Readers, Writers, Texts

Persuasion or Propaganda?

War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death is a 2007 American documentary film. The film is narrated by Sean Penn and is adapted from the book of the same name, authored by Norman Solomon.

The line between persuasion and propaganda is thin and easily crossed. Propaganda is the conscious effort of a language producer to shape public opinion towards a certain ideological position. You will probably be familiar with propaganda from the first and second world wars which persuaded people to fight fascism. However, propaganda can be used for all kinds of purposes: from the promotion of certain industries, to championing capitalism, to selling consumer products. 

Propaganda can be dangerous when it is used on an uninformed public: people are easily persuaded because they do not have counter-arguments to the information they are being given. You may think you are immune to propaganda – but living in a digital age does not always make it easier to detect the techniques involved. It requires a conscious effort to be critical, work on your media literacy, and to stay alert for argumentative fallacies. 

Propaganda is often associated with war, as during times of war countries and states crank up their output of propaganda, appealing to the patriotism of ordinary people in ensuring their support for costly war efforts and necessary human sacrifice. You can explore a huge range of war propaganda issues (including techniques such as exaggeration, distortion, subjectivity and fabrication) by visiting this site:

What many students (and people in day-to-day society) find harder to appreciate is that propaganda can be spread more covertly using a range of insidious techniques. Read a selection of the following articles (in particular don’t miss The Language of Propaganda) to find out more about the covert use of propaganda in persuasive texts:

Class Activity: your country needs you

Look at these seven wartime propaganda posters. Can you match each famous propaganda technique with the poster that best demonstrates it?

Area of Exploration Conceptual Guiding Question

The word ‘diversity’ has a Latin root (diversitas) meaning ‘different’ and, when used to describe texts in the Lang and Lit course, can mean works from different countries, continents, time periods, genres of writing, written in different languages, and by different authors operating under different cultural conditions. This resource will help you learn to make connections in various ways between texts that are seemingly diverse (an important element of your skills for Paper 2). Moreover, a large part of this handout involves propaganda posters, and learning to read symbols and allusions in this text type will help you in your Paper 1 preparations as well.

Learner Portfolio 1

Do you think use of propaganda is only confined to wartime, or do you recognise any of these techniques in ordinary or daily life? Do you think, for example, that propaganda and advertising overlap? In this context, why is it important and useful to study propaganda? Write your thoughts in a one-two page journal entry.

Learner Portfolio 2

Create a propaganda-style poster attracting students to join your school. While British and American WW1 propaganda posters are a common style of propaganda poster, you might like to research propaganda from other countries, or from your home country, and create something a little different. Present your design to your classmates, with an explanation of the techniques you adopted and your stylistic choices in designing this task.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: recruitment posters and brochures

Practice exploring and analysing how modern recruitment campaigns use techniques borrowed from propaganda and persuasion with the sample texts and papers below. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Recruitment Posters and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Body of Work: Singapore Military Recruitment Campaign

‘Our Mission. Our Fight’ is the slogan of the Singapore Armed Forces latest recruitment video which forms a part of this Body of Work.

Here you can find a collection of Military Recruitment Posters from Singapore that you can study as a non-fiction Body of Work. For the wider context of the recruitment campaign, you might like to visit the Singaporean Army Careers website or even the government military scholarship application programme, where you can find more materials, watch a range of recruitment videos and examine uses of language which are interesting in the study of propaganda.

National Service for boys is compulsory in Singapore, and this is something you might want to take into consideration when studying this Body of Work. Military service remains a heated and divisive topic in Singapore, not least with the debate over gender equality. You could read this impressive Vice article in which a range of women who completed national service are interviewed and their viewpoints presented.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

One of these recruitment posters – or even one of the recruitment videos – would make a good text around which to build your Individual Oral. The named author would be ‘SAF’ (‘Singapore Armed Forces.’) This Body of Work is most suitable for exploring the Field of Inquiry of Beliefs, Values and Education (although a focus on Art, Creativity and Imagination might lead to some insightful work when considering how texts can distort reality). The Global Issue you could investigate could be ‘The Manipulation of Language‘. Writers of propaganda are experts at manipulating an audience through emotion, symbolism and direct address. They dig into the collective consciousness of their readers and tap into shared ideals which are hard to ignore – guilt, patriotism, duty and integrity. You could easily pair the recruitment campaign with any literary text that explores the use of propaganda, persuasion, peer pressure and the like. You might also like to consider issues such as gender equality, freedom of choice, authority, the presentation of war and society or any other suitable line of thought provoked by your classroom study. Speak with your teacher about ideas for pairing texts, or use the suggestions below as a starting point:

  • Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – you might like to consider the presentation of soldiers (such as the Japanese soldiers who run the internment camp) or the representation of the Chinese in light of themes such as dehumanisation and the demonisation of ‘other’ people. Alternatively, some of Basie and Dr Lockwood’s views about war and invasion provide an interesting comparison to this recruitment campaign.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – look closely at how the Christian characters speak about and describe Jewish people for a perfect example of distortion, demonisation, generalisation, and subjectivity in a literary work.
  • Ismail Kadare’s Broken April – what are the methods of control that underpin the Kanun, the customary law in Kadare’s novel? Could aspects of this law be considered propaganda? You might like to consider the way reality is distorted through an extract from this novel.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – perhaps a more tricky proposition, but could you fashion the argument that Shaw’s play is a kind of anti-propaganda designed to open his audience’s eyes to issues of class, poverty, society, and Victorian prudery?

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