How Propaganda Works

By: Alia Hoyt

A man distributes leaflets of propaganda in Quito, Ecuador, to promote a constitutional referendum that will allow Pres. Rafael Correa to be re-elected.
A man distributes leaflets of propaganda in Quito, Ecuador, to promote a constitutional referendum that will allow Pres. Rafael Correa to be re-elected.
Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

We're bombarded with persuasive messages on a nearly constant basis, sometimes by paid advertisers and other times by groups looking to forward their own interests. The entities behind these messages all have the same idea in mind: Convince the audience to agree with the message presented and adopt it as their own belief, thus rejecting the viewpoints of the "other" side. Often, these messages are referred to as propaganda, a term used commonly to describe deceptive persuasive techniques. Historically, however, true propaganda hasn't been full of outright lies or deception, as many people believe. Rather, it's the statement of facts and beliefs with the intention of influencing a particular audience, trademarked by the omission of any details that might persuade the audience to the other side.

Of course, there are many people who believe that a failure to mention important details is as bad as an outright lie. And there are probably just as many who champion the other side -- those who argue that an informed public should research both sides of the story, instead of taking one side's word as the truth. According to M. Lane Bruner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Politics in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University, the lines are fuzzy when distinguishing between propaganda and persuasive communications. He explains that persuasion is ethical only if the audience's best interests are being held in mind [source: Bruner interview].


Propaganda has been around for many centuries, although the term itself wasn't coined until Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation of Propaganda in 1622. The pope created this group for the express purpose of trying to win back Catholics who'd taken up the Protestant faith during the Reformation. Missionary work was nothing new, of course, but people began to realize the possibilities associated with "spreading the word." The technique became widely used not only for religious conversions but also for political and wartime public persuasion purposes.

Today, propaganda is used by many people and organizations, including special interest groups (such as anti-smoking groups and safe-driving campaigns), businesses, political groups, government organizations, political candidates and so on. Typically, these groups communicate propaganda through a variety of mediums, including posters, television and radio broadcasts, and brochures. The Internet has also made it much easier for special interest groups to get their messages out to the masses on a worldwide scale.

What are the various ways propaganda is used, and how is it communicated? How do propaganda artists communicate their messages -- and how can an untrained eye or ear spot propaganda?


Propaganda Techniques

George H. W. Bush shows that he's one of the plain folks.
George H. W. Bush shows that he's one of the plain folks.
Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau via Getty Images

Propagandists use a variety of techniques to communicate messages and influence others.

A commonly used technique is name-calling, which takes its cue from playground behavior. Often, this technique is utilized to divert attention when someone is trying to avoid answering a question or providing hard facts. Name-callers frequently use labels like terrorist, traitor or hypocrite. They also utilize negatively charged words to describe ideas or beliefs, including radical, stingy and cowardly [source: Propaganda Critic].


The bandwagon technique encourages the viewer or listener to join the crowd by aligning with the most popular, successful side of an issue. This type of persuasion, often used in religious and political propaganda, plays to the human desire to be on the winning team.

Glittering generalities are very common in political propaganda. Glittering generalities combine words that have positive connotations with a concept that is particularly beloved. Few people are willing to denounce any idea that purports to defend democracy or preserve freedom. The idea is that by using these terms in tandem, people will accept them as they are and avoid looking for supporting evidence. Other words used commonly in this technique include liberty, dream and family.

Card stacking is the presentation of only the details, statistics and other information that impacts public opinion positively. In other words, the bad stuff is left out entirely. Experts maintain that although the information that's presented is usually true, this type of propaganda technique presents a lopsided and unrealistic viewpoint that is dangerously deceptive. Card stacking is often used in political campaign advertisements.

The plain folks technique is designed to get ordinary citizens to identify with a political candidate or other figure that they otherwise may have nothing in common with. For example, many politicians come from prestigious backgrounds and sport hefty bank accounts. However, they often present themselves as humble people with ordinary lives by doing "ordinary Joe" activities in public, like hunting, fishing or kissing babies.

