January 14, 2008

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Propagandists

With the first major Presidential primaries already behind us, the election year is officially under way. This November, the President, Vice President, one third of the Senate, and the entire House are up for election. Between now and then, we’ll see dozens of debates, thousands of ads, and hear mixed messages from various groups, pundits, candidates, their former co-workers, their third grade teachers, former lovers, and anyone else who can be pulled out of the woodwork to support or tear down a politician. So I figure this is a good time to review the 7 Common Propaganda Devices that were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) way back in 1937 and see if we can find them in use today.


The IPA used this term to describe virtuous words that mean different things to different people, but are used in such a general way that you can project your own meaning into the speaker’s words. So when people talk about freedom, strength, Democracy, or patriotism, you are likely to assume they think of those words the same way you do.

In 2008: It’s almost like this Mitt Romney ad was made just to demonstrate use of glittering generalities:

Remedy: When you hear someone speaking in glittering generalities, the IPA recommended that you stop to ask whether or not the idea being pitched is really a good one, or if it’s just being sold to you through association with words you like. If you take those words out of the equation, is the substance of what’s left still any good?


“Name calling” is a technique where someone uses words to link a person or proposal to a negative or emotionally charged symbol. The idea is to get you to reject the person due to the association with the symbol rather than actual evidence, which may or may not be there. Words like flip-flopper, radical, terrorist, and even liberal are contemporary labels that might qualify as name calling.

In 2008: The Annenberg Political Fact Check recently reported that e-mails have been circulating calling Barack Obama a racist and a radical Muslim. Neither claim seems to be supported by evidence, but aims to associate the Senator with negative views of racists and Muslim extremists.

Remedy: The IPA recommended that when you hear name-calling, you should stop to consider what the name means, whether or not it is being legitimately applied, and what the person or idea’s merits are without the name.


There are institutions and objects that you have positive associations with, so politicians try to appear with symbols of those institutions in the hopes that you will transfer your positive associations onto them. For example, by standing in front of American flags or next to a cross, a candidate hopes that your positive associations with those symbols will be transferred to them. Transfer can be used for positive associations or negative associations, depending on the symbol and intent.

In 2008: Mike Huckabee’s Christmas campaign ad featured a bookcase in the background which resembled a cross. There was some debate in the media over whether or not the cross was a subtle but deliberate attempt at using transfer. Of course, Governor Huckabee’s statement in the ad that “what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ” is a much less subtle attempt to further align himself with the church.

Remedy: The IPA suggests that when you notice transfer in use, you ask what the merits of a person or idea are without the transferred associations, and whether or not there is a legitimate connection between the person or idea and the thing from which the person is attempting to transfer some association.


The IPA pointed out that sometimes citing a qualified source is a good way to emphasize a legitimate idea. But you should consider whether or not the source being cited is really qualified to make judgments about a particular issue.

In 2008: Barack Obama has received endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston, Will I Am, and Jessica Beil. Hillary Clinton has Magic Johnson, Jenna Jameson, and Rob Reiner in her camp. Kevin Bacon endorses John Edwards. Bo Derek, Adam Sandler, and Kelsey Grammar have all come out for Giuliani. Chuck Norris has got Mike Huckabee’s back. Mitt Romney has the support of both Osmonds. And John McCain is endorsed by, um, Wilford Brimley. (source)

Remedy: The IPA recommended that, when considering endorsements like these, you ask what makes the individual qualified to be an expert on the subject in question. Does Oprah know what’s best for the country? Does Kelsey Grammar have more insight than you do? The IPA suggested that you should consider the merits of the person or idea without the testimonial.


The “Plain Folks” technique is at work whenever a speaker promotes the idea that he or she is “of the people,” just an Average Joe despite the fact that he or she may go home to a mansion at the end of the day.

In 2008: John Edwards is fond of pointing out that he is the son of a mill worker. Several candidates have eschewed a suit and tie on the campaign trail in favor of a sweater and blue jeans. And Mitt Romney perfectly illustrates the technique in this campaign ad showing him as just a regular family guy. He does dishes, just like you!

Remedy: When you see examples of the Plain Folks technique at work, try temporarily ignoring the candidate’s personality, and just think about his or her ideas. Do they still sound good?


“Stacking the deck” is a gimmick used by magicians where a deck of cards appears to be randomly shuffled but is in fact arranged in a specific way. The IPA borrowed the term to describe a technique where only one side of a topic is favored, or another side is ignored or played down.

