Readers, Writers, Texts

Persuasion or Propaganda?

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

Noam Chomsky, philosopher and political critic
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 War Propaganda and the Media, an online resource.

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:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity 1: your country needs you

Make sure you’ve read through the Propaganda: Seven Techniques handout. Then, practise identifying these techniques by looking at these 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.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  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?
  2. Given many people have the ability to access reliable, scientific and factual information for themselves, why do you think propaganda remains effective?

Learner Portfolio

Create a propaganda-style poster attracting students to join your school. While British and American War 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, and write a reflection explaining the techniques you adopted and your stylistic choices in designing this task. Add your work to your Learner Portfolio.

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:

  • Persuasive: the purpose of a recruitment campaign is to persuade you to sign up to a cause or join an organisation. Recruitment drives are almost certain to use direct address and imperatives.
  • Visuals: can be wholly visual, but likely to have some accompanying text (multi-modal).
  • Slogans: text may be minimal or in the form of slogans which are designed to be catchy. Pay attention to typography, fonts and emphasised words.
  • Pathos: the core of a campaign is often emotional, aiming to elicit feelings such as patriotism and duty on one hand, or guilt if one is not to sign up.
  • Card-stacking: a common feature of recruitment drives is they often fail to show the downsides of joining up! Ignoring parts of the argument that don’t fit your agenda is called card-stacking.
  • Simplification: along with a host of other fallacies, recruitment campaigns reduce complex issues to simple solutions. They may also invoke stereotypes.
  • Symbolism: elements of the text will connote concepts that are integral to the writer’s message. Look out for metonymy, where an individual is made to stand for the whole.

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)

One of these recruitment posters – or even one of the recruitment videos – would make a good text around which to build your Individual Oral. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: The Manipulation of Language
  • Rationale:

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.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: Masculine Stereotypes
  • Rationale:

The images in this Body of Work demonstrate a idealised image of what it means to be a ‘man’ for young Singaporeans to look up to. While images of the ‘ideal man’ may vary form culture to culture, many texts intended for mass consumption perpetuate national stereotypes of men and masculinity.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair the Singaporean Military Recruitment Campaign with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.
possible literary pairings
  • 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? An extract from this novel woudl make a strong pairing with this Body of Work.
  • 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?
  • Balzac and the Little Chineses Seamstress by Dai Sijie – set during China’s cultural revolution, this novel also deals with the theme of propaganda, as seen through the eyes of two young boys who are sent for re-education in a remote mountainous province.
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – another strong pairing as this novel is all about the way people in a far flung outpost are controlled by the machinations of the empire and the fear of outsiders they manufacture.
  • Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit – appalled by the Swiss government’s hypocrisy during world war two, Durrenmatt wrote this scathing satire of how money corrupts morality – and how nobody will admit the truth about their intentions.
  • Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – set in a totalitarian, authoritarian state, this non-fiction work would make a perfect text to pair with the military recruitment adverts, as Demick reveals how ingrained propaganda is in North Korean culture and society.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – not an obvious pairing, but if you’re interested in comparing representations of men, Bruce Bechdel offers something quite unusual indeed.

Wider Reading and Research

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