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What is Propaganda?

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell provide a clear and concise propaganda definition in their book Propaganda & Persuasion (2014). They write, “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (7). In other words, a more simple way to define it is as a systematic method of manipulation, and it’s quite a successful one. Propaganda has been employed extensively in the political sphere since the 19th century to further various agendas by politicians, opposing candidates, and special interest groups. It is used to highlight the negatives or positives of an idea, a person, or legislation. Hitler used propaganda extensively to promote his anti-Semitic ideas and his vision for Germany in a post-World War I era. In the United States, it was harnessed to boost morale for the general public during war time and for recruitment purposes.

Propaganda Examples

Characteristics of Propaganda

Beyond the meaning above, the process itself relies heavily on ethos and pathos, and will only use logos if it accesses the other two. It isn’t terribly concerned with facts, figures, or truth; instead, propaganda relies mostly on the emotional responses of its audience to generate agreement and action. While students may recognize that there are similar techniques used in both propaganda and advertising, propaganda is generally considered to be a negative term, even though it can be applied to achieve positive goals. Advertising is generally not a negative concept, although it does aim to psychologically prompt its target audience into buying a product. Advertising is primarily concerned with increasing sales; propaganda, on the other hand, is more concerned with changing public attitudes and policy.

Propaganda is defined by particular characteristics, which set it apart from straightforward facts, and usually reveal hidden or underhanded motives or a negative symbol. These elements include:

  • Appeals to the emotions (pathos) rather than intellect

  • Information is value-laden and accesses audiences’ judgments, prejudices, and sense of ethics (ethos)

  • Uses selective information; not balanced

  • Intentions or motives matter; there is a specific goal for the information

Propaganda uses various mediums to gain attention and target audiences. These mediums include:

Visual and Audio Media
  • TV
  • radio
  • cinema
  • documentaries
  • commercials
  • songs
  • news
  • talk shows
  • websites
  • blogs
  • social media
  • social networking
Arts and Literature
  • paintings
  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • plays
  • performance art
  • comics
  • newspapers
  • magazines
  • rallies
  • political events
  • concerts
  • sports events
  • public squares and town halls

There are very obvious uses that many students will be familiar with, such as the anti-Semitic propaganda of Nazi Germany, or the pro-war posters in the United States during World Wars I and II. Check out The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, which was written as a pro-democracy novella for the occupied countries of World War II, and is another example. Steinbeck’s book was considered a huge success, and was covertly translated and passed out by underground rebels across Europe.

In response to the rise of propaganda and concern that the general public did not know how to critically analyze information, the Institute of Propaganda Analysis was established in 1937 by Edward Filene, Kirtley Mather, and Clyde R. Miller. The purpose of the Institute was to provide the general public data about the types of propaganda, the tactics used, and strategies to analyze it in order to combat the psychological effects and success of such information. It operated until 1942, and it classified propaganda into seven key categories.

Institute of Propaganda Analysis: Types of Propaganda Techniques

Bandwagon Propaganda

Creates a sense of isolation for audience members who have not yet joined the cause. It appeals strongly to our sense of conformity and longing to belong to a part of a group.

Testimonial Propaganda

Endorsement by a well-known, well-liked celebrity, political figure, or other entity. This creates a sense of trust and likeability for the cause because of the person promoting it.

Plain Folks Propaganda

Endorsement by regular, ordinary folks, to show how the policy or idea has helped them. This creates a sense of normalcy about the idea that’s being promoted, and shows how its success will fit into everyday life.

Transfer Propaganda

Employs techniques that access the audience’s preconceived positive feelings about something, and transfer them to the idea being promoted. It relies heavily on symbolism to connect the audience’s emotions to the idea.

Name-Calling Propaganda

Uses names that evoke a negative emotional response, such as fear, anger, or annoyance. By comparing the person or idea with something else that is hated, the audience creates an association between the two in their minds.

Card Stacking Propaganda

Uses selective information to present only one side of an argument or story. This focus portrays the issue at hand unfairly, and many people may be swayed in one direction or the other because of incomplete details.

Glittering Generalities Propaganda

Uses strongly loaded words that access the positive emotions of the target audience. Typically, glittering generalities employ the use of slogans, and carefully selected words in the slogans often appeal to the virtues the audience holds dear.

Advertising Propaganda

Uses persuasive techniques seen in propaganda to promote products or brands, aiming to influence consumer behavior by shaping perceptions and emotions. It employs strategies like emotional appeals, endorsements, and urgency, found in various media, to create positive associations and encourage purchases.

