Is This Propaganda? Let’s Take a Look.

Is This Propaganda? Let’s Take a Look.

Everybody has gotta work. We all have to eat and if you’re like me you want to wear a nice shirt while you’re doing it. So we have to do something to make money. If you’re lucky, you get to do something you believe in.

We all want to do something we believe is a noble deed. Something that will add a little back to the world we’re taking so much out of. Something that allows us to sleep at night (assuming your noble deeds are not up against a deadline).

I’m a propagandist, in the literal sense of the word. That is, I’m in marketing. But I’ve never thought of myself as akin to a member of the marketing team in Nazi Germany. If anyone compared my work to that of Kremlin Creative Services, I would be surprised. Besides, I’m not sure Putin pays enough, considering the value of the ruble right now.

But I am trying to persuade you.

So is everyone else. Typically, journalists pursue their line of work because they feel like they can make a difference. Exposing hidden corruption, raising the profile of important issues, and telling powerful stories. Marketers often have bleeding hearts for matters of social justice, or if nothing else, at least adopting pets. In either case, their job is to change your mind.

In order to establish some definitions, let’s talk about 4 kinds of content:

  • News: Content designed to equip you to think
  • Marketing: Content designed to influence what you think
  • Commentary: Content designed to challenge how you think
  • Propaganda: Content designed to disrupt your thinking

We’ll skip over entertainment content for now, but just note that it can overlap with all of the above – and all of the above can overlap with one another. I’d also like to ask for your forgiveness for not using the dictionary today. For the sake of this article, I’m attempting to apply a definition based on a popular cultural understanding of these words as individual categories rather than splitting hairs.

How do you know when something fits into the propaganda definition? Well the first thing to do is check to see if it is Tucker Carlson. If not, you’ll need to look a little bit deeper.

When Narrative Trumps Truth

In America, we have a negative view of the word Propaganda. You might recall memories from the World War II era when we saw cartoon style poster ads promoting the agenda’s of their governments. We usually think of information that is designed to distract us from the truth, and push a narrative more preferable to those in power. Let’s talk about some of the characteristics that make up propaganda.

This article, published by MIT before the pandemic, before Trump’s purported fraudulent election and before Putin’s beloved Special Military Operation in Ukraine explains examples of propaganda in application. In 1952, reader's digest published an article called “Cancer by the Carton”, exposing a growing body of evidence that smoking causes cancer. The article describes how the tobacco industry introduced conspiracies and conflicting data using information overload to sow doubt in the claims about smoking and cancer. The industry’s effort continued for decades, until lawsuits and major regulations put a damper on their efforts to deceive the public.

Today, there is overwhelming consensus that smoking and cancer are linked. The tobacco industry did not care if this was true. They wanted to push a narrative above truth.

So what makes marketing NOT propaganda? As a marketer, I have to defend my kind. As I advise my clients, marketing can be aspirational, but it must be backed up by truth, or it will not resonate with your customers. Or it will leave them disappointed in the end.

The tobacco industry was willing to leave their customers disappointed. While advertising says “it’s toasted” focusing on an appealing positive spin, behind it was a PR campaign of misinformation designed to obscure the truth.

So what is news? I am of the opinion that all news is biased. Bias in news is not bad, but news must be honest. News presents both sides of the story, and equips its readers to be informed and form their own analysis. This does not mean that news outlets won’t put more emphasis on things their editorial team consider a priority, but a good news outlet will have depth and prioritize honesty, even when the truth is not the preferred.

What about commentary? The Lorem Ipsum is commentary, designed to challenge how you think, and hopefully offer some levity in its delivery. I endeavor to be truthful, but sometimes offer hyperbole to make the medicine go down better.

Is the Lorem Ipsum propaganda? I always believe the truth is more important than what I believe. But what do you think?