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Persuasion Games: An analysis of marketing and propaganda | Slangbusters Blog
Oct 11, '19

Persuasion Games: An analysis of marketing and propaganda

Both influence, but otherwise, are they the same?

Animated illustration of megaphones changing colors in a circular pattern on a yellow backdrop

We love putting things in boxes, and thinking of all marketing as propaganda deducts one category to think about.

There is a lot that goes into marketing that doesn’t meet the eye. But in the case of propaganda, the visible tip of the iceberg is even smaller.

Marketing has become an omnipresent force today, a billion-dollar industry. An average human consumes 500–3000 marketing messages a day. There are many theories about present-day marketing which has created a spectrum with good marketing strategies that work ideally yet ethically on one extreme and communication which propagates unethically on the other side.

On both sides of this spectrum lies entities with the ideology where one has the consumer in the center and one with themselves in the center of the universe they have created themselves. You can imagine which ideology lies where.

The debate

We live in a world where propaganda is everywhere and we cannot deny it. We are both the propagators and the ones following certain propaganda. The ones who beg to differ might also be victims of hypocrisy. Whatever we are taught is more propagated and whatever we convey isn’t devoid of personal biases, and hence, is propaganda too.

But when we talk about the masses, it becomes essential to know the difference between advertisement and propaganda. Because there is a difference between informing the existence of a product or service and orchestrating an environment by creating a need to generate sales.

Two books about marketing stacked

Although, marketing and propaganda are not two subjects from separate books. There is a huge overlap.

All marketing is not propaganda and all propaganda is not marketing. Propaganda is a technique of doing marketing.

Let’s define these concepts before we talk about the differences, overlaps and where you stand.


Just like ideas, definitions are dime a dozen. Every professional has their own combination of words that they use when asked, what is marketing. Let’s take the definition given by the American Marketing Association (seems most legit). According to AMA, “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”

Without definitive jargon, marketing is a way to influence people. There is no secret, and there is no attempt to pass it off as anything but a company trying to gain share in the market.

There is a marketer behind most communication that we consume.

But how did it evolve from town-criers to target ads on your devices? Was it propaganda then? Is it propaganda now?


Street graffiti artwork of a music band featuring Donald Trump, Putin, and Xi Jinping

Just like marketing, there are quite a few dozen answers to ‘what is propaganda?’ The definition on the first result page of Google says, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” and supporting this, the other meaning for the word, is displayed as “a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.” which shows the connotation that is associated with the term today.

Today, the most recognizable forms of propaganda are religious and political. Sometimes, both.

Why is it preferred?

Propagation tactics are like fast food and the ethical process could be called healthy food. Whatever you prefer is your choice. But the choice is based on the fact that you either want tasty food, fast or you want healthy food, slow.

Propaganda works. There is no doubt about it. Look at history and you’ll know how it has made and destroyed nations.

Also, propaganda lasts longer.

When they started selling vacuum cleaners through extensive advertisements, there was a peak in sales of brooms too. This is called the spill-over effect. What was sold along with the product was the idea of indoor cleanliness. Today, it has become a part of our lifestyles.

In marketing terms, propaganda enabled the creation of markets that were more stable. Of course, there were zero chances of stability in the minds of the consumer regarding their freedom of choice between various options (thankfully) but propaganda made it possible for people to have certain reactions in the market which canceled out the whimsical aspect of choices.

We are hardwired for empathy. Rational appeals are not exactly the mass favorites. They are the healthy food because rational arguments tend to raise questions instead of answering them. Between the 500–3000 marketing communications that an average human consumes in a day, yours has to be truly exceptional to not only be rational but also demand attention, make them question and finally compel them to take the action of purchase. On the other hand, emotional appeal simulates them to have impulses that they already have experienced.

