Propaganda: Nobody Does It
Better Than America.
by Paul Weber
Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting and having discussions with people who came to America from countries known for their adherence to totalitarianism: China, Russia, and former east European satellites of the Soviet Union. When we discussed how the state managed to control public opinion under totalitarianism, these people would usually produce a weary, knowledgeable, cynical smile and point out that propaganda in those countries was really done quite incompetently. If you really want to know propaganda, they said, you need to study American propaganda technique. According to them, it is, undeniably, the best in the world.
“How can that be?” I asked, honestly puzzled.
Propaganda in those countries was too obvious, they told me. As soon as you read the first sentence you knew it was a bunch of propaganda, so you didn’t even bother to read it. If you heard a speech, you knew in the first few words that it was propaganda, and you tuned it out.
“But,” I then queried, “How do you know when it’s just propaganda?”
The expatriates explained that bad propaganda uses obvious terminology that anyone can see through. Anyone hearing the phrase “capitalist running dogs”, knows he’s listening to incompetent propaganda and tunes it out. Lousy propaganda, these knowledgeable but jaded individuals would tell me, appeals to an abstract theory, to a rational thesis that can be disproved. Even though communists had total control of the press, the people just tuned it out (except for those who were the most mentally defective). Most people, they assured me, just went about their lives as best they could, paid lip service to the state, and just tried to keep out of the way of the secret police. But hardly anyone really believed the stuff. The result, after many decades of suffering, was the eventual collapse of the old order once The Great Leader expired, whether his name was Brezhnev, Mao, or Tito.
American propaganda, however, is much cleverer. American propaganda, they patiently explained, relies entirely on emotional appeals. It doesn’t depend on a rational theory that can be disproved: it appeals to things no one can object to.
American propaganda had its birth, so far as I can tell, in the advertising industry. The pioneers of advertising—a truly loathsome bunch—learned early on that people would respond to purely emotional appeals. Abstract theory and logical argument do nothing to spur sales. However, appeals to sexiness, to pride of ownership, to fear of falling behind the neighbors are the stock in trade of advertising executives. A man walking down the street with beautiful women hanging on his arms is not a logical argument, but it sure sells after-shave. A woman in a business suit with a briefcase, strolling along with swaying hips, assuring us she can “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, but never let you forget you’re a man” really sells the perfume.
Let’s take a moment and analyze the particular emotions that this execrable ad appealed to. If you guessed fear, you win the prize. Women often have a fear of inadequacy, particularly in this confused age when they are expected to raise brilliant kids, run a successful business, and be unfailingly sexy, all the time. That silly goal—foisted upon us by feminists and popular culture—is impossible to reach. But maybe there’s hope if you buy the right perfume! Arguments from intimidation and appeals to fear are powerful propaganda tools.
American advertising and propaganda has been refined over the years into a malevolent science, based on the assumption that most people react, not to ideas, but to naked emotion. When I worked at an ad agency many years ago, I learned that the successful agencies know how to appeal to emotions: the stronger and baser, the better. The seven deadly sins, ad agency wags often say, are the key to selling products. Fear, envy, greed, hatred, and lust: these are the basic tools for good propaganda and effective advertising. By far, the most powerful motivating emotion—the top, most-sought-after copy writers will tell you, in an unguarded moment—is fear, followed closely by greed.
Good propaganda appeals to neither logic nor morality. Morality and ethics are the death of sales. This is why communist propaganda actually hastened the collapse of communism: the creatures running the Commie Empire thought they should appeal to morality by calling for people to engage in sacrifice for the greater good. They gave endless, droning speeches about the inevitably of communist triumph, based on the Hegelian dialectic. Not only were they wrong: their approach to selling their (virtually unsellable) theory was not clever enough. American propagandists (we can be jingoistically proud to say) would have been able to maintain the absurd social experiment called communism a little longer. They would have scrapped all the theory and focused on appealing images. Though the Commies tried to do this through huge, flag-waving rallies, the disparity between their alleged ideals and the reality they created was just too great.
One tyrant who did take American propaganda to heart was Adolph Hitler. Hitler learned to admire American propaganda through a young American expatriate who described to him, in glowing detail, how Americans enjoyed the atmosphere at football games. This American expatriate, with the memorable name of Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstängl, told the Führer how Americans could be whipped up into a frenzy through blaring music, group cheers, and chants against the enemy. Hitler, genius of evil as he was, immediately saw the value in this form of propaganda and incorporated it into his own rise to power. Prior to Hitler, German political rhetoric was dry, intellectual, and uninspiring. Hitler learned the value of spectacle in whipping up the emotions; the famed Nuremberg rallies were really little more than glorified football halftime shows. Rejecting boring, intellectual rhetoric, Hitler learned to appeal to deeply emotional but meaningless phrases, like the appeal to “blood and soil.” The German people bought it wholesale. Hitler also called for blind loyalty to the “Fatherland,” which eerily echoes our own new cabinet level post of “Homeland” Security.