Propaganda based on fear is designed to scare people into choosing sides. Often, worst-case scenarios are presented of horrible things to come if a particular action isn't taken. Special interest groups use this technique to encourage people to avoid behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol and driving recklessly.

The transfer technique is more subliminal (operating on a subconscious rather than conscious level) than the other techniques we've discussed. Using this method, a group or person attempts to align themselves with a beloved symbol in an effort to transfer the status of the symbol to the cause they represent. Some people see parallels between propaganda and subliminal messaging, in which images or words are presented too quickly or abstractly for people to consciously recognize and process them. This method is really more common in advertising than in propaganda, although some political ads utilize subliminal messaging.

Many other propaganda methods exist, but they subsist on the same basic principles as the ones listed above: Manipulate the message to portray an issue or person in the most favorable light possible, and when necessary, make the opposing side look shabby in comparison.

Next, we'll go into detail about the various mediums through which propaganda is communicated.


Propaganda Mediums

Rubber Tony Blair masks are discarded in London after being worn to promote the TV show "The Trial of Tony Blair." These masks' exaggerated features are clearly a caricature of the former prime minister.
Rubber Tony Blair masks are discarded in London after being worn to promote the TV show "The Trial of Tony Blair." These masks' exaggerated features are clearly a caricature of the former prime minister.
Scoopt/Getty Images

Propaganda is communicated through a variety of outlets, including television, film, radio, the Internet and print communications (which include brochures, posters and newspapers). According to Professor M. Lane Bruner, broadcast propaganda -- communicated through television, radio and film -- is the most dangerous kind. These messages are developed and broadcast by producers, directors, writers and news anchors or disc jockeys whose personal beliefs creep into ideas that are viewed and heard by a massive audience. Since the audience has little or no opportunity to respond or provide feedback to these messages, they become fact in the minds of many. "Furthermore," Bruner says, "given the wide range of choice of programs, people oftentimes only tune in to the programs that reinforce their own beliefs" [source: Bruner interview].

There are some propaganda and media critics who claim that all broadcast media contains propaganda in some form or another. Bruner points to reality television shows, which emphasize social values such as greed or winner-take-all attitudes, thus influencing the audience that these attitudes are the norm. Even television shows such as "The West Wing" and "The Daily Show" can blur the lines between fictional scenarios, comedy and serious politics. "The more serious news becomes a joke, the more comedy news becomes serious," Bruner hypothesizes.


Supporters of the Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam protest the depiction of Mohammed in political cartoons in 2006.
Supporters of the Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam protest the depiction of Mohammed in political cartoons in 2006.
John Moore/Getty Images

Print propaganda is often communicated in the form of newspapers, magazines and posters -- especially through political cartoons and caricatures. While cartoons and caricatures stir up conversation about a given topic, they can also be misappropriated to escalate tension between opposing groups. For example, a caricature in "The New Yorker" of 2008 presidential hopeful Barack Obama and his wife Michelle reinforced persistent African-American stereotypes. And when a Danish newspaper published political cartoons with images of Mohammed in 2006, tensions were ignited between Muslims, who considered the images sacrilegious, and members of the European press. The cartoon raised the question of whether or not propaganda is permissible by free speech. Bruner says yes, it is: "Basically, most propaganda, as long as it does not transgress the current legal limitations on speech, is protected speech" [source: Bruner interview].

Another medium for propaganda is the Internet. The Internet disperses broadcast and print propaganda on a worldwide scale; however, it's a medium that provides audiences the chance to exchange ideas, discuss information and research the topic at hand. On the flip side, the Internet enables the widespread dissemination of unchecked information, which can lead to the formation of uninformed opinions.

Of all these propaganda mediums, one of the most recognizable is radio. Radio relies more on repetition of the message simply because it doesn't have the powerful visual tools at its disposal that print and other forms of media do, according to Vanderbilt University professor Mark Wollaeger, Ph.D. Propaganda typically uses music and images to elicit an emotional response, but it's designed in such a way that audiences don't realize they're being manipulated by experts like "speech writers, marketers, spin doctors and spokespeople" [source: Bruner interview]. Because of this, it can be very difficult for the untrained eye to spot propaganda. And that's the hallmark of propaganda: persuasive messages that win over unwitting people. On the next page, we'll discuss some popular types of propaganda.


