On May 29, 1780, subsequent to the fall of Charleston, SC, to the British less than three weeks earlier, Abraham Buford’s Patriot forces suffered an overwhelming defeat at the hand of British commander Banastre Tarleton’s men at Waxhaws, SC. When they attempted to surrender, a number of Buford’s troops were attacked and killed by Tarleton’s men. While the British may have carried the battlefield on that occasion, what would soon become known as Buford’s Massacre ultimately resulted in a propaganda boo-boo that overshadowed any momentary advantage that the British might have accrued.
“The effect of the event in 1780 was dramatic,” notes battlefields.org. “Patriot ranks swelled in response to the battle, and it served as a rallying point for the cause of independence. Just months later, as the Overmountain Men attacked a Loyalist force at King’s Mountain, their battle cry was ‘Remember the Waxhaws’ and ‘Give them Buford’s play!’”
Propaganda’s effects are not always quite so breathtaking or immediate – in this case, the fight for America’s independence clearly benefited from an adversary’s overplay that resonated throughout the rest of the conflict.
Propaganda, standing the test of time
Since the beginning of human history, there has been propaganda. The word ‘propaganda’ carries negative connotations, no doubt well earned, although I’ve taken to regarding it as persuasion without the use of a sharp stick. Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s 2011 book, Propaganda and Persuasion, describes propaganda as “the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”
Edward Bernays, widely recognized as the father of modern-day propaganda, opened his ground breaking and aptly-named 1928 book, Propaganda, with this: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
This, with its undercurrent of “Oh, #&$%#*@##,” may strike some as frightening. Sadly, it may also come as non-fake news to those who might be of the mind that the Joe McGinniss classic, The Selling of the President 1968, based on the successful presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon, presented some new political propaganda breakthrough. Not quite. But it did result in this comment from the Washington Post’s David Broder: “McGinniss has given us a damning but terribly amusing picture of the flackery in one campaign. The problem will be around longer than Nixon will. You can read this book and laugh – or maybe weep a little at how you were sold a president.”
Politics and religion
No, no, no, a thousand times no, we – as in yours truly and the little doggy that sits behind me and serves as my adult supervision – will not be discussing the age-old third rails of politics and religion here, other than perhaps tangentially and altogether inadvertently, but rather the use of propaganda – and associated techniques – in the molding of public opinion.
“The word propaganda itself,” states Britannica.com, “as used in recent centuries, apparently derives from the title and work of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagation of the Faith), an organization of Roman Catholic cardinals founded in 1622 to carry on missionary work. To many Roman Catholics, the word may therefore have, at least in missionary or ecclesiastical terms, a highly respectable connotation.”
Now we’re cooking
However, as Miles’ Law posits, “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” and by the time World War I got cooking, the art of propaganda was in full bloom. When it was beyond clear in 1917 that the United States needed to enter the war against Germany, it was a bit of a sticky wicket for President Woodrow Wilson, who had earned reelection behind the slogan, “He kept us out of the war.” He turned to a leading practitioner of public relations of the time, a gentleman who bore a stated aversion to the word “propaganda.”
His goal: To depict the Germans as godless brutes who needed to be extinguished. In the usual fashion, newspapers and magazines merrily played along. Quickly, men could not resist enlisting and heading to war, soon to send Germany down to defeat.
The leading example of propaganda
Less than two decades later, German leader Adolf Hitler would make highly effective use of the film, The Triumph of Will, which touted the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, as a means to gin up the German populace into falling in line with the fascist government in its push to lead the country to greatness. It is regarded as a leading example of propaganda. In 1975, American writer Susan Sontag wrote that the pure work of agitprop was “the most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.”
While we could safely stipulate that the use of propaganda can result in good or bad outcomes, what would these masters of BS have done if they’d had use of subliminal advertising? Who among us recalls the hue and cry that arose over that particularly insidious activity? Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Welllll, the thought of subliminal advertising manipulating our thoughts and actions through barely discernible images and words inserted in such things as TV and glossy magazine ads now seems unbearably quaint.
For the unsuspecting
Sometime in the ‘70s, before there were colors, I know, I read a book on all the sneaky things subliminal advertising was pulling on us unsuspecting buffoons who were clearly rendered helpless to the extent that we would, preferably en masse, tear off to the nearest establishment and mindlessly make the suggested purchase. With circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each photo, as Arlo Guthrie would say, the book (no, I cannot recall its name) outlined how we would be manipulated into this state through things like sexual suggestions in pictures of ice cubes and the whisky flowing over them, millisecond flashes of variations on “buy me” and the company’s name inserted in TV ads, or some hidden auditory stimuli, all attempting to monkey with your emotions or otherwise introduce some association that leads you directly into that helpless subconscious state.
Call me misguided or out to lunch, but it seems to me that any halfway right-thinking advertiser would hardly expect you to immediately quit munching on your Froot Loops and sail on out the door to procure whatever it is they’re peddling. What they do hope for is that on the next occasion you are confronted with a choice in like products, theirs catches your eye, without you knowing exactly why or even that it’s happening to you, and prompts you to grab it and plunk it into your basket. It wouldn’t hurt if your buddies are found to be in the same boat, thereby contributing to the feel-good qualities of a group mind at work.
Main Street Magazine is indubitably the greatest magazine in the history of the planet Earth! Just ask us.
Hey, what just happened there???
A world of confirmation bias
Eventually, I tend to surmise, one finds one’s self functioning in a world of confirmation bias, where all sorts of things run in the background, much like the apps on your smartphone are wont to do. By the time some form of propaganda or subliminal advertising has taken hold inside one’s cranium, Britannica.com points out, it’s tough to dislodge. Indeed, “humans sometimes process information in an illogical, biased manner. The manner in which a person knows and understands the world is often affected by factors that are simply unknown to that person. Philosophers note that people have difficulty processing information in a rational, unbiased manner once they have developed an opinion about an issue.”
Ah yes, confirmation bias at work, thereby leading to the perpetuation of your original “choice” that really wasn’t much of a choice at all. Next time you choose that particular dish detergent or shampoo, perhaps stop for a second and consider why that one and not the other one. Have you any idea?
Alrightee, let’s take all that and ratchet it up a notch, to where nowadays we have things like artificial intelligence and deepfakes and no end of nonsense that rather seems to defenestrate whatever attempts at cleverness might exist in the world of propaganda and subliminal advertising. Simply make it all up and have at it! The earliest practitioners of the art of propaganda likely would be doing cartwheels over the chance to get their grubby mitts on such an opportunity. How does one even go about detecting they’re being smoked?
Don’t believe every video you see is primo advice in a cockamamie world where, for example, your neighbor’s face winds up on some social media site robbing the nearest convenience store at gunpoint. Okay, right, you know perfectly well that couldn’t be him. But what if there’s a picture or pictures, developed purely from scratch, showing him engaged in something a skosh more plausible, such as spending time out in his barn piecing together what is clearly an explosive device?
You’re aware of his elevated antipathy towards the federal government. Could this be him? It’s conceivable, knowing what you know about folks prone to bombing federal buildings. You know the neighbor – you hear about him all the time in news stories: He was such a quiet, well-mannered man – we never thought he was capable of such a thing.
So now what? What sort of chance do we mere mortals have in such a world? It’s early days in the AI/deepfake world. Good time to head outside for a walk. •