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Why Political Propaganda Works and How to Spot It

by Jacob Hillesheim
October 11, 2018 | Our Future

They’re here…

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With Election Day fast approaching, candidates across the country are spending piles of cash on radio ads, television commercials and billboards, promising that they, and not their opponents, are deserving of your vote.

The political ad is probably the type of propaganda we're most familiar with in the U.S. And can all of it be believed? Definitely not.

No matter the party, most political propaganda uses the same techniques to manipulate us into supporting its candidate. If we can recognize those techniques, we have a better chance of casting an informed vote Nov. 6.

The fundamentals of persuasion

The earliest presidential campaign ads, most notably Dwight Eisenhower’s “Ike for President” and JFK’s “Jingle,” employed the Bandwagon technique.

Bandwagon ads play on our insecurities and our desire to belong. If you show that everyone likes Candidate A, supporters of Candidate B might cross over to join the winning side. Also, good luck getting those songs out of your head.

There’s also the Endorsement. Endorsements present someone well-known or well-liked to “sell” your message.

The best recent example is Barack Obama’s 2008 web-only ad “Yes We Can,” which featured athlete Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actors Scarlett Johansson, Harold Perrineau and Aisha Tyler, musicians Common, John Legend and Ed Kowalczyk (necessary to win those critical “Fans of the Band Live” votes), and many more. If you like the messenger, you’ll be more amenable to the message.

You can also make an Inverse Endorsement (don’t Google it, I just coined it). Instead of showing a likable person supporting your candidate, show an unpopular person supporting your opponent.

Lyndon Johnson’s “KKK” ad showed footage of a Klan rally while the narrator quoted Klansman Robert Creel’s support for Barry Goldwater. If you hate the messenger, you’ll be more likely to hate the message.

Today, however, these techniques are fairly uncommon, if only because they are so easy to recognize. The remaining techniques are much more insidious, and, by extension, much more effective.

Techniques that make you look good

Candidates today must make good use of Symbolism. Don’t target a voter’s rational mind if you can hit them in the heart. Show a soaring eagle, toss in some flags, put the Constitution in the background, toss in some flags, then add some more flags.

If you think “too many flags” is a thing, talk to Ronald Reagan, whose “Train” ad crammed 12 shots of American flags or other patriotic imagery into a minute of video, and Bill Clinton, who snuck 15 shots into “Next Century.” No one explicitly thinks “Look, a flag! This person would be a great president!” But it worms its way into our subconscious nonetheless.

Illustration of 4 politicians with TVs for heads. Political Propaganda pbs rewire
We think we hate propaganda. We probably do. But that doesn’t stop it from working against us.

There’s no better way to end a symbol-laden ad than with a Glittering Generality. Glittering generalities are things that sound great, but fall apart as soon as you actually think about them.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan warned the Soviet “Bear” that he was “prepared for peace.” In 2008, “Hope” became iconic, and eight years later “Make America Great Again” became equally so.

On the surface, all these things sound wonderful. However, none of them hold up to close scrutiny. What does “prepared for peace” look like at a policy level? What are we hopeful for? What, specifically, is not great about America that needs to change? Glittering generalities are about vague good feelings and rallying cries, not legislative programs.

Many candidates for national office run into the problem that they are not especially like the people voting for them. Many candidates grew up wealthy, went to Ivy League schools on legacy scholarships or are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. That’s where the Just Plain Folks technique comes in, helping candidates seem “just like you.”

George W. Bush might have been a millionaire baseball owner and son of a former president, but he also shakes hands and hangs out with kids! (He learned that one from his dad.) Nervous about JFK? The Sills Family is sold! Sure Donald Trump is a billionaire, but look at his baseball cap!

“I am one of you” is one of the most powerful messages in politics, especially when it’s not true.

Techniques that make them look bad

If you can’t make yourself look good, the next best–or maybe even better–thing is to make your opponent look bad. For that, there’s the Stacked Cards technique, in which an ad distorts or manipulates the facts in order to “stack the deck” in one’s favor. Talk about your accomplishments without mentioning your failures, take credit for the achievements of the previous administration and extend none of those courtesies to your opponent.

Richard Nixon crushed it in his “Convention” ad, which managed to pin all of the country’s foreign and domestic turmoil on Hubert H. Humphrey and the Democratic Party, although he couldn’t match the perfection of Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ad. Watch it. Soak it in. “A vote for Goldwater,” the ad implies, “is a vote for murdering adorable little girls in a nuclear holocaust.”

Stacked cards will be featured in every ad attacking someone’s record. Exactly zero of them are telling the whole story.

Finally, for those without the subtlety or imagination to stack cards, there’s always blatant Name Calling. “Taxing Terryl,” “Crooked Hillary,” George W. Bush is a fascist, John Kerry’s a flip-flopper, Barack Obama’s a communist. Once a negative label sticks, it’s almost impossible to remove.

The order of the day is skepticism

I’ve spent most of this article being flippant and sarcastic, but this is immensely serious business. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of being able to think critically about the political messages we receive from friends and relatives, the media and especially the candidates themselves.

We think we hate propaganda. We probably do. But that doesn’t stop it from working against us.

So when you are washed away over the next month by the flood of political advertising, keep these techniques in mind. Understanding what propaganda is doing to us robs it of its power. Knowledge is power, and that’s a glittering generality we can all get behind.

Jacob Hillesheim
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.
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