is published? The amount of space a newspaper allots to news is related to the amount of advertising sold. Gatekeepers like editors decide which of the many stories to run. The cost of obtaining news also limits the number and type of stories.

The cost of creating news is one reason that so much public relations copy is run as news. Reporters don't cruise around, looking for something to happen. They mostly sit in their offices and read their mail, which includes many press releases. Editors may choose to run a press release as-is, without any reporter additions or re-writes. Or the reporter may pick up on an idea from a release and call the PR person. Press releases make it fast and easy for a reporter to write a story. This makes it possible for the reporter to write several stories in the time it would otherwise take to go out to observe an event and interview someone. The news media and the public relations professionals are in cahoots -- the media save money by printing someone else's writing or promoting a businesses agenda. So much for "unbiased" reporting.

That's not to say it's all biased, as in the case of Boeing press releases. Yet when reporters are too dependent on companies for the news ABOUT the company, it's hard to be unbiased. How much criticism do you hear about Boeing? Boeing's Seattle public relations professionals make sure that the Company's side is carefully told and probably at the top of the story. Even a good reporter, for economy's sake, will sometimes take a press release and tack on an alternate opinion at the end of the story (where it may be cut by the copyeditor).

Here's another example of how PR works: the "biosolid" story. Thousands -- millions -- of pounds of processed human feces and industrial waste are now being spread on forests and farms. These "biosolids" are used as fertilizer and are processed by plants to become part of the products and food we consume. In the eyes of the sewage industry, this is a very low-cost solution to the problem of what to do with all the sludge left over after sewage treatment plants process our waste. It was PR that turned "sludge" into biosolids and fertilizer. The industry side of the story is the one we usually hear, along with the savings we all share, and the appeal to our recycling ethic. It takes balanced reporting -- and time -- to transform a press release into a balanced story, which would mention the toxic chemicals and potential health problems. In the hands of the spin doctors, it's biosolids, not toxic sludge. To quote Sheldon Rampton, "Biosolids," having entered the language as well as our water and food supply, give new meaning to the phrase "full of shit." (And note the writer's liberal, eco-friendly, anti-industry bias.) (See "Let Them Eat Nutri-Cake" by Sheldon Rampton, Harper's Magazine, November 1998, pages 48-49; and the PR Watch website, http://www.prwatch.org. See also Rampton and Jon Stauber's "Mad Cow USA" and "Toxic Sludge is Good for You.")

Why do public relations people create PR? PR plays a role in the agenda-setting function of the media -- it helps determine what stories are covered and the slant on stories. It does this by bringing stories to the media's attention, by making it easy (and cheap) for them to create stories. This service comes with a catch -- the PR spin, which reporters often repeat verbatim and without question. But this dreadfully understates the influence of PR on the media and public opinion.

PR, printed as news, also takes on some of the functions of both news AND advertising: for example, stories about movie stars encourage you to see their films. Some PR is used to notify the paper and the public about an event. For example, the butterfly exhibit at the zoo, or the new show at the art museum. These events ARE news; yet a PR person plants the story. The credibility of the newspaper makes a story more valuable than an advertisement.

Documentary films are often created for a sponsor, or producer. Some documentaries are more like commercials -- others are more like PR. Newsreels, for example, were short documentary films that appeared at virtually every film shown in the 1930s and 1940s. In the days before television, these newsreels were the only moving picture news (other news sources were newspapers and magazines; radio was mostly entertainment shows). Often newsreels were little more than public relations (e.g. propaganda) shorts sponsored by government and big business.

Because the producer isn't paying for them to be shown, they're not advertising. But the sponsor has objectives, just like advertisers. It may be attitude change, like feelings about a candidate, or behavior change, like voting.

So, what is advertising? There is one basic, unalterable distinction between ads and all other media news content: ads are paid for. Advertising is the bread and butter of the media business. For example, the cost of a magazine on the news-stand barely covers the cost of printing. The profit is in the advertising. Even newspaper content is limited by the amount of ads sold -- the space for content is called the "news hole" -- the hole on the page left over after the ads!

So why would companies pay for ads when they can get "free" publicity through public relations? (Nothing is really free -- there's the PR practitioner's salary, office space, copying, postage, etc.) While it is often cost-effective to get the media to promote companies and events for "free," advertising guarantees at least two important aspects of media coverage. The ad appears at the right time, and the message is exactly what the advertiser provides.