If you study Nazi propaganda, you will be struck by how well it appeals to gut-level emotions and images—but not thought. You will see pictures of elderly German women hugging fresh-faced young babies, with captions about the bright future the Führer has brought to German. In fact, German propaganda borrowed the American technique of relying, not so much on words, but on images alone: pictures of handsome German soldiers, sturdy peasants in native costume, and the like. Take a look at any American car commercial featuring rugged farmers tossing bales of hay into the backs of their pickups, and you’ve seen the source from which the Nazis borrowed their propaganda techniques.
The Germans have a well-deserved reputation for producing a lot of really smart people, but this did not prevent them from being completely vulnerable to American-style propaganda. Amazingly, a nation raised on the greatest classical music, the profoundest scientists, the greatest poets, actually fell for propaganda that led them into a hopeless, two-front war against most of the world. Being smart is, in itself, no defense against skilled American propaganda, unless you know and understand the techniques, so you can resist them.
American politicians learned, early in the twentieth century, that using emotional sales techniques won elections. Furthermore, they learned that emotional appeals got them what they wanted as they advanced towards their long-term goal of becoming Masters of the Universe. From this, we get our modern lexicon of political speech, carefully crafted to appeal to powerful emotions, with either no appeal to reason, or (better yet) a vague appeal to something that sounds foggily reasonable, but is so obscure that no one will bother to dissect it.
Franklin Roosevelt understood this, which is why he called for Social Security. Security is an emotional appeal: no one is against security, are they? Roosevelt backed up his campaign with a masterful appeal to emotions: images of happy, elderly grandparents smiling while hugging their grandchildren, with everything in the world going right because of Social Security. All kinds of government programs were sold on the basis of appealing images and phrases. Roosevelt even appealed to America’s traditional love of freedom, spinning that term by multiplying it into the new Four Freedoms, including Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Well, what heartless human being could possibly be against that? The Four Freedoms were promoted with images of parents tucking their children cozily into bed, and a happy family gathered around a Thanksgiving dinner, obviously free from want. The campaign was also based on that most powerful of all selling emotions: fear. If you don’t support Social Security, the ads suggested, you will live your last years in utter destitution.
Putzi Hanfstängl, viewing Roosevelt’s evil brilliance from Nazi Germany, was probably jealous.
American advertising executives learned the value of presenting a single image or slogan, and repeating it over and over again until it became ingrained in the public’s consciousness. Thus we are all aware that Ivory Soap is so pure that it floats: a point that has been repeated for the better part of a century. I’m not sure why I should be impressed that a bar of soap floats, but on the other hand, it’s not intended that I think that far. Politicians now sell their programs the way the advertising creeps sell soap: they dream up a slogan and repeat it over and over again. Thus we get empty slogans like The New Frontier, The New World Order (that one was poorly chosen; it sounds too much like an actual idea), or Reinventing Government (an idea that everyone should favor, except that the idea behind it really means Keeping Government the Same, only no one is supposed to think that far). Empty grandeur sells political products.
Both German and American politicians carried the use of banners to new heights. Flags are impressive emotional symbols, particularly when waved by thousands of enthusiastic people: it’s a rare individual who can resist the collective enthusiasm of thousands of his fellow human beings, cheering about their collective greatness. Putzi Hanfstängl understood this, advising Hitler to fill his public spectacles with not just a few, but countless thousands of swastika flags. The swastika, too, was a brilliant stroke of advertising and propaganda: it has become, in the public consciousness, the official emblem of Nazism, even though it had nothing to do with Germany. In fact, swastikas were used by ancient Hindus and American tribes, but I’m not aware of it being used by anyone in Germany prior to Hitler.
Now observe how Americans in the current crisis have taken to displaying huge flags on their cars. Flags are not rational arguments; they are instruments for whipping up the Madness of Crowds. Observe how many Americans have, with a straight face, called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag desecration, oblivious to the obvious contradictions such an amendment would have with the rest of the Constitution. But again, if you learn nothing else about propaganda, learn that it must not appeal to rationality.
Politicians don’t just use warm, fuzzy images to sell us on the road to tyranny. They also need emotional appeals to intimidate their enemies. Thus the small percentage of the population that really does use thought and reason more than emotion must be demonized. Roosevelt managed this with some masterful propaganda strokes. Those who opposed him were Isolationists, and Malefactors of Great Wealth! (The gut-level emotion appealed to here is envy.) Roosevelt thus showed himself to be an early master of what former California Governor Jerry Brown called “buzz words”; that is, words intended to silence counter-argument by appealing to unassailable emotional images. No one is for Isolation, and almost everyone reacts to an appeal to hate anyone who has a lot of money. The latter appeal, of course, had great power during the Great Depression, which Roosevelt managed to maintain for the entire length of his presidency, all the while blaming others for its evils. Was this guy an evil genius, or what?
