Propaganda is a term that often evokes negative connotations, especially in the context of politics and war. However, propaganda is not limited to these domains. It is also widely used in advertising, where it aims to influence the opinions, emotions, and behaviours of consumers.
But what exactly is propaganda in advertising, and why is it used? More importantly, what are the ethical implications of using propaganda in advertising?
Is it ever justified or acceptable to use propaganda techniques in advertising? These are some of the questions that this article will explore.
What is propaganda in advertising and why is it used?
Propaganda is defined as “the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, especially in a tendentious way, to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response”.
In other words, propaganda is a form of communication that aims to persuade or manipulate an audience by using various techniques, such as appealing to emotions, presenting selective or distorted facts, or creating associations with certain symbols or values.
Propaganda in advertising is not a new phenomenon. It has been used since the early days of mass media, such as newspapers, radio, and television. Propaganda in advertising can be seen in various forms, such as slogans, logos, jingles, testimonials, endorsements, statistics, images, and videos.
Some examples of propaganda techniques in advertising are:
- Social proof: This technique uses the idea that people tend to follow the behaviour or opinions of others, especially those who are similar to them or who have authority or expertise. For example, an advertisement may show a celebrity or an expert endorsing a product or service, or a large number of satisfied customers giving positive reviews or testimonials.
- Fear: This technique uses the emotion of fear to persuade or motivate an audience to take a certain action or avoid a certain outcome. For example, an advertisement may show the negative consequences of not using a product or service, such as health risks, financial losses, or social rejection.
- Bandwagon: This technique uses the idea that people tend to join or support a popular or successful movement or group. For example, an advertisement may claim that a product or service is the best-selling, the most popular, or the most awarded in its category, or that everyone is using it or talking about it.
- Transfer: This technique uses the association of a product or service with a positive or negative symbol or value, such as patriotism, freedom, beauty, or happiness. For example, an advertisement may use the colours, flags, or icons of a country or a culture to evoke a sense of pride or loyalty or use images of attractive or happy people to suggest that using a product or service will make the audience look or feel the same way.
- Glittering generalities: This technique uses vague or abstract words or phrases that have positive connotations, but lack clear or specific meanings. For example, an advertisement may use words such as “natural”, “organic”, “quality”, or “innovative” to describe a product or service, without providing any evidence or explanation of what these words mean or imply.
- Name-calling: This technique uses negative or derogatory words or phrases to describe or attack a competitor or an alternative product or service. For example, an advertisement may use words such as “fake”, “cheap”, “unreliable”, or “dangerous” to discredit or undermine a rival brand or option, without providing any facts or reasons to support these claims.
- Card stacking: This technique uses the selective or distorted presentation of facts or data to support or oppose a product or service. For example, an advertisement may use statistics, graphs, or charts to show the advantages or benefits of a product or service, while omitting or hiding the disadvantages or drawbacks, or comparing it with an unfair or irrelevant standard or benchmark.
- Ad nauseam: This technique uses the repetition of a message or an idea to make it seem more true or important. For example, an advertisement may use a catchy slogan, a memorable jingle, or a familiar logo to reinforce a brand name or a product feature or to create a positive or negative association with a product or service.
According to a survey by Statista, 67% of U.S. adults said that they encountered propaganda in online advertising in 2020, making it the most common source of propaganda exposure.
The main motive and goal of using propaganda in advertising are to influence consumer behaviour and the decision-making process.
By using propaganda techniques, advertisers hope to create or change the attitudes, beliefs, preferences, or loyalties of consumers towards their products or services, and to persuade or motivate them to buy or use them.
Propaganda in advertising can also be used to create or maintain a positive image or reputation of a brand or a company or to counter or neutralize the negative effects of a competitor or a crisis.
What are the ethical implications of using propaganda in advertising?
The use of propaganda in advertising raises several ethical issues and challenges, both for the advertisers and the consumers. Some of the ethical implications of using propaganda in advertising are:
- Manipulation: One of the main ethical concerns of using propaganda in advertising is that it can be seen as a form of manipulation, which violates the autonomy and dignity of the consumers. Manipulation is defined as “the deliberate use of covert or non-rational influence to alter or control the behaviour or choices of others”. By using propaganda techniques, advertisers may exploit the cognitive biases, heuristics, emotions, or values of the consumers, and make them act or think in ways that are not in their best interest or that are contrary to their true preferences or beliefs. For example, an advertisement may use fear to make the consumers buy a product or service that they do not need or want, or use social proof to make them conform to a norm or a trend that they do not agree with or support.
