Persuasion in the Media: Believe it or Not

Posted on May 2, 2012


Propaganda is a form of media, as well as a media technique that has been used for centuries to engender a cause to consumers’ sympathies. Religion, politics, and advertising are no stranger to the use of propaganda. So is propaganda good? Evil? True? As consumers, can we answer these questions, or do we just accept it?

When it comes to a nation’s government, many have had no choice in the matter. The use of propagandist materials was at the heart of Germany’s Nazi regime. Without using branding tactics such as the swastika and a panoply of anti-Semitic speeches and publications, Hitler would not have had his country backing him. Communist nations also rely heavily on propaganda. Posters, demonstrations, televised material all remind citizens that they are living the dream, even if it feels like a nightmare. The job of propaganda is getting the consumer to buy into the message without obviously displaying the message. Propaganda, quite simply, is a form of persuasion, and it’s a big player in modern media.

Persuasion always has a presence in advertising. It’s obvious as print ads and commercials, but sometimes it is so subtle that we don’t see it at all. The 1980s’ saw the advent of some of the advertising world’s less-than-proud moments. Subliminal messages and images that were cloaked in print ads to appeal to our subconscious mind while our eyes glanced across the page. Many ads using this technique feature encoded objects or words. The word “sex” has been uncovered in ice cubes in a tonic water ad:

Would you have seen the “sex” if it hadn’t been pointed out?

Even the home screen for Facebook is suspect:

Connect the dots

Some encoded images are even made to look like sexual acts in the hope that they would turn their audience on to their product

And you thought the bottle was phallic…

Subliminal advertising seems underhanded, and so does marketing to children. From a cigarette-smoking cartoon camel to The Flintsones’ cigarette commercials, advertisers hit an all new low looking for new ways to net future consumers. Advertisers decided to try and persuade consumers of all ages that they needed what they were selling. Consumers felt it was inappropriate to use a genre associated with kids to advertise an (unhealthy) adult-only product. The cartoon camel soon went the way of the Flintstones when it came to advertising cigarettes. Under pressure, ad agencies discontinued the use of cartoons to market cigarettes.

On other occasions ads could be seen, but not known to be ads. The use of brand name stores, foods, drinks, and cigarettes used in TV shows and movies wasn’t as innocent as it may have seemed. These programs themselves were soon recognized as valuable real estate to advertisers. And producers of television and film soon saw these in-program ads as a new source for seed money.

Film director Michael Bay used a record breaking amount of product placement in order to further fund his blockbuster hit Transformers, making it a bigger, flashier production.

On the other end of the spectrum, the movie Good Night and Good Luck took a hard look at how media have tried to convince us of what is important in life, or at least what should be. Filmmakers and audiences weren’t alone in their annoyance with the change in the media – reporters such as Edward R. Murrow were just as irritated about what topics were considered newsworthy. Good Night and Good Luck even went so far as to place a campy cigarette ad in the movie, just to make fun of this phenomenon:  Eventually movie scripts like Wayne’s World and Fight Club openly mocked the blatant product placement. With the advertising in media increasing, consumers soon caught on to the fact that they weren’t just being entertained, they were being sold. Even the Super Bowl commercials have become as big an event as the Super Bowl, itself.

Even politics are getting their day at the movies. The U.S. Armed Forces play recruitment videos as part of in-theater movie previews. Other governments outside of the United States are still using propaganda to sell an agenda to their public. North Korean children’s cartoons feature children daydreaming about killing U.S. Soldiers and fighting the imperialist nation (ffwd to 1:40): 

Even without subtitles, the message is quite clear: The United States are mortal enemies of North Korea. And just like that, propaganda lauds nationalistic war advocacy. Every side has a story, and every side wants to be “right.”

So how does the average consumer know what is propaganda, and what is the truth? Where does it stop, and how deep does the propaganda go? Can consumers of the news media be certain their news is not a paid advertisement? How are we to trust what we’re being told? These are questions with no easy answer – they just lead to more questions. Do you believe me?

What do YOU believe?