The propaganda cleverness used in successfully branding anti-war people as Isolationists is breathtaking. After all, a rational person (ah, keep in mind, that’s not a common individual) realizes that those who oppose war are the exact opposite of isolationists. The Old Right at the time called for peaceful, commercial relations with all nations, based on neutrality in foreign affairs. If anything, those who oppose war and meddling in other countries’ affairs are the opposite of Isolationists as they really stand for open, profitable relationships with other countries. The people who stand for such ideas do not “sell” them by means of strictly emotional appeals, so they tend to lose the propaganda wars. When Roosevelt succeeded in whipping the country up into a war-frenzy after steering us into the Pearl Harbor fiasco, the Old Right realized their opposition to the war was hopeless.
The role of the government propaganda camps known as public schools cannot be discounted in all this. Schools are not so much centers of learning as they are behavior conditioning camps in which children are taught to be unquestioningly obedient to authority. Since reason and morality are the death of propaganda, schools busy themselves with systematically stunting students’ ability to reason and think in moral terms. Because the government owns the propaganda camps, it’s not surprising that the beneficiary of the propaganda is almost always the government. Americans accept obvious absurdities because they were drilled into their heads, year after year, in the government propaganda camps until they became true and unquestionable. Thus, everyone knows Roosevelt got us out of the Great Depression, even though the worst depression years were precisely those in which he and his party controlled every branch of government. Everyone knows Lincoln was a great president because he saved “government by the people” and freed the slaves, even though he became a war tyrant and only freed the slaves when it was politically convenient to do so. Wilson, everyone knows, made the world “safe for democracy”, evidently by instituting a draft and getting America involved in a European war that was fought for reasons no one to this day can fathom. When minds are young and pliable—government experts understand this principle—you can fill them with nonsense that is practically impossible to root out. Laughable falsehoods in effect become true because everyone knows them to be true.
Advertising executives learned, early on, that companies could not be too obvious in using their propaganda. If their agenda could be clearly seen, then it could also be rejected. The answer to this problem was the American propaganda technique of the “independent expert” and the “guy on the street.” One of these appeals to our timidity before authority, and the other to our smugness when dealing with someone at or below our perceived social level. Of course, these two techniques are really just two sides of the same coin. In product advertising, sports heroes and celebrities are used to sell corn flakes because no one would listen to the president of Kellogg telling us why corn flakes are so good. In selling detergent, plain-looking housewives are preferable to sexy models because they look just like us. In political propaganda, “experts” are often trotted out to tell us, in convoluted, circular reasoning, why minimum wage laws are really good for us, why a little bit of inflation is good, or why we just can’t rely on the free market for something so crucially important as education. Or, using the “guy on the street” approach, we are told to support idiotic wars because the common soldiers (“our boys”), cannot function unless they know we stand united behind them. If the rare sensible person tries to argue against war, he is accused of making things harder for “our boys.”
This brings us to the latest iteration of masterful American Propaganda: the War on Terrorism. Any attempt to explain why the terrorists (crazed as they obviously were) felt motivated to attack the World Trade Center is looked on as “siding with the terrorists.” Indeed, Ashcroft and Bush have said, in so many words, that if you don’t support them in everything they do, you stand with the terrorists. Ashcroft and Bush have evidently studied their propaganda lessons from World War II, when Roosevelt silenced all opposition by accusing anyone who stood against him of undermining the war effort. Anyone who suggests we should not risk World War III by invading the Middle East is alternately accused of siding with the terrorists, of slandering the memory of those who died, or (of course) of not “standing by our boys” in times of great need. It’s easy to feel alienated in a nation of flag-wavers singing patriotic hymns. The fact that they are marching lockstep to a world in which the government will monitor their e-mail, snoop into their bank accounts, and eventually throw them in jail for voicing opposition doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.
Now, most libertarians or otherwise thoughtful people will react with dismay when told that most of their fellow human beings react so unthinkingly to sock-you-in-the-gut emotional propaganda. Unfortunately, most people are not capable of really thinking things out. Most people really do buy perfume because of the emotional imagery. Most people really do believe the “independent expert”, whether in politics or buying a car. Most people want to go with the crowd, or follow the leader. To do otherwise requires independent thought and the willingness to be ostracized, which is an unbearable psychological burden for many.
If you want to take heart, remember that the Vietnam War ended because a few people just continued to speak against it, despite the overwhelming government propaganda for it. The fact that a lot of the anti-war protesters were motivated by the wrong reasons (support of commies), doesn’t matter in light of the fact they were able to turn the tide. They were right, even if for the wrong reasons. If advocates of freedom continue to speak against the creeping tyranny that our masters justify on the phony grounds of the War on Terrorism, we might just be able to prevent the transition from Republic to Empire. The thing about propaganda is that, once it is exposed for what it is, no one listens anymore. People tune it out, just as the slaves in Russia and China learned to tune out their official propaganda.