Books and plays that have been classified as propaganda:

Common Core State Standards

Although this activity can be used for multiple grade levels, below are Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade-appropriate strands.

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

A great way to have students gain an understanding of propaganda is to have them create one of their own. On their own or in a group, have students select a rule or aspect of school they dislike: detention, school lunches, homework, final exams, etc. Then, have them spin it into something positive to promote it to their classmates. As they craft their plan, they should use one of the seven types, and be able to explain how their strategy accesses the emotions of the audience. If they incorporate logos and ethos as well, they should include that in their explanations. Have students create a storyboard they can present to the class that promotes their topic in a positive light.

Propaganda Class Assignment
Choose an aspect from school that is typically negative, and spin it into a positive promotional advertisement for your classmates. Utilize at least 5 kinds of propaganda in your storyboard, and label it below each scene you depict. Be prepared to present your storyboard to the class, and be able to explain each cell. Let's see if you can change your classmates' attitudes!
33 Points
25 Points
17 Points
Propaganda Content and Techniques
Student depicts a minimum of 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product is creative, interesting, and makes good use of the propaganda techniques. The techniques used are used correctly, and the storyboard achieves its propaganda goals of being persuasive.
Student depicts a minimum of 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product is creative and coherent. Some techniques may be used incorrectly, or may be confused. The storyboard makes a good attempt at being a persuasive piece of propaganda.
Student depicts less than 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product lacks effort. Some techniques may be used incorrectly, or may be confused or combined. The storyboard makes some attempt at being a persuasive piece of propaganda, but it is limited.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate and neat. Time and care is taken to ensure that scenes are eye-catching and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate but may seem rushed. Some art may be haphazardly placed and lack of attention to detail is noticeable.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is inappropriate or too limited. Some scenes may have been left blank.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.

How to Recognize Propaganda Techniques


Understand the Purpose of Propaganda

Gain a clear understanding of propaganda as a deliberate method of shaping perceptions and manipulating behavior to achieve specific goals. Recognize that propaganda often appeals to emotions and uses selective information to influence the target audience.


Familiarize Yourself with Propaganda Techniques

Learn about common propaganda techniques used to sway public opinion. Some key techniques include bandwagon, testimonial, plain folks, transfer, name-calling, card stacking, and glittering generalities. Study each technique and understand how they manipulate emotions and opinions.


Analyze Media and Advertisements

Critically analyze media messages and advertisements to identify propaganda techniques at work. Look for instances where emotions are being targeted, selective information is presented, or endorsements are used. Consider how these techniques aim to influence your beliefs or actions.


Evaluate Sources of Information

Develop skills to evaluate the credibility and bias of information sources. Consider the motives and interests behind the information presented. Look for signs of manipulation, such as one-sided arguments or the use of loaded language.


Compare Different Perspectives

Examine multiple sources and perspectives on a particular issue or topic. Compare how different sources use propaganda techniques to shape opinions. Look for inconsistencies, biases, or omissions that may indicate manipulation.


Step 6: Question and Think Critically

Engage in critical thinking and ask probing questions when encountering information that may be propaganda. Consider the underlying motives and examine the evidence and reasoning provided. Develop a healthy skepticism and seek diverse viewpoints to form well-informed opinions.

Specific Tactics to Look For

  • Loaded Language and Emotional Appeal: It often employs emotionally charged words and phrases to trigger specific emotions, such as fear, anger, or happiness. For example, a piece of information that uses words like "dangerous threat" or "urgent crisis" aims to evoke fear and prompt immediate action.

  • Simplistic Messaging: Propaganda tends to present complex issues in black-and-white terms, ignoring nuances and alternative viewpoints. It simplifies matters to create a clear, easily digestible message that supports its agenda.

  • Demonization of Opponents: Look for messages that portray opponents as entirely negative, using extreme labels or symbols. For instance, political adversaries might be depicted as corrupt or unpatriotic, appealing to the name calling technique.

  • Unrealistic Promises: It often makes grand promises or offers miraculous solutions to problems. If a message sounds too good to be true or guarantees quick fixes without substantiated evidence, it could be employing the glittering generalities technique.

  • Appeal to Authority: Propaganda leverages authority figures, respected individuals, or celebrities to endorse a message and influence public perception. If a message heavily relies on the endorsement of such figures, it might be using the testimonial technique.

  • Creating a Sense of Urgency: Messages that create an artificial sense of urgency or crisis prompt hasty decisions. Propaganda capitalizes on this urgency to discourage critical thinking and encourage quick acceptance.