Origins of propaganda in marketing

Edward Bernays is the name behind propaganda becoming such a popular strategy. He was an American propagandist who was hired by a lot of companies after World War I because the companies needed to do something with all the goods they were producing. They wanted Bernays to create consumers for these leftovers. He strategized masses to think they needed things to be certain things, both created by Bernays artificially.

Let’s look at the case of how Bernays strategized doubled sales of tobacco. The president of the American Tobacco Corporation approached Bernays to solve a problem- not enough cigarettes were being sold. Only half of the market was smoking- men.

Next thing you know, in Easter 1929, in the annual New York parade, a group of rich female debutants pulled out cigarettes hidden under their clothes, lit them up and strolled down the street in the parade for all to see. This was a shocking moment since women weren’t allowed to smoke back then. The spectators also included the press.

The newspapers next day had headlines about “powerful and independent suffragettes” who were “lighting up torches of freedom.” This was not a coincidence it was a choreographed strategy. Bernays knew of this rebellion and issued a press release the day before and also prompted the words “torches of freedom”

Advertisement posters for LUCKY cigarettes

Cigarettes gradually became a $32 million industry in the following year. He hit the bull’s eye with perfect timing, strategy and the biggest of them all, budget.

Bernays replicated this model for multiple industries. He is the reason we see product placement in films, bananas and bacon became a part of the American diet, and cars became a symbol of male sexuality.

The model he used was:

Here’s the product.

Let’s use marketing to create consumers that fit the product.

There, you have a product-centric marketing strategy.

Everything’s fair in love, war, and propaganda

He felt, “If you could use propaganda for war, you can use it in times of peace”

Ironical to his belief, this theory might have been a significant part of the occurrence of World War II since his theories also inspired Hitler’s ministry.

An excerpt from Mein Kampf:

“Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (…) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (…) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (…) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.”

Photograph of Sigmund Freud holding a cigar

An interesting fact: Bernays gifted a box of Cubans to a relative in Vienna, an uncle with a well-known fondness for fine cigars. In return came his early writings on a neurological theory, entitled Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud. Bernays was not just a propagandist, he was the nephew of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

It didn’t take long before Uncle Sigmund’s theory of the unconscious to become commonplace in Bernays’ campaigns.

The mind of the mass

An individual’s buying decisions are influenced by many psychological factors like perception, motivation, learning, beliefs, and attitudes. When we talk about the mass, it becomes necessary for a marketing strategist to generalize in order to target the maximum amount of the mass.

Most want to be a part of “the group.” The theory of “groupthink” comes into play. With theories of marketing, it has become easier to convince and manipulate groups into making purchases for the most inane products and services. The marketer creates the want and the herds become confirming consumers with everyone reinforcing a purchase on everyone else.

A herd of sheep on a field

Transition is not an easy ordeal. People don’t like change even if it is for the good. Stagnancy is comfortable and this applies to small things like buying a different product than the usual, to big changes like habits. The use of persuasion is part and parcel of the human apparatus in order to adapt, especially when we are unwilling to undertake the effort that the change demands. In these cases, persuasion and convincing are slow doses of change which we accept gradually like baby steps instead of a cold-turkey approach.

But what is the psychology behind people using marketing and propaganda interchangeably?

The common DNA

Both Marketing and Propaganda are powerful tools. Both employ the same media formats and platforms to spread their messages. Both have similar functions like, to influence attitudes, emotions, opinions and ultimately, the actions of people.

The most visible aspect of the difference, where the line is drawn between the two is the truth. Propaganda tries to pass itself off as truth, while the people propagating stay under the bushes.

There is an old saying, “when we do it, it’s marketing. When they do it, it’s propaganda”

It sounds humorous, but has a lot of meaning behind it.

Between communication and action

Let’s look at the hierarchy of effects model that expert marketing managers and textbook writers give us:

This is the process from the time a person consumes marketing communication and makes a purchase. It is a harsh filter that doesn’t let anything seep through to reach the point of action. Between market potential to suspects becoming prospects and finally consumers, the strategy should be strong as well as porous enough to pass through this filter.

