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April 19, 2009

Advertising and Propaganda

Advertising, marketing, public relations : an established industry whose expertise is communicating, framing discussions, and shaping public discourse. They don't make steel, they don't cure disease, but they can and do change the results of an election (which is kind of a big thing for a country with nuclear weapons).

advertising  and propagandaWhile we sometimes talk about the ads-in-themselves (Wow, that Burger King Sponge Bob ad, how could a corporation present women in that light? What audience do they think they're reaching?) we rarely talk about the advertising industry as a thing-in-itself. Perhaps we should.

The advertisers and the advertising industry have developed, and we have condoned, a culture of pervasive advertising that has morphed us from Citizens to Consumers. The average American child watches XX hours of television a day, which means YY hours of "pure" advertising without even considering product placements within the entertainment.

I bought a GPS for my car. Little ads tell me where every Starbucks is along my route. So I've paid for the GPS, and at the same time Starbucks is paying to have their locations and icons shoved at me. I can't turn them off. It's the cable TV model; we pay for it, and there's commercials. That's nuts.

There's really very little in advertising that's good for the economy, democracy, or the population. If you haven't seen it, you might watch Wag the Dog, and then read about Jessica Lynch.

At the top of this phillipic I defined the advertising industry to include marketing, public relations, and social media. I'd like to now add: propagandists.

Advertising is propagandaThe propaganda in the world isn't only in EastBumFistan and Asia; the advertising industry is pumping propaganda at us every day, and we train our children to sit down in front of it. Good little Consumers. Good little Steelers fans.

What is PropagandaFrom Wikipedia: Propaganda is the dissemination of information aimed at influencing the opinions or behaviors of people. As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense, often presents information primarily in order to influence its audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or gives loaded messages in order to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda.

The propaganda model is a theory advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky that alleges systemic biases in the mass media and seeks to explain them in terms of structural economic causes. They say,
The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

The epistemic merit model is a method for understanding propaganda conceived by Sheryl Tuttle Ross in 2002. Ross provides a communication model based on a Sender (who is persuading), a Receiver (who is the target), and the Message (means of reaching the target). Her model dovetails nicely with Shannon and Weaver's communication model.

According to Ross, there are four conditions for a message to be considered propaganda.
  • Propaganda involves the intention to persuade
  • Propaganda is sent on behalf of a sociopolitical institution organization or cause
  • The recipient of propaganda is a socially significant group of people
  • Propaganda is epistemically defective

"Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great deal of their time not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it." Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

Look at the results of commercial propaganda. Kids killing each other over sneakers.

As I'm prone to repeating, there's very little new under the sun, and the practice of smart people marshalling their excellent communication skills on behalf of scurrilous clients for money isn't new either. The Sophists were way ahead of the advertisers.

What makes the occasional ad stick out isn't that it's obviously propaganda, it's that we've become sophisticated consumers of propaganda, and we can spot low-quality propaganda.

Advertising is propaganda.

Edited 4/25/09, one article split into two.

(#4 in a series of 5 including Lamar, Billboards, Advertising and Supply & Demand, Advertising and Propaganda, and Advertising and the Information Age.)


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