Thin Red Line Between Advertising and Propaganda

Persuasion is one of the main power sources of the media. The ability to 
shape reality gives people sufficient ground to try and capitalize on it. 
And although there are many persuation methods, propaganda and advertising 
exert a major but inconspicuous influence in many areas of our personal 
and public lives.


When I hear the word propaganda, I automatically think about the lowest grade of information possible. It is as if someone compressed a full garbage bin, somehow turned it into media text and now tries to inject it in my brain. No wonder that for most people, advertising and propaganda are almost equivalent to swear words.


What is propaganda?


The word “propaganda” stems from the times of the Reformation. Back in 1633, Galileo struggled with Catholic Church. He was convicted by the Inquisition and was forced to renounce his claims that Earth revolves around the Sun. That’s where the word started to pick up its negative meaning.


Propaganda can be defined as follows:

The technique of influencing human action by manipulation of representations. These representations may take spoken, writen, pictorial or musical form. – Harold Lasswell, 1937


The widespread use of propaganda as a persuasion technique became apparent during the World War I, and later was research by Lasswell, Edward Bernays and along with many others.



Propaganda and advertising: like father like son


Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is considered to be the father of advertising. After seeing how effective propaganda can be during the war, he wondered if it is possible to apply it during the peace time. And that’s how the advertising came to be.


Since the word propaganda had strong negative associations, Bernays rebranded it as public relations. He employed propaganda devices to overcome sales resistance and sell ideas, products or causes to masses.


So advertising finds its roots in the war propaganda. But are these two totally the same? All of the information we encounter potentially can be perceived as manipulation.


In fact, the distinction between advertising and propaganda is fairly subjective. However, in 1958 psychologist Roger Brown attempted to draw a line between these two. This is what he concluded:


Persuasive efforts are labeled as propaganda when someone judgdes that the action which is the goal of the persuasive effort will be advantageous to the persuader  but not in the best interests of the persuadee. – Roger Brown, 1958


So, any message which aim is not the good of the receiver, but the benefit of the sender can be classified as propaganda. That also includes most of the advertising and PR.



However, that does not mean that advertising and propaganda are exactly alike. Most of the time, advertisements try to make you buy something. Meanwhile, four primary goals of propaganda are:


  1. Mobilizing hatred for the foes.
  2. Trying to preserve the friendship of allies.
  3. Retaining cooperation and, if possible, support of the neutrals.
  4. Demoralization of the enemy.


So, clearly, advertising and propaganda are different. However, they rely on the same methods.


Common advertising and propaganda methods


Most notable persuasion devices are name calling, bandwagon, testimonial, plain folks, card stacking, transfer and glittering generality. You can find them anywhere in advertisingpolitical campaigns, news and public relations.


Name calling


Name calling is all about giving a person, product or idea a bad and sticking label. The goal here is to make people reject the idea without any further examination. Today, it is prominent in activities that contain strong rivalries, such as political campaigns, public relations or ideological clashes.


A recent example of name calling and its impact could be observed in 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, where both candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton came up with numerous nicknames for each other. Trump has established Clinton as Crooked Hillary, while Clinton campaign made all of their efforts to make Trump look like a dangerous, incompetent and a loose canon.


Name calling also used to be popular in advertising, but not so much these days as brands try to avoid mentioning their competitor’s.  It has made its mark in classical brand battles such as Coca-Cola versus Pepsi, McDonald’s against Burger King or Nike versus Reebok. Here you can see how Burger King tries to position McDonald’s burger as just “fried” in a bad way.





“Everyone is doing this and you’re missing out” – says every bandwagon commercial. The idea is simple: trick people into thinking that all members of your social group are doing it, and you should join the crowd if you don’t want to stand out.


Primarily, bandwagon plays with our sense of how odd it is to stand out. It prevails in both advertising and politics. During the second world war, a lot of military ads called on youth to join the army. They projected that the majority of young people had already joined the ranks and “you” were the only one missing.


Here is a fun bandwagon commercial that promotes video game “Call of Duty 2”.





A testimonial is another persuasion technique used in both politics and advertising. The idea here is to have a trustworthy member of the target audience to express an opinion about some idea or product. It does not always have to be positive, especially in politics.


Testimonials are meant to give some sort of approval for the promoted object. Here, you see Dr. Julie approving Heritage Toyota.



Plain folks


It is exactly as it sounds. Plain folks card makes it seem like an idea or a person is a right choice because it comes from the regular people aka plain folks. Recently, it has proved to be a mighty tool for populism advocates in America and Europe. As a convincing propaganda device, it is mostly used by politicians and regional brands. Furthermore, an increasing number of big brands are keen on using this method.


Here is an ad from 2016 promoting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as the man of the American people.



Card stacking


Card stacking consists of a bunch of selective facts, logical or illogical statements and illustrations to build the best or worst possible image for the promoted object. Simply put, it is a collection of evidence that blindly supports the proposed position without acknowledging any flaws.


Essentially, it is an effectual advertising method, especially if the message is based on real facts. It is also extra difficult to recognize and expose it without any prior knowledge or experience. Therefore, card stacking is a potent tool to push or debunk various agendas.


Here is an example of card stacking in 2013 Windows Surface commercial. Note that it also uses indirect name calling to strengthen its point.





Transfer is a well-known persuasion device that utilizes secondary brand associations. The main idea here is to link the advertised product, cause or idea with something else to enhance its value. Thus, the positive associations, admiration or prestige is transferred to the other object.


For a successful transfer, it is necessary for both (or even more) objects to be complementary. Otherwise, persuasion may backfire, as it happened with controversial Pepsi and Kendall Jenner ad. Pepsi and Jenner simply didn’t have the right background to be convincing social justice advocates (besides the fact that the ad completely missed its mark).


One of the most efficient ways to transfer associations is by music since it can produce an intense emotional stimulus. Here is an example of transfer via collaboration between Drake and Sprite.


Glittering generality


Last popular tool that is used in both advertising and propaganda is based on careful use of semantics. Glittering generality is basically a word or their combination that has a vague meaning. Usually, it sounds positive enough so that no one dares to ask what it means.


Essentially, glittering generalities are politicians best friend, as they allow them to say a lot by saying nothing. After all, everyone has a different idea of what success, democracy, freedom, birthright, progress or change is. If you’re interested, here are some more virtue words.


Glittering generality also has a wide application for product naming and promotion, but it is also applicable in governing and business. For example, many people have negative associations with war, so now it’s often referred to as using military force. In fact, our world today is full of glittering generalities. Instead of debt, we say credit, instead of contracts, we enter agreements and our costs can quickly turn into investments. 


Here is 2013 Audi Superbowl commercial, where bravery is what makes Audi cars great.



Advertising and propaganda in the future


These and many other advertising and propaganda techniques have become a part of our mass culture. In my opinion, these tools themselves are not bad. They can always be used for a good cause, too.


Living in an individualistic society requires every one of us to take care of ourselves and the people around us. If your mind is manipulated by advertisers most of the time, it is your responsibility to be aware of it and help yourself. Because the truth is simple.


If there is a way to manipulate and exploit you, people will always make use of it.  Of course, that doesn’t sound well, but maybe that is necessary to push ourselves further and do not settle for mediocrity. It works just like vaccines – help yourself and you will help 100 others around you.


So I see it as a challenge – protect your mind and attention so that sellers, propagandists and advertisers will be forced to offer you a real win-win, that is beneficial for the sender and the receiver. In my opinion, constant improvement is the essence of capitalism and future ads will have to become more user-friendly. Not for the people’s stupid behavior, but for the smart people like us.


Please let me know what you think about propaganda in advertising in the comments.

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