Advertising in the U.S. represents a multibillion-dollar industry. When media giants like Microsoft, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble can throw millions of dollars at a single campaign, it’s easy to see how they may be able to sway consumers -- particular young people. Students need to be aware of where advertising propaganda comes from, what it looks like and how to guard against its alluring pull.

Historical Context

Commercials can be funny and poignant. They can be reflective of societal norms and become a part of the human lexicon of a moment or a movement. While advertising in such a light can appear harmless, students need to understand its sinister other side. Looking at the successful propaganda efforts of the Nazis during World War II offers arguably the best example of the danger of propaganda. When advertising can too easily trick its audience, that audience could be convinced to take a very wrong path.


While masses can be swayed through governmental manipulation, contemporary advertising propaganda targeted at young people can have personally dire consequences. According to the American Psychological Association, research confirms that “advertising typically achieves its intended effects” with regard to children. Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes a link between media messages and the use of alcohol and cigarettes among young people. In fact, an overwhelming majority of studies suggest a causal link between advertising and cigarette usage. In their 2006 article, authors Marvin Goldberg, Ronald Davis and Anne Marie O’Keefe found that “substantial evidence exists that cigarette advertising and promotion increase smoking by youth as well as total cigarette consumption.”


Students should be introduced to several types of propaganda so they can recognize efforts at manipulation. “Bandwagon” propaganda invites them to join an idea or a product under the guise of “everyone else is already doing/using it.” “Glittering generalities” use terminology in advertising that has universal appeal, even if those words aren’t necessarily true with regard to a particular product. For example, lots of snacks are labeled “healthy” because the word has such a positive connotation. “Name calling” is a propaganda method that links competing products or people to something negative. Other types of propaganda include “testimonials,” often celebrity endorsements, “transfers,” the connection of products to something already having a positive connotation, “plain folks,” the use of everyday people to promote products, and “card stacking,” where positive attributes are stacked to outweigh anything negative.

Methods of Delivery

Advertising in commercials, magazines, billboards and even through banner ads on the Internet are easily discernible. However, students need to be trained to see product placement in movies or sponsorship of events as the methods of advertising propaganda they may be. They should be taught to be suspect when reading glowing Facebook posts, tweets and online reviews. Propaganda comes in many forms and it can rear its ugly head anywhere.

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