How To Recognize Propaganda

1914 Lord Kitchener Wants You recruitment poster

1914 Lord Kitchener Wants You recruitment poster

In 1982 I took a class in college that touched briefly on propaganda. The following is based upon a handout I received in the class. Although just a few simple pages, I have used it often.

What is Propaganda?

Propaganda is expression of opinion or action deliberately designed to influence others for a predetermined end. The propagandist does not want careful scrutiny and criticism; he wants specific action. Because the action may be socially harmful to millions of people, it is necessary to focus upon the propagandist and his activities the light of scientific scrutiny.

Seven Common Propaganda Devices

We are fooled by propaganda because we do not recognize it when we see it. There are seven common propaganda devices:

  1. Name Calling
  2. Glittering Generalities
  3. Transfer
  4. Testimonial
  5. Plain Folks
  6. Card Stacking
  7. Band Wagon

We are fooled by these devices because they appeal to our emotions rather than to our reason. They make us believe and do something we would not believe and do if we thought about it calmly and dispassionately. In examining these devices, we note that they work most effectively at those times when we are too lazy to think for ourselves. They also tie into emotions which sway us to be “for” or “against” nations, races, religions, ideals, economic and political policies and practices, and so on.

1. Name Calling

Name Calling is a device to make us form a judgment without examining the evidence on which it should be based. Here the propagandist appeals to our hate and fear. He does this by giving “bad names” to those individuals, groups, nations, races, policies, practices, beliefs, and ideals which he would have us condemn and reject. For example, “Mormons are bigots and full of hate because they supported Proposition 8″ is an attempt at Name Calling designed to stir up hate and dull reason in individuals who have put little thought into the issue. When you start Name Calling, your argument is finished.

Use of Name Calling without presentation of their essential meaning, without all their pertinent implications comprises perhaps the most common of all propaganda devices.

2. Glittering Generalities

Glittering Generalities is a device by which the propagandist identifies her program with virtue by use of “virtue words”. Here she appeals to our emotions of love, generosity, and sisterhood. She uses words like truth, freedom, honor, liberty, social justice, public service, the right to work, loyalty, progress, democracy, and change. These words suggest shining ideals. All persons of goodwill will believe in these ideals. Hence the propagandist, by identifying her cause with such ideals seeks to win us to her cause.

As Name Calling is a device to make us form a judgment to reject and condemn, without examining the evidence, Glittering Generalities is a device to make us accept and approve, without examining the evidence. For example, use of the phrases, “The right to work” and “Social justice,” may be a device to make us accept programs for meeting the labor-capital problem which, if we examined them critically, we would not accept at all.

3. Transfer

Transfer is a device by which the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us accept. If the propagandist succeeds in getting church or nation to approve a campaign in behalf of some program, he thereby transfers its authority, sanction, and prestige to that program. Thus we may accept something which otherwise we might reject.

In the Transfer device symbols are constantly used. The cross represents the Christian Church. The flag represents the nation. Cartoons like Uncle Sam represent a consensus of opinion. Those symbols stir emotions. At their very sight is aroused the whole complex of feelings we have with respect to church or nation. The Transfer device is used both for and against causes and ideas.

4. Testimonial

The Testimonial is a device to make us accept anything from a patent medicine or a cigarette to a program of national policy. In this device the propagandist makes use of testimonials. “When I feel tired, I smoke a Camel and get the greatest lift.” “I ask all of you to join me in working as hard for Barack Obama as you have for me.” This device works in reverse also; counter-testimonials may be employed. Seldom are these used in commercial products like patent medicines and cigarettes, but they are constantly employed in social, economic, and political issues.

5. Plain Folks

Plain Folks is a device used by politicians, labor leaders, business men, and even by ministers and educators to win our confidence by appearing to be just plain folks like ourselves. In election years especially do candidates show their devotion to little children and the common, homey things of life. They have front porch campaigns, They go to country picnics; they attend service at the old frame church; they pitch hay and go fishing; they show their belief in home and mother. In short, they would win our votes by showing that they’re just as common as the rest of us — and, therefore, wise and good.

6. Card Stacking

Card Stacking is a device in which the propagandist employs all the arts of deception to win our support for herself, her group, nation, race, policy, practice, belief, or ideal. She stacks the cards against the truth. She uses under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts. She resorts to lies, censorship, and distortions. She omits facts. She offers false testimony. She creates a smokescreen of clamor by raising a new issue when she wants an embarrassing matter forgotten. She draws a red herring across the trail to confuse and divert those in quest of facts she does not want revealed. She makes the real appear unreal and the unreal real. She lets half-truth masquerade as truth.

By the Card Stacking device, a mediocre candidate, through the “build-up,” is made to appear an intellectual titan; an ordinary prize fighter a probable world champion; a worthless patent medicine a beneficent cure. By means of this device propagandists would convince us that a ruthless war of aggression is a crusade for righteousness. Card Stacking employs sham, hypocrisy, and effrontery.

7. The Band Wagon

The Band Wagon is a device to make us follow the crowd, to accept the propagandists program en masse. Here his theme is: “Everybody’s doing it.” His techniques range from those of medicine show to dramatic spectacle. He hires a hall, fills a great stadium, marches a million men in parade. He employs symbols, colors, music, movement, all the dramatic arts. He appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to “follow the crowd.” Because he wants us to “follow the crowd” in masses, he directs his appeal to groups held together by common ties of nationality, religion, race, environment, sex, or vocation.

Thus propagandists campaigning for or against a program will appeal to us as Catholics, Protestants, or Jews; as members of the Nordic race or as African Americans; as farmers or as school teachers; as housewives or as miners. All the artifices of flattery are used to harness the fears and hatreds, prejudices and biases, convictions and ideals common to the group; thus emotion is made to push and pull the group on to the Band Wagon.

Propaganda and Emotion

Observe that in all these devices our emotion is the stuff with which propagandists work. Without it they are helpless; with it, harnessing it to their purposes, they can make us glow with pride or burn with hatred. The intelligent citizen does not want propagandists to utilize his emotions, even to the attainment of “good” ends. He does not want to be used, duped, or fooled. He does not want to be gullible. Turn to the nearest newspaper or blog (other than mine :) ), and almost immediately you can spot examples of the seven propaganda devices. A little practice soon enables us to detect them elsewhere in radio, television, books, magazines, and in expressions of labor unions, business groups, churches, schools, and political parties.
Rickety signature


  1. For sure propaganda is used in politics. I would think all seven of the common propaganda devices are used. I took a look at your blog, it looks like it is going to build into a very useful resource.

  2. Propaganda was also used in the world of politics not?

  3. Hello Richard how are you doing?

  4. I am doing very well Ashley, full of turkey. How are you?

  5. This is the best blog I have ever seen! do you think i can start my own blog?

  6. You will have to ask your Dad.

  7. Amazing, reading through this list…you could almost think “What are the 7 types of actions used by Obama and McCain during the latest presidential race?”. That title would also apply to all of these tactics.

  8. Dara, I think we would find that politicians use all of these propaganda devices and some others that I didn’t write about. What is even more amazing is that a lot of people are swayed by them. I stopped by your website for a few minutes. Have you really given out advice 7,390 times? You must be a very wise person. Thank you for the comment.


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