[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 17TH NOVEMBER 2009 BY RED C MAG]
Have you ever read Nineteen Eighty-Four? It’s about an everyman living under an oppressive totalitarian regime. The ‘proles’ are kept in a controlled state of poverty, living under almost constant surveillance and being ‘educated’ on a daily basis to believe in the inherent good of their government and the inherent evil of others. All in all, it’s a terrifying fiction. Well, if you can call it that. In fact, the regime in the novel closely resembles many real-life regimes of the twentieth century. And, much like the citizens of George Orwell’s dystopian world, the billions of human beings living under these govenments were mostly genuine and wholehearted believers. Their corrupt leaders successfully brainwashed them into thinking they were living the good life, even while terrible things (war, poverty, oppression) were happening all around them.
It’s a mightily impressive feat. So impressive, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder… how on earth did they do it?
Consider Adolf Hitler for a second. Just how did a small man with a silly moustache convince a nation of perfectly ordinary people to revere his Nationalsozialist Party, to give erstwhile chums up to concentration camps and to greet the promise of aggressive war with arms wide open?
Through manipulative, powerful advertising campaigns – that’s how. He may have been a cold-hearted, hate-filled Nazi bastard, but Hitler was an undisputed master of propaganda.
Master of what now?
Propaganda, by definition, is a form of persuasion that uses one-sided messages in media campaigns to influence the attitudes, opinions and actions of a specific target audience. Sound familiar? It should: propaganda is essentially marketing on an insanely successful scale. In fact, in many world languages (including English prior to World War II) there’s no real distinction between the two terms. Even today the definitions only differ slightly; while propaganda is generally considered to have a political or ideological bent, advertising normally has a commercial purpose. But both serve to shape public perception of a brand, product, individual or organisation – and there are few people in history who have been more successful at doing that than our Adolf. Then again, he wasn’t the first to understand the power of propaganda…
As early as the 3rd century BC, Chandragupta Maurya was utilising extensive marketing campaigns during the founding of his Maurya Empire; and two centuries later Livy was championing the Roman Empire in his selective history texts – now considered masterpieces of disinformation. In fact, there are sporadic examples of propaganda throughout human history, usually during times of war or oppression. But the practice really found its feet with the revolution of mass media in the 19th century. During the 1857 Indian Rebellion, for example, the British press grossly exaggerated (or simply invented) incidents of rape committed by Indian rebels against white women and young girls. Why? Well, in order to paint the natives as a bunch of savages, and therefore justify continued British colonial rule. God Save the Queen, eh?
The more you look back through history, the more you see the sheer power of propaganda. While I may struggle to convince a small group of people to buy a particular brand of natural yoghurt, centuries of expert propagandists have changed billions of people’s very psychology. They’ve persuaded peasants to revolt and healthy men to fight for their country. They’ve filled ordinary folk with hatred for opposing ethnic groups, religions and nations. They’ve even convinced people to worship their flesh and blood leaders like gods…
The personality cult
Let’s stick with that last one for a minute. Hitler wasn’t the only great propagandist of the twentieth century. Oh no. There was also Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung… all unsavoury individuals, but all extremely skilled at self-promotion. In fact, these three took the concept of marketing themselves and their ideas to a whole new level. Forget your average run-of-the-mill propaganda… this trio set about creating highly successful personality cults.
A personality cult occurs when a national leader uses mass media to create an idealised image of themselves. A kind of hero worship, if you will, but created exclusively for political leaders. This was first seen with various rulers throughout history – from Ancient Egyptians to Incas to European royal families – who all used official declarations and word-of-mouth to spread the belief that they were appointed by a higher power. But as democratic ideas began to spread throughout Europe and North America, monarchs increasingly struggled to justify their ‘god-given’ right to rule… and this is when political leaders took up the mantel. With the development of mass-communication technologies like printing, photography and sound production, political leaders suddenly had the means to shape their public persona like never before.
Stalin, Mao and more
Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR from 1924 until his death in 1953, is widely considered to have the most extensive personality cult of all time. Several Soviet towns, villages and cities were renamed in his honour (such as Stalingrad, Staliniri and, simply, Stalin) and were adorned with impressive statues, often exaggerating his build and stature to appear more ‘heroic’. He was bestowed with grandiose titles like ‘Father of Nations’, ‘Brilliant Genius of Humanity’ and ‘Gardener of Human Happiness’, and rewrote Soviet history to make his role in the revolution more prominent. His name was included in the national anthem and he became the devoted subject of all literature, poetry, music, films and art. Seems insane, right? But it did the job. His campaigns captured the hearts and minds of Russian citizens and Stalin was revered by the masses. On his death, successor Nikita Khrushchev claimed he’d managed to transform himself into “a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to those of a god.”