  • Repetition: The mass media and social media platforms often repeat messages to ensure they stick in people's minds. Repetition can lead to acceptance, even if the information lacks substance.

  • Manipulative Imagery: Visual elements, such as images and symbols, play a crucial role in propaganda. They evoke emotions and reinforce the desired narrative, appealing to human nature's tendency to respond to visuals.

  • Consider the Source: Investigate the source of the information. Propaganda might originate from biased or unreliable sources with clear agendas.

  • One-Sided Presentation: Propaganda typically offers a single perspective, ignoring alternative viewpoints. It aims to control the narrative by presenting information in such a way that only one conclusion seems valid.

  • Psychological Motivations: Propaganda taps into psychological motivations, like the desire for belonging and acceptance, which is exploited through bandwagon propaganda.

  • Fear Appeals: The technique of fear appeals capitalizes on human emotions, warning of dire consequences if a particular action isn't taken. This technique aims to manipulate people's behavior through fear.

By studying the different types of propaganda, individuals can gain insights into the varying strategies used to sway public opinion, manipulate emotions, and shape beliefs, empowering them to engage with information more critically and make informed judgments. By recognizing specifically the characteristics of propaganda and familiarizing yourself with the 12 types of propaganda techniques, you can develop the skills needed to discern and analyze information critically. This awareness enables you to make informed decisions and guard against manipulation of perceptions and beliefs.

Frequently Asked Questions about Identifying Types of Propaganda

What are some ways to identify propaganda and talk about it with my child or student in a way that is age-appropriate and understandable?

When discussing with children, use age-appropriate language and examples they understand. Start with a simple definition, like "Propaganda convinces using untrue or biased information." Relate it to ads or social media they know. Encourage questions and critical thinking. Stress that not all info is accurate, discussing possible outcomes of believing propaganda. Highlight diverse views and public relations and media literacy's role in countering it.

What are the types of propaganda that children may encounter in their daily lives?

Children may encounter various forms of propaganda technique in their daily lives, such as in advertisements, social media posts, television shows, news articles, and even in textbooks. For example, commercials often use catchy slogans and music to persuade children to buy a particular product or brand, while social media posts may be designed to promote a certain viewpoint or ideology. Political propaganda can also be present in children's lives, such as political ads, speeches, and campaign materials. For instance, the relatable behavior and down-to-earth image projected by politicians mingling with everyday citizens exemplify what is called plain folks propaganda, a technique that aims to create a sense of connection and authenticity between leaders and the public. These messages may use emotionally charged language, biased information, or even misinformation to sway people's opinions and beliefs. In schools, textbooks and curriculum materials can also be a source of propaganda. For example, some textbooks may present a particular version of history that portrays a certain country or group in a favorable light, while downplaying or omitting information that does not align with this narrative. By learning to evaluate information carefully and seek out diverse perspectives, children can develop the skills to navigate a complex and often biased media landscape.

How can I help my child identify and critically analyze propaganda when they come across it?

Helping children analyze propaganda involves diverse strategies for parents and teachers. Encouraging critical thinking through questions like "Who created this?" and "Is evidence provided?" is effective. Teaching recognition of propaganda techniques—emotional language, appeals to authority—boosts their ability to spot manipulation and negative opinion. This equips children to identify biased influence.

Are there any strategies or tools that teachers can use to teach their students about propaganda in the classroom?

There are many strategies and tools that teachers can use to teach their students about propaganda in the classroom. One approach is to use real-life examples, such as political ads, social media posts, or news articles, to help students understand the techniques and strategies that are commonly used. Another strategy is to use role-playing activities, debates, or simulations to help students practice critical thinking and media literacy skills. For example, students can be divided into groups and assigned to represent different viewpoints on a particular issue, and then engage in a debate or discussion to practice evaluating and analyzing information from multiple perspectives. Teachers can also use media literacy resources, such as online games, interactive lessons, or multimedia projects, to help students develop their critical thinking and analysis skills.

Image Attributions
  • 1943 Spendet, Bucher Sammlung der NSDAP fur unsere Wehrmacht • keijo.knutas1 • License Attribution (
  • Enlist • MCAD Library • License Attribution (
  • Mrs Consumer poster • Deseronto Archives • License No known copyright restrictions (
  • Tomorrow... • Gruenemann • License Attribution (
  • Uncle Sam - Original Poster • DonkeyHotey • License Attribution (
  • We Can Do It! • The U.S. National Archives • License No known copyright restrictions (
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