by Ann McClintock
Americans, adults and children alike, are being seduced. They are being brainwashed. And few of us protest. Why? Because the seducers and the brainwashers are the advertisers we willingly invite into our homes. We are victims, content—even eager—to be victimized. We read advertisers’ propaganda message in newspapers and magazines; we watch their alluring images on television. We absorb their messages and images into our subconscious. We all do it—even those of us who claim to see through advertisers’ tricks and therefore feel immune to advertising’s charm. Advertisers lean heavily on propaganda to sell their products, whether the “products” are a brand of toothpaste, a candidate for office, or a particular political viewpoint.
Propaganda is a systematic effort to influence people’s opinions, to win them over to a certain view or side. Propaganda is not necessarily concerned with what is true or false, good or bad. Propagandists simply want people to believe the messages being sent. Often, propagandists will use outright lies or more subtle deceptions to sway people’s opinions. In a propaganda war, any tactic is considered fair.
When we hear the word “propaganda,” we usually think of a foreign menace: anti-American radio programs broadcast by a totalitarian regime or brainwashing tactics practiced on hostages. Although propaganda may seem relevant only in the political arena, the concept can be applied fruitfully to the way products and ideas are sold in advertising. Indeed, the vast majority of us are targets in advertisers’ propaganda war. Every day, we are bombarded with slogans, print ads, commercials, packaging claims, billboards, trademarks, logos, and designer brands-all forms of propaganda. One study reports that each of us, during an average day, is exposed to over five hundred advertising claims of various types. This saturation may even increase in the future since current trends include ads on movie screens, shopping carts, videocassettes, even public television.
What kind of propaganda techniques do advertisers use? There are six basic types:
1. Name Calling. Name calling is a propaganda tactic in which negatively charged names are hurled against the opposing side or competitor. By using such names, propagandists try to arouse feelings of mistrust, fear, and hate in their audiences. For example, a political advertisement may label an opposing candidate a “loser,” “fence-sitter,” or “warmonger”. Depending on the advertiser’s target market, labels such as “a friend of big business” or “a dues-paying member of the party in power” can be the epithets that damage an opponent. Ads for products may also use name calling. An American label of foreignness will have unpleasant connotation in many people’s minds. A childhood rhyme claims that “name can never hurt me,” but name calling is an effective way to damage the opposition, whether it is another car maker or 2 congressional candidates.
2. Glittering Generalities. Using glittering generalities is the opposite of name calling. In this case, advertisers surround their products with attractive—and slippery—words and phrases. They use vague terms that are difficult to define and that may have different meanings to different people: freedom, democratic, all-American, progressive, Christian, and justice. Many such words have strong, affirmative overtones. This kind of languages stirs positive feelings in people, feelings that may spill over to the product or idea being pitched. As with name calling, the emotional response may overwhelm logic. Target audiences accept the product without thinking very much about what the glittering generalities mean—or whether they even apply to the product. After all, how can anyone oppose “truth, justice, and the American way”?
The ads for politicians and political causes often use glittering generalities because such “buzz words” can influence votes....