Types of Propaganda

A page excerpted from a propaganda book about Protestant persecutions during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
A page excerpted from a propaganda book about Protestant persecutions during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Now that we've got a handle on propaganda techniques and mediums, let's look at a few types of propaganda.

Political propaganda has been around as long as there have been politicians angling for votes and public approval. Although the term propaganda wasn't coined until 1622, similar techniques of persuasion were employed regularly throughout history. The Bible recounts the story of how an Assyrian King used fear propaganda in an effort to persuade the Kingdom of Judah to surrender to him [source:]. Julius Caesar is said to have penned the "Gallic Wars" for the express purpose of furthering his career, increasing his power and broadening his reputation [source:]. Today, political propaganda is commonly used to recruit and retain voters via a seemingly endless stream of television commercials. Sometimes these commercials depict only the best qualities of the candidate shown, while other commercials utilize name-calling, fear and other techniques to discredit opposing candidates or ideas. The glittering generalities technique is also common in political propaganda, as are political cartoons.


As we've already learned, religious propaganda was actually the first official type of propaganda. Missionaries have been working for centuries to recruit others to their respective faiths, whether it's through face-to-face communications, pamphlets, posters or broadcast media. Religious propaganda is also used to spread the word about particular moral and ethical issues, including abortion and the controversy over religion in schools.

Cults use extreme propaganda to influence people into accepting particular beliefs, often through methods of thought reform. This type of brainwashing is what convinces people that it's a good idea to drink the poison Kool-Aid or commit ritualistic murders (For more information on cults see How Cults Work).

A church stands in an abandoned village in the Congo, a testament to mission work in Africa.
A church stands in an abandoned village in the Congo, a testament to mission work in Africa.
Christopher and Sally Gable/Getty Images

No matter the type of propaganda, it's pretty much all impossible to avoid. The simple truth is that few organizations, politicians or religions are going to voluntarily disclose information that disputes their beliefs and goals. To be truly informed on any given topic, it's necessary to do background research using credible, reliable sources.

Only after studying all of the key components of a piece of propaganda (such as who's paying for the message, which organization or person created the message and what words and images are working to play on your sentiments and sympathies) can a person sincerely make an informed decision about whether the message is true or has a covert agenda.

­When it's a piece of government propaganda, however, it's another story. According to Vanderbilt University professor Mark Wollaeger, Ph.D., the use of government funds to push propaganda has been illegal in the United States since 1951. But it wasn't until 2005 that the George W. Bush administration signed the "Stop Government Propaganda Now" bill into law. The bill was created due to some outright acts of propaganda committed by government agencies, such as paying television reporters to skew their messages. The bill requires all audio and printed press communication releases to state clearly the government agency that funded its creation and dissemination. Under this law, it's illegal to manipulate the news media financially.

Be aware that propaganda laws and regulations vary from country to country, and some nations have no formal propaganda policies at all.

Next, we'll take a look at the famous propaganda generated by World War I and World War II.­

War Propaganda

A USSR World War II propaganda poster shows a German soldier intimidating a mother and child.
A USSR World War II propaganda poster shows a German soldier intimidating a mother and child.
Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

War propaganda debuted during World War I and was considered critical to the success of the war effort. Both Great Britain and Germany used propaganda to win U.S. support. Germany had been trying to garner the sympathies of U.S. citizens of German descent but was cut off from communicating directly with the American public. As a result, sympathy for Great Britain took over, and support for the war effort aligned accordingly.

Under Hitler's regime, propaganda was used to its fullest extent. Information available to the Germans was limited to that which cast the Nazis in a favorable glow. The idea was to eliminate opposition through a lack of information -- documents that didn't uphold Nazi philosophies were burned. Meanwhile, radios were sold at dirt-cheap prices to allow everyone to hear Hitler speak. Films also facilitated the spread of Nazi goals; in these movies, Jews were compared to rats, Hitler was made out to be a godlike figure and Germans in other parts of the world were portrayed as being horribly abused [source: History Learning Site].


