I took two key things from the British Library’s excellent exhibition on Propaganda –Power and Persuasion:
- Propaganda is “bad”
- We are all propagandists.
Propaganda is “bad”
… or not, in two senses. Firstly, by definition, the term is morally neutral. It was first used by the Roman Catholic church in a treatise on the propagation of faith. We have grown used to its being a pejorative term through our exposure to the unsubtle twentieth century images that ran through two world wars and one cold one. Which takes us to the second sense: we are only aware of propaganda that is “bad” in the sense of being poor quality. The very best propaganda is that which we believe to be irrefutably true, to be almost intuitively obvious.
But of course its effect is still subtler. In his excellent book Influence, Robert Cialdini shows how even as we recognise the crassness of an effect, it still has impact. The canned laughter in a comedy show actually makes us laugh longer, even as we wince. The most blatant, sycophantic flattery still makes us think better of the flatterer. Maybe, those hideous anti-Jewish posters from Nazi-occupied territories actually worked even when people thought they saw through them.
We are all propagandists
From Alexander the Great’s head on coins, through the lavish portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte holding the sceptre of Charlemagne, to the brilliantly conceived “country branding” of the UK’s 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, we all use the tools at our disposal to inform and influence.
The exhibition has a wide range of exhibits from across the ages, supplemented by canned video talks from a variety of contributors including David Welch (author of the accompanying book), documentary maker John Pilger and Alastair Campbell (best known as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor but now a commentator in his own right). Campbell’s contributions are particularly insightful. I’ve never been a fan but his perspectives on the definition of propaganda and the role of a supposedly neutral but controversy-hungry media are fascinating.
All in all, writers, communicators and marketers will find much food for thought here. Well worth a visit.