Meanwhile, over a fifth of the world’s total population was being exposed to the Cult of Mao. After getting the public firmly onside following his party’s defeat of the Japanese and the rival Kuomintang, Chairman Mao (with the help of his devoted, and ultimately doomed, associate Deng Tuo) set about glorifying his image. Soon enough, he’d become the ‘the never-setting red sun’ in the hearts of the Chinese public. Even today, 34 years since his death and in spite of his disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution policies (resulting in 70 million deaths between them) he is revered as a heroic and inspirational figure by many Chinese.
There are plenty of other examples too: Benito Mussolini, Josip Broz Tito, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Hồ Chí Minh, Sukarno, Saparmyrat Nyýazow. Even at this very moment, millions of people are going about their daily lives under one of the most successful personality cults of all time. As North Korea’s Great Leader and Eternal President, Kim Il-sung is worshipped by the masses on a daily basis – despite the fact he’s been dead for 15 years.
It’s evil stuff… so how can I even begin to compare it to our noble industry? Marketing types may have a reputation for being single-minded, but we’re nothing like these lunatics. We’re not trying to brainwash huge swathes of the world’s population – we’re just trying to get them to buy the odd chocolate bar. Alright. But propaganda and advertising always have been, and always will be, intrinsically linked. Whether you like it or not, this industry owes a huge debt to shits like Hitler.
In his autobiography Mein Kampf, Adolf devotes two chapters to propaganda – and they have helped to shape advertising theory ever since. For starters, he argues that a person’s thoughts and actions “are motivated less by sober consideration than by feeling and sentiment” and so marketing and propaganda should be an appeal to emotion, not intellect. He argues that for a campaign to affect its intended audience on a deep emotional level it must concentrate on ‘human truths’ – now a favoured soundbite of Creative Directors everywhere. He was a big advocate of the ‘keep it simple’ mantra too, recognising that messages must appeal to an average person with a short attention span and arguing that repetition and consistency are key. “The masses will lend their memories only to the thousandfold repetition of the most simple ideas. One must focus on just a few main points and repeat them over and over.”
In fact, when you start looking into it, it’s hard to find a Hitler-approved propaganda technique that isn’t now an accepted rule of advertising. There’s scapegoating (“your life’s unfulfilled because of your out-of-date telly…”), stereotyping (“we all know that shoes are a girl’s best friend…”), disinformation (“if Lucy can lose 12 stone, anyone can…”), pseudoscience (“with the natural culture Bifidus Digestivum…) and many more. However you choose to refer to your target audience – Orwell called them ‘the proles’, Lenin called them ‘useful idiots’ and we call them ‘the consumer’ – the basic idea remains the same. Use any means of psychological manipulation you can to affect their attitudes and behaviours in order to help your cause.
So what am I saying?
Advertisers have learned a lot from political propaganda. It was Hitler who taught us that appealing to the masses means highlighting basic human truths. It was Stalin who showed us the persuasive power of repeating a single image or concept. And it’s Mao who reminds us that a good first impression can go a hell of a long way. We can continue to learn from propaganda too. It’s only a matter of time before the North Korean regime crumbles, and we can look forward to another influx of novel marketing ideas. Alongside a huge reduction in human rights abuses and a lowered threat of nuclear attack, obviously.
Propaganda will always serve as an inspiration for marketing. From Hitler’s rallies to Obama’s election campaign – we can learn from it all. But, naturally, that means being selective. Hitler’s use of ‘human truths’ involved dark human emotions like hatred, prejudice and anger, while most advertisers now choose to focus on positive emotions like love, friendship and family. Although not exclusively. Modern advertising is irrefutably guilty of playing on human fears. If you don’t try this diet, you’ll be unappealing to the opposite sex; if you don’t take this course, you’ll never succeed in your career; if you don’t wear these trainers, nobody will want to be your friend. Perhaps we need to think a little more about the techniques we employ on a daily basis, and what effect they could have. Extensive Nazi propaganda allowed most Germans to feel they could rationally justify their irrational prejudices. Has our advertising helped society justify its prejudices about body shape, gender roles, homosexuality, religion…?
Just a thought to take home with you. At the end of the day, I believe propaganda needs to serve as both an inspiration and a warning to marketers. A lesson about how to get started… and when to stop. Who knows, perhaps your ad agency could benefit from having a copy of Mein Kampf on its bookshelf. Well, it couldn’t do any harm… could it?
For more insight about propaganda – and for all your advertisement copywriting needs – please get in touch.