Lessons in the Dark Art of Propaganda

As someone who wrestles with the challenges of communicating and engaging people around sustainability, the British Library’s current exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion intrigues me.  It explores how propaganda has been used throughout history: from legitimising state power, demonising enemies and winning wars to educating citizens about health risks and encouraging pro-environmental behaviour.  Propaganda is a word with inherently negative associations of manipulation and deception; on hearing the word I instantly picture the mass hysteria of Nazi rallies. However, the Cambridge Dictionary offers a more neutral definition of propaganda as “…information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.”

Many businesses have set out ambitious visions around sustainable consumption that will require significant shifts in their consumers’ attitudes and behaviour.   Are traditional propaganda techniques hackneyed anachronisms or key behaviour change tools? In an ever more skeptical age, where information has never been so available from so many varied sources, some of these techniques have become more difficult to use successfully, while others have become vital for effective persuasion.

Propaganda Poster

Click on the image to enlarge

Deception: This really doesn’t work. In an always-on, highly-interconnected, digital world you are going to get caught out if you try to be selective about the truth, make false connections and try to disguise the source of information.  Activists in the US have been effective in a recent reverse in the increases in climate change scepticism after the so-called ‘climate-gate’ controversy in 2009, in part by creating more transparency around the hidden sources of funding behind climate scepticism.

Repetition: Media proliferation means that it is now much, much harder to ‘hammer it home’ by throwing money at paid media to repeat a message sufficiently to sway opinion.  Genuinely cutting through even once can be an achievement with the non-stop barrage of marketing messaging we now experience.  People have become expert at screening this out.  Two of the best ways to get around this are framing and participative engagement.  If you can get in early and set the ‘frame’ through which a topic is discussed, then everyone who joins the conversation will have to engage with your point of view.  But the ultimate way to get your message repeated and really cut-through is to make it interesting, shareable and viral and find ways to encourage people to actively participate in creating, developing and sharing it.

Fear: Unfortunately, fear and negative messaging can be a powerful tool for shaping opinions and behaviour.  I’d like to be politically correct and pretend that mudslinging and scaremongering don’t work, but even a cursory look at the last US presidential election campaign refutes this.  Encouragingly, there are two reasons why its effectiveness is increasingly limited.  Firstly, growing cynicism and public suspicion of authority encourages questioning and challenges the credibility of attempts to scaremonger.  Also, creating fear can backfire badly.  This is particularly true for sustainability messaging, when the coming nexus of climate and resource crises can be presented in such a scary way that people are made to feel powerless in the face of such epic challenges or so frightened that the only way to cope is to ignore and suppress the topic – a recipe for apathy and inaction.

Cult: At first glance, the idea of creating a cult or movement based around patriotic nationalism or a glorious leader may sound ridiculous as an approach to communicating sustainability in the western world.  But when you consider the growing power of celebrity, this technique actually can make a lot of sense.  Linking the adoption of more sustainable behaviours to the glamour, appeal and attention-getting power of celebrities can work well.

Association:  Linking sustainable development to existing symbols of authority or beliefs/stereotypes can help to make it feel normal and unthreatening. As already mentioned, many traditional sources of authority have diminished in power, while digital media has supported a proliferation of increasingly niche sub-cultures.  This is reflected in UK Dream’s approach of exploring more than one vision of what a thriving, more sustainable future could look like, considering different segment of the UK population vs. China Dream’s single-minded approach to a more sustainable version of the  ‘American Dream’ for China.

Consensus: Peer pressure is undoubtedly a strong driver of human behaviour.  Ideally sustainable living should appear to be a no-brainer proposition that everyone is getting behind. Campaigns like Wasting Water is Weird successfully make not embracing sustainability seem odd and deviant.  One of the best illustrations of how to build social consensus and create a movement must be the video of the Dancing Man Party at the Sasquatch festival in 2009.

Humour: Laughter and making fun of ideas is a subtle and powerful way to shape opinion.  A playful and humourous tone grabs attention and builds engagement.  It can make unsustainable approaches seem ridiculous; listening to Bill McDonough on June 4th at Sustainable Brands make fun of unsustainable product design was both entertaining and thought-provoking, while Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog campaign dramatises the ease of choosing more sustainably sourced products in a hilarious way.

The changing nature of the relationship between people and brands means that communicating sustainability is more than ever about having real substance behind what you’re communicating and then telling the story in a persuasive and engaging way.   Some propaganda techniques are as relevant today as they ever were, such as using humour, positive associations and creating a sense of consensus.  Others such as making false connections, being selective about the truth and simple repetition have not stood the test of time and no longer work as effectively.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t try to use them; as my friend commented when he saw the full list of propaganda tactics at the exhibition, “…sounds like a regular day at the office…”

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is taking place at The British Library, Euston Road, London NW1 2DB until September 17th 2013.

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