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Propaganda is a systematic scheme or concerted effort to influence a body of people to accept and act on particular ideas, doctrines, ideologies, myths and practices. As traditionally understood, propaganda focuses its attention on the political. The most effective propaganda disguises itself as fact or news, whereas it actually is comprised of half-truths purposely constructed to bias the receiver's judgment or opinions.

In most cases propaganda is achieved by psychological manipulation, especially by the use of symbols, and it is disseminated by mass communications. The "negative advertisements" frequently televised during U.S. political campaigns could be considered a form of propaganda. Brainwashing is an extreme form of propaganda, a process of using subtle or crude mental and physical pressure and torture to achieve indoctrination.

Propaganda in repressive and totalitarian regimes is typically wedded to terror and backed up by force or the threat of force, creating an atmosphere of oppression and a situation in which human rights are violated. Such settings are characterized by managed information and outright censorship, which should not be confused with public relations as practiced in democratic societies.

The early development of propaganda

The use of the term propaganda can be traced to June 22, 1622, when Pope Gregory XV established the Congregato de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of Faith). A counter to the Protestant Reformation, the group aimed to propagate Roman Catholic doctrines. Hence, the English word propaganda was derived from the Latin, literally meaning "propagation." In this sense propaganda was not originally considered sinister or malevolent.

In the 20th century, the necessity for persuasion gave birth to propaganda at a time when available technology enabled it to have a wide audience. Many of the propaganda channels—TV, radio, the press, cinema, leaflets and flyers, music, literature and the Internet—are part of the very same communications infrastructure upon which society relies for its existence and identity.

Film is a propaganda channel that has been used extensively in many societies in order to foster certain viewpoints. John Stuart Blackton's "Tearing Down the Spanish Flag" (1898), supporting the U.S. invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, is considered the world's first propaganda film. D.W. Griffith's film "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) is a work of propaganda, portraying the Confederate states as victims of Reconstruction and thus rationalizing Southern policies toward blacks. U.S. films addressing social problems associated with drugs, alcoholism and sexual promiscuity have included the documentaries "Chinese Opium Den" (1894), "Father & Drunkard" (1908), "Whatsoever a Man Soweth" (1917) and "Reefer Madness" (1938). The U.S. pro-life film "The Silent Scream" (1985) graphically argued against abortion by depicting the procedure as an act of murder.

That propaganda has become something negative, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, is in large measure owing to the legacies of both world wars and the Cold War. In fact, the 20th century may well be remembered as a period in which propaganda became a major preoccupation of the developed nations.

In less than 100 years there was a shift from local political and ideological controls to a worldwide struggle for social and cultural dominance. The Cold War represented the culmination of what was essentially global propaganda warfare.

World War I

World War I was marked by the systematic use of propaganda as a tool of warfare. It also was the first time national governments had used massive propaganda campaigns to control public opinion. Four propaganda objectives were apparent: to generate hatred toward the enemy, to maintain alliances, to obtain cooperation of neutral parties and to intimidate the enemy.

Both sides were guilty of exaggerating the events of the battlefield, especially in portraying the enemy as barbaric and cruel, a tactic now known as "atrocity propaganda." Britain, for example, fabricated news accounts that the Germans had established "corpse factories" for producing glycerin. (Consequently, during World War II some people initially disbelieved reports about the Nazi concentration camps, assuming the allegations to be the handiwork of propagandists.)

After World War I, scholarly attention focused on the dangers of propaganda and mass communications. Harold D. Lasswell, in "Propaganda Techniques in the World War" (1927), saw the propagandist as banging a hammer on the anvil of the masses and shaping society as a result. Such ideas exaggerating the effectiveness of propaganda gave rise to the first mass communications theory. Known by different names and variations—"bullet theory," "hypodermic-needle theory" and "stimulus-response theory"—the idea was that most people were extremely naive and received messages passively.

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, established in New York in October 1937, was founded to counter what was perceived as a blind spot among the public. Its stated mission was "to help the intelligent citizen to detect and to analyze propaganda, by revealing the agencies, techniques and devices used by propagandists." One of its lasting contributions was the identification of seven basic propaganda devices: name-calling (or labeling), glittering generalities, transference, testimonials, appeals to plain folks, card stacking and the bandwagon effect.

These devices became the standard for assessing political propaganda as well as ads for products. The name-calling tactic labels an idea or object in a negative light. Its opposite is the glittering generality, associating the subject with something virtuous. The technique of transference links the focus of attention with something that people admire, whereas the testimonial links it with a personality. The plain folks device seeks acceptance by appealing to ordinary people. Card stacking presents a one-sided argument. The bandwagon approach attempts to convince the receivers that "everybody is doing it"—i.e., the idea or object is accepted by everyone around them.

The effectiveness of these devices has not been convincingly proven, but it seems that they work on some of the people only some of the time. Nonetheless, the seven propaganda devices pervade modern life as they are used in advertising and public relations campaigns.

World War II

U.S. propaganda during World War II employed two psychological approaches to rally public support, and a different type of poster was used for each strategy. The first appealed to patriotic sensitivities, using the colors red, white and blue and showing images of strength such as fists and muscles, tools and equipment, and artillery and tanks. Slogans for this group included "United we win," "Man the guns" and "Keep 'em fighting."

The second tactic was negative and unromantic, tapping into fear and hatred; it employed posters that showed the realities of war in human costs. These posters featured images of corpses, blood and gravestones accompanied by words designed to counter complacency: "Warning! Our homes are in danger now," "This is Nazi brutality," "He knew the meaning of sacrifice."

Cinema was an important propaganda channel for all nations fighting in the war. Germany and the U.S. made films that are now considered classics of propaganda.. Germa Leni Riefenstahl made documentaries romanticizing the Nazi party, most notably "Triumph des Willens" ("Triumph of Will"). Ironically, Frank Capra, a major in the U.S. Army, was inspired by her work in producing the seven-film "Why We Fight" series, designed to foster troop morale and to counter isolationist feelings among the American public.

A pervasive technique

If publicity is considered to be a somewhat benign form of propaganda, then propaganda campaigns have been a characteristic of all societies, democratic as well as totalitarian. Many social movements have relied on publicity campaigns to educate and convince the public.

For example, both Amnesty International, an advocacy group for political prisoners, and Greenpeace, an environmental organization, have disseminated their messages globally by means of publicity. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has campaigned against intoxicated drivers with billboards and slogans, and the American Cancer Society has attacked cigarette smoking with extensive public-service announcements.

In 1941, the Advertising Council was formed to produce TV spots for "good causes," which was part of a concerted effort to present the ad industry as do-gooders. The resulting "cause marketing" introduced wholesome cultural icons such as Smokey Bear for the National Forest Service and the "Crying Indian" for the Keep America Beautiful campaign.

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