- Deception: Another ethical concern of using propaganda in advertising is that it can be seen as a form of deception, which violates the trust and honesty of the consumers. Deception is defined as “the intentional or deliberate misrepresentation or concealment of information or facts that are relevant or material to a decision or action”. By using propaganda techniques, advertisers may mislead or misinform consumers about the features, benefits, or drawbacks of their products or services, or the alternatives or competitors. For example, an advertisement may use glittering generalities to make the consumers believe that a product or service is better or more valuable than it is or use card stacking to make them ignore or overlook the negative aspects or consequences of using a product or service.
- Harm: A further ethical concern of using propaganda in advertising is that it can cause harm, both to the consumers and to society. Harm is defined as “the infliction or imposition of physical, psychological, social, or environmental damage or injury to a person or a group”. By using propaganda techniques, advertisers may expose the consumers to risks or dangers that they are not aware of or that they are not prepared for, or that they cannot avoid or prevent. For example, an advertisement may use transfer to make the consumers associate a product or service with a positive value or symbol, but in reality, the product or service may have negative or harmful effects on the health, safety, or environment of the consumers or others. Moreover, by using propaganda techniques, advertisers may also affect society as a whole, by creating or reinforcing stereotypes, prejudices, or biases, or by undermining or eroding democratic values, norms, or institutions.
According to a study by Digital Trends, social media propaganda has more than doubled since 2017, with 87% of the countries using human accounts and 80% using bots to spread disinformation.
How can propaganda in advertising be ethical or acceptable?
The ethical implications of using propaganda in advertising may seem to suggest that propaganda in advertising is always unethical or unacceptable. However, this may not be the case.
There may be some scenarios or conditions where propaganda in advertising can be justified or acceptable, or even beneficial or desirable.
Some of the possible ways that propaganda in advertising can be ethical or acceptable are:
- Consent: One way that propaganda in advertising can be ethical or acceptable is if the consumers give their consent to be influenced or persuaded by the advertisers. Consent is defined as “the voluntary or intentional agreement or permission of a person or a group to a decision or action that affects them”. By giving their consent, the consumers may acknowledge or accept the use of propaganda techniques by the advertisers and may waive or relinquish their right to autonomy or dignity. For example, the consumers may consent to be influenced or persuaded by the advertisers if they trust or respect the advertisers, if they share or support the values or goals of the advertisers, or if they expect or receive some benefit or reward from the advertisers.
- Disclosure: Another way that propaganda in advertising can be ethical or acceptable is if the advertisers disclose or reveal the use of propaganda techniques to the consumers. Disclosure is defined as “the act or process of making known or publicizing information or facts that are relevant or material to a decision or action”. By disclosing their use of propaganda techniques, the advertisers may respect or honour the trust and honesty of the consumers and may enable or empower them to make informed and rational choices. For example, the advertisers may disclose their use of propaganda techniques by providing clear or explicit labels, warnings, or disclaimers, or by providing sources, references, or evidence for their claims or statements, or by providing balanced or objective information or opinions.
- Benefit: A further way that propaganda in advertising can be ethical or acceptable is if the advertisers use propaganda techniques to promote or provide a product or service that is beneficial or desirable for the consumers or society. Benefit is defined as “the positive or favorable outcome or effect of a decision or action for a person or a group”. By using propaganda techniques to promote or provide a beneficial or desirable product or service, the advertisers may justify or outweigh the potential harm or risk of using propaganda techniques and may contribute or enhance the well-being or welfare of the consumers or the society. For example, the advertisers may use propaganda techniques to promote or provide a product or service that is related to health, education, environment, or social justice, or that solves a problem or meets a need of the consumers or the society.
According to a report by The Visual Communication Guy, statistics appeal is one of the most effective propaganda techniques in advertising, as it can increase the persuasiveness of a message by 27%.
Propaganda in advertising is a controversial and complex topic that involves various ethical implications and perspectives. On the one hand, propaganda in advertising can be seen as unethical or unacceptable, as it can manipulate, deceive, or harm the consumers or the society, and violate their autonomy, dignity, trust, honesty, or rights.
On the other hand, propaganda in advertising can be seen as ethical or acceptable, if the consumers consent, the advertisers disclose, or the product or service benefits the consumers or the society, and respect or enhance their choices, information, or well-being.
Therefore, the use of propaganda in advertising requires careful and critical evaluation and consideration, both by the advertisers and the consumers, and by the society as a whole.