Propaganda, or the use of advertising to help suggest to and influence people, is one of the most fascinating political tools of the past few centuries. For as long as people have been able to communicate, there has always been a push to influence others. One of the oldest pieces of propaganda we are aware of is the Rosetta Stone! It’s a slab that’s thought to have shown the Ancient Egyptians just how wonderful King Ptolemy V was.
In any case, propaganda has a fascinating history, and one which is also plenty controversial. Some of the propaganda material set up during the World Wars remain iconic to this day – while some were created with the greater good in mind, such as the iconic Rosie the Riveter ‘We Can Do It!’ posters, others were built with political coercion in mind. Here are more than a few fascinating facts about propaganda across the years which you might just find surprising.
Rather prophetically – given COVID-19 – the USSR once implemented a propaganda campaign to cut down on handshakes. Again, prophetic in nature, this scheme was launched in 1920 to prevent the spread of infectious disease. The campaigns were rather brusque, however – as people would brandish ‘DOWN WITH HANDSHAKES!’ pins.
There is a lot of ongoing speculation regarding the secretive nation of North Korea and their use of propaganda. For example, it’s thought that the elusive state has a full ‘propaganda village’, which was once used to blindside people seeking to join South Korea.
There have been all kinds of attempts made by people to try and ‘block’ propaganda, for fear of state control. For example, many people started wearing tinfoil hats to block radio waves. Doing so not only proved to be pointless, it’s thought that wearing foil on your head might actually amplify waves instead.
Propaganda wasn’t always used to influence people or to force people into an alternative way of thinking. In fact, much wartime propaganda was hugely positive! This was thanks to its distractive nature.
However, believe it or not, Britain refrained from producing any kind of propaganda until war actually broke out. This was largely led by the work of PR guru Charles Masterman.
The Nazis were particularly creative with their harmful propaganda. Their adoption of the swastika was well known, and to this day, it is still seen as a hurtful symbol from a period of Jewish persecution and annihilation. However, a whole patch of trees built into the shape of the symbol continued to grow – without anyone having a suspicion – for around six decades.
There was an inherently nasty side to propaganda during wartime – and there still is when it comes to election time in some countries. Countries and governments would often create smear campaigns or stir up anger against opposing countries and forces to encourage citizens to get on side.
Edward Bernays was a PR master in the US. It’s thanks to his propaganda work that it was no longer seen to be improper or frowned upon for women to smoke tobacco in public. Bernays hired women to smoke in a parade setting in an attempt to tip the balance for equal rights. Believe it or not, Bernays also helped to transform bacon and egg into breakfast items – something that’s certainly translated overseas.
Propaganda was effectively used during World War I in an attempt to influence feelings of nationalism. Moreover, it was largely used to encourage people to enlist in military forces and to do their part for the ‘big push’. Some of the most iconic images from wartime are straight out of the propaganda playbook – with Britain’s famous ‘WE WANT YOU’ poster, featuring Lord Kitchener, being a popular symbol of the period. Even to this day, this is an image and a poster widely known by most people in the UK!
Propaganda during wartime also helped to encourage women who were not taking part in conflict to take over from men in jobs that were going vacant. This led to a big push both at home and away. Many women took on factory jobs, for example, as well as automotive work. It largely helped to tip the gender equality balance, though women would also enter conflict in the years that followed, too.
Propaganda is a tool which not only inspires and influences, but which can also cause strong feelings of guilt or shame. In fact, many war propaganda campaigns served to encourage people to feel bad that they were not doing enough for the war effort. This was applied on all sides of the conflict, too.
Propaganda was not always available in the form of posters, radio broadcasts or film. In fact, there have been some works of fiction written over the years in an effort to help influence the masses. For example, some saw the popular book Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be an effective tool in the US civil war, effectively depicting slavery and its obvious inhumanity.
It’s thought that the BBC once created a radio program purely for the intended purposes of influencing US listeners. It’s thought that the show was designed to appeal to American listeners to help bring Americans around to the British way of thinking.
Propaganda still exists to this very day in various means and for various purposes. For example, party political broadcasts in the UK exist to help encourage people to vote a specific way. What’s more, the rise of ‘fake news’ in social media may also be seen as a propaganda move. With more and more people consuming information right where they sit, there has never been a more lucrative time for propaganda to reach the masses.
Propaganda isn’t something to be hated – much of the time, it can be used to educate people. One good example in recent times, for example, is the British campaign to encourage people to ‘stay home’ and to avoid spreading COVID-19. This was used to help encourage lockdown and quarantine.
Do you have any interesting facts about propaganda that we’ve missed? Share them here in the comments section below!