Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Propaganda = ... Advertising?

The word 'propaganda' certainly carries a lot of negative connotations. I'd say that's thanks mostly to its use in association with any regime that we consider to be our enemy. "Nazi propaganda," "Communist propaganda" ; growing up, that's how I always heard the word being used.


But go back to the word's origins, "propagare - to propagate", and you discover its true intent was more benign (or at least neutral) than malicious. It related to the gardener's practice of propagating plants by cutting shoots and planting them. Spreading propaganda meant spreading information in the hopes of persuading a group of people to see things your way.


Richard Alan Nelson defines propaganda in this manner: "Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels. A propaganda organization employs propagandists who engage in propagandism—the applied creation and distribution of such forms of persuasion."

Its political (and mostly negative) connotations really only emerged during World War 1 (and were further refined during WWII).


Propagandists on all sides used 'purposeful persuasion' to target their audiences by focusing on some very specific themes: fear,


... patriotism,


... single-minded focus on a very specific goal,


... and a sense that power (and empowerment) is achieved through a united front.


Those same themes continued to be extremely popular with industrial advertisers of the 1950s hoping to 'purposefully persuade' their target audiences.


Above are some examples from early '50s issues of Fortune magazine. Advertising... propaganda... or both?

* All of these (and many others) are in my Industry Flickr set


  1. I like this kind of "propaganda" -- if that is what it is, because it suggests a better world through advanced technology,science and knowledge. Ostensibly, we are more ambivalent about technology these days, despite the clear advances tech, etc has provided to human life. Its OK to be a bit ambivalent, but even modern Luddites embrace the technology and other media that allows them to blog and nay-say technology. At any rate, the art is quite benevolvent and refreshing. It would be suprising to see a company commission art work today for a picture of its steam shovel. I do recall some stunning commercials about 10 years ago for the "New Steel" but that campaign must have been unsuccessful, since it disappeared quicklty.


  2. Wes; that's a great point - and thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic.

    I hope that this week's series doesn't give you the impression that I'm opposed to the imagery I'm presenting - or that I'm trying to characterize it as 'evil corporate manipulation' or something. In fact, I love all this imagery! I just find it fascinating because it does use the visual motifs and messaging I would typically associate with propaganda. But as I wrote in my post, that word has gotten a bad rap by association during the last century.

    One thing Les Toil pointed out in the comments section of yesterday's post - a very valid point, imo - is how intentionally absent minorities are (in these images and in mid-century visual materials in general). In that sense, these materials really do fit Richard Alan Nelson's definition of propaganda as being "... the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) ..."

  3. In a word, Leif, both.

  4. Yes, Black Pete - I think so too :^)

  5. I find this discussion so interesting. Propaganda is persuasion. Advertising is persuasion. Yet we think of them as two totally different things, when, in my opinion, there is such a large crossover point.

    Much to think about =]


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