How Propaganda REALLY Works

Yes, you’re being manipulated… but you want to be.

After two decades in the marketing industry, I’ve learned one absolute truth: You can’t make people buy things they don’t want to. You can LIE to them, and tell them what you are selling is actually something they want, but that doesn’t last long… and usually ends in jail or litigation. People have a false idea that marketers are wizards of mind-control, subconsciously influencing the masses against their will. The truth is much, much more depressing.

No, this isn’t a review of Jason Stanley’s “How Propaganda Works.” If anything, it’s a counter-argument. Jason, like many, seem to feel that humanity would be on some kind of utopian progression if it were not for the powers-that-be controlling our minds. Don’t get me wrong, propaganda is generally evil or at least a manifestation of evil. My argument is that propaganda is more of a social collaboration than an isolated effect. In other words, propaganda’s ability to lie to us depends on how much we want to be lied to.

The Invention of Propaganda

A man named Edward Bernays wrote the book on Propaganda in 1928. Literally, the book is called “Propaganda” and he wrote it. The book had a lot of fans, including Hitler and Nazi Germany, which based most of their marketing on his ideas. (I’m not making this up) Of course, after WWII the word “propaganda” had gotten a somewhat negative brand image, so Edward decided to change the name to “public relations.” Now, you can get an official degree in “public relations” and tell people you are doing good work with a straight face.

Of course, Edward didn’t work directly with Hitler. He decided to pick more family-friendly brands like the American Tobacco Company. He is legendary for inventing such great advertisements as “9 out of 10 Doctors recommend Lucky Strike cigarettes!” (Still not making this up people) As hindsight is 20/20, we look back at these times and shake our heads. Of course, we would never fall for such things today…

When Propaganda Doesn’t Work

It may have sounded like I just undercut my own point here. After all, these propaganda campaigns really worked well. So how can I argue that propaganda DOESN’T make people do or think things when it seems so obvious that it does? Well, that’s because campaigns that failed tend to fizzle out and be forgotten.

One such propaganda campaign some of you are old enough to remember is D.A.R.E. (Drugs and Alcohol Resistance Education). This cheesy campaign ran from 1983 to 1998, and tried to scare a generation of children away from drugs and alcohol with the message “Just say no.” Not only did the US government throw away millions of dollars on it, but studies showed the program seemed to INCREASE the likelihood of teens using drugs and alcohol.

Kinda Did the Opposite

Likewise, in 2013, the Chinese government launched a propaganda campaign against Apple. They tried to spread the message that Chinese citizens should be tech products made in their own country. In reaction, Chinese consumers revolted, reminding their country how crappy their own companies are. The campaign backfired so badly the government stopped the campaign for fear of descending into another civil war.

Propaganda Only Works When We Want It To

So what makes some propaganda campaigns a massive success, while others a massive failure? The reality is that even propaganda requires the consent of the masses. People have to already WANT to believe what the propaganda is saying before they embrace it. Successful propaganda isn’t influencing the minds of the masses as much as it is harnessing it.

If the government were to put out a campaign telling us that chocolate is good for us and we should buy more of it, we are probably going to believe it. Many of us, myself included, love chocolate. What would be better than having our government giving us permission to indulge guiltlessly in something we already want? However, if the government tried to tell us that Brussel sprouts were the best food in the world, and we should all eat as much as possible, it would likely have limited results.

Letting Our Demons Out to Play

So now we come to the darkest part of propaganda. All of us have dark desires and feelings we try to suppress and manage for the good of society, or at least our own survival in it. Many people harbor racist and bigotted feels toward others but feel pressured to keep them to themselves when it is unaccepted by society. We know this because we saw what happened when the Internet gave people the ability to express these feelings anonymously.

When Hitler launched the Nazi propaganda campaign blaming Jews for all their problems, he wasn’t turning Germans into racists — he was giving them permission to be racist. Political propaganda almost always relies on tapping into our hidden fears and prejudices, giving them permission to come out into the open. This can create the illusion of “changing” people, but those people were with us all along.

Lie to Me

When you look at how easily the masses seem swayed by clever marketing or advertising, don’t be fooled. We enjoy being lied to as long as they are lies we want to believe. If you are feeling particularly uncomfortable by people who look different from you, you might like hearing how they are “bad people” and should be forced to leave. If you don’t like talking to people to disagree with you, you might like hearing that they are actually “evil people” and you don’t even have to try to understand them.

The more other people agree with us, the more comfortable we are with our own ideas. Propaganda is essentially just a campaign to make lots of people feel better about an idea they already have, no matter how wrong that idea might be. That’s why it has taken us so long to overcome such stupid ideas like “women don’t deserve as many rights as men” and “the Sun revolves around the Earth.” Blame the rich and powerful for their propaganda all you want, the real culprits are all of us enjoy believing the lies they tell us.

What’s Your Preferred Propaganda?

It’s easy to condemn propaganda and those who by into it from a distance, but that’s not the lesson to learn from it. When you see how much other people rally behind a stupid idea or dangerous cause, you should ask yourself “What propaganda do I fall for?” After all, the first lie anyone ever tells is the lie they tell to themselves. The scary truth of propaganda is that we all hide behind it to shelter the ideas and beliefs we might otherwise be ashamed of.

I’m a marketing strategist who hates the marketing industry.

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