What is the difference between advertising, PR, and news? Again, it's the control of the message: the message is exactly what the advertisers say, said when and where they want it. Standards of journalistic credibility fly through the window: a Marilyn Monroe look-alike is having a great time dancing on the hood of a car, and links in the viewer's mind the Marilyn mystique and the clothing, or makeup, of the advertiser. There is no news story documenting her involvement with the product, but the ad establishes a certain reality.

There's another key difference between news and ads. News purports to advise us of an ostensible "objective" reality: a typhoon blew through town, causing so much damage; a plane crashed; someone was elected President. But ads work in other ways.

Ads don't necessarily sell products, or truth. Like PR, they can promote attitudes: sexy, youthful people consume a certain brand of soft drink; tough, macho men smoke a certain brand of cigarettes. There may be NOTHING DIFFERENT or nothing special about one brand compared to the next: the advertising CREATES the differences, creates the perceptions in viewers' minds. In a way, ads create reality. Like news. But the reality they create isn't necessarily real. Not real, that is, until we see the ads. How they do this is a very sophisticated and important process that bears further exploration.

Propaganda Techniques

Propaganda is often a one-sided "news" story. Governments have used propaganda to help sell wars; advertisers and others use the same techniques. It's often easier to see the techniques at work on older posters and advertising, since they seem more obvious.

Name Calling: giving an idea or person a bad label, and therefore rejecting and condemning it without examining the evidence. Examples are Communist, tax-and-spend Liberal, and dirty hippie.

Glittering Generality: associating something with a "virtue word" and creating acceptance and approval without examination of the evidence. Freedom; "Make the world safe for democracy;" and "Things [what things?] go better with Coke."

Transfer: carries the respect and authority of one thing to something else. This also works with something that is disrespected linked to something the sender would like viewers to reject. This technique is often used with images of ideally beautiful people, like cool looking smokers and 9 out of 10 dentists recommend this type of toothpaste. In addition to people, note the use of icons like the flag, as in posturing politicians standing in front of symbols of authority.

Testimonial: get the good word from a respected authority and associate it with your product. Also works by getting a testimonial from a hated person to make someone look bad. Examples: whenever you have a famous person pitching a product, like Ed McMahon for the magazine subscription sweepstakes, athletes promoting shoes, and the President in grip-and-grin photos with up-and-coming regional candidates.

Plain Folks: a speaker or product is good because they are "of the people," the plain folks. Example: the President in a hard hat.

Card Stacking: involves the selection and use of facts or falsehoods in order to give just one side of an issue. Examples: most political ads about opposing candidates, any ads putting down competitors, and most ads that point out the high points of their products without pointing out the downside.

Bandwagon: "Everyone is doing it" (or at least all of "us") to convince members of a group that their peers accept the program, and that we should all jump on the bandwagon rather than being left out. Examples: soft drink ads with a bunch of handsome young people having fun on the beach and political ads featuring groups waving flags.

Media use pictures and words that may not directly relate to the product or how the product is used.

The producer is trying to ASSOCIATE the image and message of the ad with their product. There are several techniques for doing this, including using words, pictures, and the propaganda techniques called Transfer or Testimonials. Soap and skin care products often use the Association technique to show ideally beautiful young women bathing. Does this mean if you use that soap you'll look that good?

What about ads that show a lot of people having fun? Soft drink ads often show beautiful young people partying on a beach. Does this mean that if you drink their soft drink you'll be part of a happy in-group? This is called Bandwagon.

For example, in Marlboro ads, cowboys ride horses in a beautiful wild Western scene. What does this have to do with cigarettes? Nothing, really -- even if traditional cowboys took tobacco, they either rolled their own or chewed. Does this mean if you smoke you'll be like a tough, romantic, wild cowboy?


1. Name the propaganda techniques you see in a propaganda poster from the same era as a documentary film you'll watch. Explain.

Online Resource: For propaganda posters, go to Google, highlight the word "images" above the search box, and enter the term "propaganda poster."

2. Name two or three propaganda techniques you see in a documentary film. Give specific examples of each technique, naming the characters or activities.

3. Name the propaganda techniques you see in an advertisement from the same period as a documentary film you'll watch. Explain.

4. Name the propaganda techniques you see in a modern advertisement. Explain.