Propaganda : Power and Persuasion

Careless talk costs lives

Your country needs YOU!

I want you for the US Army

Buy more beer – get drunk here

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases

All the above are iconic propaganda straplines (except for the beer one, I just made that up), and even though they belong to a bygone age, they still resonate with a lot of people. It seems that effective propaganda sticks. I took myself along to The British Library last Friday to check out the exhibition Propaganda : Power and Persuasion.

Definitions of propaganda abound, and they often contain words like coerce, mislead and humiliate. So on the face of it, you’d think an exhibition about propaganda would be quite heavy going, and to a large extent you’d be right. The black backdrop, subdued lighting and sinister haunting music go a long way to help giving you the creeps, and raising suspicion as you wander through a really well laid out history of…. manipulation.

Chairman Mao

At first I thought I got it. Fight the baddies, shut up and dig, respect the leader at all costs, blah blah blah. A poster of Chairman Mao for example, published when he was in his 70’s depicts him as a young man ready for the struggle, fist clenched to show determination, wearing a smock for the common touch, clouds parting to show a brighter future. You can clearly see where the propaganda machine is coming from. And you quickly get to see that propaganda is very much in the eye and mind of the beholder. The exhibition plays tricks by showing different perspectives along side each other and this photo of some guy, I think it’s Adolf Churchill, summed up the whole juxtaposition thing nicely.

Adolf Hitler Winston Churchill

There’s a section on health, including various pieces exhorting us to stop smoking, eat less crap, take more exercise, don’t get VD. I was less sure that this is propaganda, more like slightly heavy handed common sense.

Stop Smoking or Die

I was smirking a little about how unsophisticated a lot of the messages were, and thinking how gullible people of previous generations were. This stopped when I came across an exhibit focussed on the suitably unsubtle 1983 campaign Protect and Survive, all about how to survive a nuclear attack. I was in my late teens when this came out and though I don’t recall being ‘fooled’ by it, I do recall reading it at the time. Propaganda is timeless, and as if to prove it, I stumbled upon something that looked remarkably like an advert for Despicable Me 2.

Despicable Me

The exhibition finishes with a giant Twitter wall showing how people have related to a few recent incidents including the London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, and the Sandy Hook massacre and resulting ding dong between Obama and the NRA. Is propaganda becoming co-creative? Compulsive viewing for advertisers and internal comms specialists methinks.

I left blinking into the light having enjoyed my experience and at the same time feeling a little down, and even a little suspicious. Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? Recommended viewing, ideally when you’re in a good mood.