In 2008: Fox News is accused of having a right-wing bias, selectively reporting on issues that support a right-wing agenda. Similarly, PBS is accused by some of having a left-wing bias . And Ron Paul supporters have been shouting that the entire mainstream media has an anti-Ron Paul bias, downplaying his successes in the campaign.

Remedy: It can be difficult to recognize card stacking, because the viewer does not always know what other arguments are being ignored. If you don’t know about Ron Paul, for example, you wouldn’t know that he isn’t being represented in some discussions of the candidates. But by seeking out different media outlets with various viewpoints, you can get a more well rounded view of the issues.


The idea behind the Bandwagon technique is that, since everyone else is doing it, so too should you. There is a bit of showmanship involved in hyping the bandwagon, filling halls with supporters, playing music to get everyone excited, and waving colorful banners. Often the appeal is directed towards groups that already share a common tie based on religion, race, gender, etc. Studies have shown that the bandwagon effect really does work in elections. In the current race, the media reports poll results consistently, telling us who women are voting for, who blacks are voting for, who Christians are voting for, etc.

In 2008: The New York Times reports today that Barack Obama is increasingly being viewed as being electable among Democrats. In fact, the Times reports that “The percentage of Democrats who say he would be the strongest candidate against the Republicans has more than doubled in a month.” If enough Democrats hear that their fellow Dems feel this way, we may expect his electability rating to increase even more, based on the bandwagon effect. In a similar vein, there is sometimes an underdog effect at work, also. Many people want to vote for the winning team, but others like to throw support to the underdog. And the recent New Hampshire primary showed that the declared front-runner doesn’t always win anyway.

Remedy: The IPA recommended that, when you notice the bandwagon effect, you stop to consider whether or not you should support an idea or candidate regardless of the fact that others do. Does the person or idea really serve your individual and collective best interests?

These 7 techniques were identified by the IPA 70 years ago, but other techniques could be mentioned in this context including the use of fear, a technique employed to great effect in recent years. More information on propaganda techniques can be found at propagandacritic.com.

Previously: Idea: Approve of more than just “This Message.”


This post is such a good idea, and should be instituted as required reading upon reaching the age of majority. Or at least forwarded to a friend once or twice.

Nice. I admit I kept waiting for a joke to appear, but I admire this serious post. Keep throwing them in the mix.

It’s hard to pin one down as the most detestable, but I’m definitely most aware of the glittering generalities. “Strong economy, strong military, strong doo-doo, strong families, etc…”


Just listened to an NPR story on the way home from work about the candidates’ endorsements. Essentially, the conclusion was that they don’t mean much in the end.

I don’t ever expect “jokes” to appear on this blog. I expect playfulness sometimes, and that is way different. Nice post, David, thank you. I learned a few things.

The only problem with these “remedies” is they only work with people who actually use their brain.

Those people are not the target audience.

i like the way you laid that out… as someone who tries to be an informed voter, it’s tough to see that i’m still highly susceptible to each of these categories. I guess i’ve still got a lot of work to do!

I think it is sad that our candidate has already been chosen for us.

Great post and one definitely worth passing around.

I liked the way you illustrated the point with reference to a range of candidates. This is clearly not a partisan issue!

Thanks for sharing it.

Nice site. I came here when I found the game about the 50 states in ten minutes. I often do that. Now I learned all 50 states, at least … I did it within the ten minutes without using an atlas.
Did you create this game yourself, or did you find it somewhere? Maybe an idea for me to do so with the European countries.
Really great site. I’ll visit it more, however my English isn’t perfect, so I’m not capable to understand everything.

You know, my first thought was that this piece was a little simplistic and just stated the obvious. Then I remembered that so many Americans ARE simplistic, and don’t necessarily SEE the obvious.

GREAT article.

I wish to compliment you on the fine artwork you have at your site.

At some point it became clear to me that the reason why it’s easy to find examples of propaganda in media is that all communication relies on propaganda at some intrinsic level.

As far as things being simplistic. I am not sure what simplistic really means. Things are always a lot more nuanced than what first appearances might suggest. The devil is in the details ;-)


I really appreciated this article. Thank you. I sent the link to several family and friends for them to read. I wish every American would read it (and comprehend it). As for me, once a candidate declares himself (herself) in the running I quit listening to anything they have to say in any form of media. Look at their prior voting record. That’s the best way to see what they really support.

The propaganda of Dr.Steels army is imo the best. www.DoctorSteel.com
He is taking over the world.

Sorry, now clickable;

Sorry, now clickable;