To show how fragile this process is, let’s look at the probabilities of a person going through all the phases. The deal hypothesis of accomplishment of each stage is 50%. The laws of probability of all six steps occurring successfully, assuming they are independent events is 0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5*0.5 i.e., 1.5625%. If the probability of each step was moderately even 10%, the joint probability of all events occurring would be 0.0001%. Basically, 1 in 1,000,000. This is marketing planning with higher fallacy

Planning Fallacy can be described by the“Three Person Horse” by Seth de LIsle

To convince, persuade, influence, promote, manipulate, connect

Strategize is the name of the game. Propaganda is as prevalent in the marketing industry as it is in religion and politics. Slang like political spin, creating buzz, whispered character assassination, anonymous defamation, use of urban myths are used to propagate under the skin of marketing.

That is where ethics come into the picture. In such a competitive and saturated world, it becomes difficult to not sell your soul for a piece of the market share, but just like branding, in the long run, to stay true to the heart, exaggeration must not be at the cost of truth.

“The creation of the world”, said Plato, “is the victory of persuasion over force.”

Who powers the medium?

It is said that since the advertiser pays the piper, they must call the tune. But, if the platform publishes biased news, it tends to lose circulation when the bias is realized by the consumer. Producers live in the same environment as the rest of the consumers, and so do copywriters, editors and marketing strategists. Everyone is subject to propaganda.

Then do people power the media? Definitely. But they are not to be credited solely. It is a whole ecosystem where everyone and everything is interdependent. It is a free world.

21st-century consumer

Companies today will find it difficult to run on a product-centric approach of marketing. The strategy of noise doesn’t work today. Instead of creating a want in the consumer to sell a product, marketers are focusing on targeting their needs in order to sell.

A clutch of egges with googly eyes

Propaganda views crowds as faceless groups devoid of individualism. With tools that we have today like big data for targeted campaigns, marketing has become consumer-centric, it has become more personal, humanized. It speaks to you on your terms, reflects your heart at it’s best, not to your vanity or ego.

Persuasion is a bilateral element that underpins the success of both parties.

The consumer is empowered and if propaganda works, it is up to the consumer. They have become sophisticated at telling the difference between good marketing and subtle propaganda. The skip ad button is very accessible. Consumers are free agents of their will.

White background with YouTube advertisement skip button to the right

You almost clicked it didn’t you?

There are many beliefs that now have been confirmed with relativity and now are so deeply entrenched in an individual that even propaganda cannot change it. Only superficial attitudes and biases can be affected by such tactics.

If marketing and advertising is successful in selling a product, competitors will find it necessary to discover other products or characteristics of products in line with the consumer’s ideas. In a way, this is counter-propaganda where the consumer influences the producer to customize their provision, rather than have their ideals changed. This creates a win-win environment where consumers are not sold leftover of the world war, but marketing compelling improvement of the product to fit their needs and also constantly increasing their own standards of wants.

Thanks to copywriters, advertisers, press agents, public relations managers and all the divers of the media industry (both good and bad,) it may result because of saturation, the consumer becomes impervious to propaganda. Whether a person acts wisely or foolishly, they will take responsibility and reap benefits or penalties for their own actions. Eventually, learn to consume communication discriminatingly in the light of all the information available.

Today’s customer will not take words for their face value. We question.

“Your interaction with the randomness of the world will never match up to what the statisticians tell us to expect.” — Seth Godin.

Slangbusters is a branding studio and we provide branding service, nothing more, nothing less. This process includes aspects like customer insight, competitive audit, and market research which become a pivotal takeaway for the marketing strategist of your company to refer and strategize upon. We always have said and will keep highlighting the margins that separate advertising, marketing, and branding while being aware of the fact that these are arts of the same family, and borrow a lot from each other with the probability of one department taking a hit in the absence of another.

— by Manas, Content Strategist, Slangbusters Studio

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