Propaganda—so last century?

Propaganda—so last century?

Last year, at Saint Paul College, I took my first US History course. One of the most interesting discoveries for me was the speedy manufacturing of public consent for America's intervention in WWI, brought about by an appointed committee. Here's something I wrote for the class after viewing the propaganda.

The Committee on Public Information did their job extremely well. They swayed American opinion on the Great War by establishing control over the exchange of information in public and private settings. They used tactics like fear and emotional appeal to persuade citizens and delineate a range of acceptable behavior. The World War One documents examined here demonstrate the use of techniques that resonate in communications classes today—the principle of social validation, the door-in-the-face, and a thought process referred to as cognitive dissonance. These prove to be absolutely essential to the success of the campaign. They are also the same ideas behind modern-day advertising.

The chief concern at the time is how to create a new idea of “normal” thought and behavior. The Committee commissions and distributes words, posters, fliers, movies, news and songs in line with the specific pro-war agenda, while suppressing all other communication. These elements—more than 100 million[1]—pervade and tinge every aspect of life, conferring new meaning to daily tasks, conversations and decisions. Once ideas are established by repeated exposure, the Committee can count on the tendency of the majority not to stray too far from the norm. For example, several pieces of propaganda call for direct involvement; the Uncle Sam Poster, Buy A Liberty Bond and U.S Navy posters, among others, convey a sense of urgency and appeal directly to the viewer. Will they purchase a liberty bond or volunteer for the army? Maybe, maybe not. But they will certainly come away less likely to badmouth the war, as they’re busy feeling guilty about not volunteering. Thus is established a new—restricted—range of behavior, based on level of involvement.


Another consequence of the personal appeal to action involves cognitive dissonance. As men and women are pressured into volunteering their time, energy and funds to the war effort, they are likely to rationalize their behavior. Should this not happen, they would be subjected to a feeling of discord between thought and action—a situation that is toxic to the healthy psychology of the brain. Words and actions must be in harmony, and, while we know that thinking influences action, the opposite is also true: thinking may change to accommodate action. In general, by presenting the war as a moral imperative, the Committee created a sway more powerful than fear alone would have.

Of course, all this is not yet enough, as there is always a rebellious portion of citizenry. So, then, are enacted new pieces of legislation that give the federal government the right to forcefully limit free speech. The Espionage and Sedition Acts pronounce jail time and high fines for anti-war behavior that is defined in extremely general terms. This is how Eugene Debs comes to be imprisoned for his speech. Fear of being punished effectively stamps out the last resistances.

Fear is used in other ways as well. The enemy, Germany, is slandered beyond recognition, in a fashion that strikes us today as buffoonish and over-the-top. The four-minute speeches seem paranoid. Yet they cause elemental, involuntary reactions that give undue weight to the message. The posters in particular arouse passion, a welcome sentiment regardless of connotation. The women are candid and desirable, whether leading a charge or clutched in the arms of the enemy.

The most effective way that fear is used involves introducing the idea of spies. In a way, it makes the citizens themselves do the work of the committee. Suddenly, it is not the government, or even the police, but your very own neighbors keeping a sly eye out for your every move. This is what most generates the feeling of constant danger, of being watched, and the strongest incentive to stay in line and united against a distant enemy. The “Spies and Lies” poster is emblematic of this tactic. “And do not wait until you catch someone putting a bomb under a factory. Report the man who spreads pessimistic stories, divulges—or seeks—confidential military information, cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war."[2] It beckons a preemptive approach by making the slippery-slope argument that anyone who is against the war will eventually resort to violence. It is also mainly geared to women, since they are the ones staying home doing what they can while their husbands are at war. Gossiping all the way, naturally…

Stunning or elaborate productions serve to drive home a point, as they awe spectators and arouse passion. Conveniently expressed in another of the documents, “Advertising Aids For Busy Managers” regarding the play “Kultur”, is this simple idea: “Miss Brockwell wears some stunning and daring gowns in this play, and with these special appeal can be made to women.”[2] We are witnessing the emergence of celebrity culture.

Woodrow Wilson accepted the economic conditions that dictated America’s participation in World War One, and successfully created public opinion from scratch with the Committee on Public Information. The methods employed have been repeated in pattern throughout history and constitute the backbone of modern-day mass communication.


[1] Faragher, John Mack. Out of Many: A History of the American People. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc, 2012.

[2] Wheeler, William Bruce and Becker, Susan D. Discovering The American Past. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010.

1 comment (Add your own)

1. Clifford Holloway wrote:
excellent article; thought control in the early 1900's, does it still go on?

Mon, February 27, 2017 @ 9:13 PM

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