Classical propaganda analysis


The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, IPA in the United States dealt with educating the public on influence activities between 1937 and 1942. The institute published many interesting publications and articles. For example, the well known IPA summary of seven basic propaganda statements.

Propastop summarizes an IPA classical public text, from psychologist Hadley Cantril’s article „Propaganda Analysis“. The text appeared in 1938 but is still relevant 80 years later.

Propaganda techniques
Cantril highlights three basic propaganda techniques. First it is necessary to establish a link between an idea or object being promoted and a known attitude, symbol or emotion already familiar to people. The propagandist must know his audience very well. He must use emotionally charged symbols for which people are either for or against. However, the people do not need to know the exact meanings of these symbols.

Another option is to create a new attitude towards the propaganda idea with hidden suggestions or ideas. This means that the propagandist will try to publish his ideas in news stories or editorials. A third way to build public opinion is to provide a clear or firm idea. People already in power often use this method. It is common practice to use writers of textbooks, hire university lecturers to write or do presentations or order „explanations“ from technical journals.

Why do propagandists have success?
Cantril has three reasons for this. Firstly, the majority of the words in the language are emotionally charged, which means that we are not responding to a single specific word but to associations of the word. When learning a new word, we often learn the social assessment related to it.

Secondly, propagandists ensure success by people’s uncertainty. You do not want to seem frivolous with too many questions, instead have some opinion leaders, officials, newspaper editors, columnists or commentators agree upon the results. People need to find answers to their complex questions. This is well known for propagandists who provide the necessary explanations for the people.

Thirdly, Cantril believes that people have a need to maintain or strengthen their social position. Acquiring propaganda messages makes people feel superior to others.

How can we become less receptive to propaganda?
According to Cantril, there are two main methods for this. We must know the propaganda techniques and their goals as well as knowing our own prejudices, our social position and the causes of our opinions and attitudes. Consequently, education is the mortal enemy of propaganda; it promotes critical thinking and repels the use of emotional attitudes.

The article in its original language can be seen here or in library databases under Cantril, H. (1938). Propaganda Analysis. The English Journal, 27(3), 217-221.

Pictured 1917 USA army recruitment poster. Photo Keijo Knutas /Flickr /CC