Propaganda increasingly played to people's emotions during World War II. Although radio broadcasts, motion pictures and other mediums were popular communication tools, posters achieved a renaissance thanks to the simple fact that they could be put up anywhere, even at churches and places of business. What's more, posters were effective: Most people remember pictures more clearly than words [source: Visual Culture]. These posters made war glamorous, depicting men as heroes and the people at home as the backbone of the country. One of the main purposes of World War II propaganda was to encourage military enlistment, such as the famous "I Want You!" posters depicting Uncle Sam. Masculine images and powerful machines were also pictured in many posters to showcase America's strength [source: Powers of Persuasion].

War propaganda served to motivate the people on the home front to boost factory production, which had declined with so many men overseas. Famous icons such as Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to do their wartime duty by working in factories. Women in these posters were portrayed as capable but feminine, such as the poster that read, "Longing won't bring him back sooner -- get a war job!" [source: Powers of Persuasion].

The propaganda image of Rosie the Riveter motivated this young woman, Wendy the welder, to work at the Electric Boat Co. in 1943.
The propaganda image of Rosie the Riveter motivated this young woman, Wendy the welder, to work at the Electric Boat Co. in 1943.
Bernard Hoffman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Although the Civil Rights movement was still a couple of decades away, posters catered to black U.S. citizens by promoting their role in the war. One poster featured a black man working side by side with a white man under the motto "United We Win" [source: Powers of Persuasion].

Because food and other items were in short supply during the war, posters communicating the need to ration -- and that soldiers in the fields needed supplies more than citizens at home -- were distributed widely. One read, "Waste Helps the Enemy," and another advocating carpooling claimed, "When You Ride Alone You Ride with Hitler," [source: Powers of Persuasion].

Other posters played to Americans' fear of Nazis, warning that the impact of Hitler's regime could manifest at home. Civilians were repeatedly reminded of wartime suffering via graphic illustrations in an effort to keep them from becoming lax about the effort. The U.S. government conducted studies on the effectiveness of propaganda and determined that posters symbolic or humorous in nature elicited a far less powerful response than those with emotional messages and visual elements of photographic quality [source: Powers of Persuasion].

Wartime propaganda didn't die with the end of World War II, though. One more modern take on wartime propaganda involves the Internet and its impact on terrorist activity. For example, Iraqi insurgent groups commonly use the Internet to present their viewpoints and goals to a worldwide audience. Often, these methods are successful in both recruitment and fundraising initiatives. Similarly, propaganda also fuels long-running rivalries between opposing religious and political groups (such as the Shiite and Sunni Muslims) [source: PBS].

For more insight into propaganda, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Black Propaganda -- A Weapon of War." National Library of Scotland. 2006 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • Bruner, M. Lane, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Politics, Department of Communication, Georgia State University. Personal interview conducted by Alia Hoyt. Sept. 8, 2008.
  • "Fact & Fiction." Time. Sept. 18, 1939 (Sept. 16, 2008).,9171,762593-1,00.html
  • "In Search of Shakespeare: Censorship." PBS. 2003 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • Miller, Talea. "Iraq in Transition." PBS Online NewsHour. July 3, 2007 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "Powers of Persuasion." The National Archives. (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "Propaganda." Encyclopedia. (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • Propaganda Critic. Feb. 1, 2006 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "Propaganda in Nazi Germany." History Learning Site. (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "Recognizing Propaganda Techniques and Errors of Faulty Logic." Cuesta College. Nov. 26, 2003 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "Visual Culture and Public Health Posters." National Library of Medicine. Sept. 26, 2003 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "War Propaganda." HistoryWired: Smithsonian Institution. (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "The War: Propaganda." PBS. September 2007 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • "White Propaganda." 2007 (Sept. 16, 2008).
  • Wollaeger, Mark, Ph.D. Professor, Department of English, Vanderbilt University. Personal interview conducted by Alia Hoyt. Sept. 4, 2008.