Is Marketing Just Propaganda Rebadged?

Is marketing propaganda
27 Mar 2015

Is marketing and copywriting just other names for propaganda? Are they inherently evil or is there a way to be ethical and still get results?

Running an ethical, values-based copywriting business can be challenging. You want to do the right thing by yourself, your team members and your community … but sometimes the ethical boundaries can become a tad blurry.

For example, at what point does marketing cross the line over into unethical influencing? At what point does marketing become propaganda?

Is there a difference between marketing & propaganda?

Many academics, philosophers, marketers (and copywriters) and political commentators have grappled with the distinction over the years.

There’s an old saying “When we do it it’s marketing, when they do it it’s propaganda”. While the saying has humour on the surface, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

There is common DNA between the two activities. With both marketing and propaganda, the intent is to influence the attitudes, actions, emotions and opinions of people.

The differences come from the intent behind the activity. With marketing the intent is to influence for commercial outcomes. With propaganda the intent is to influence to achieve political outcomes or implement ideological ideas.

Crossing the ethical line

What I have learned as copywriter is where an activity crosses the ethical line is when the strategy used in the marketing or propaganda attempts to influence actions and behaviours not through persuasion and communication of facts, but through deception, subterfuge and confusion.

Where the information communicated is not entirely true and people are influenced to action by this untruth, then the ethical boundaries have been crossed in both marketing and in propaganda.

Learning from History

Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (…) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (…) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (…) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. A Hitler. Mein Kampf

As soon as that line of untruth is crossed, then you are no longer acting in an ethical manner in promoting your business. That’s why there are so many guidelines by groups such as the ACCC to help businesses find those grey areas and help them stay on the right side of the ethical divide.

Influencing Techniques – Not All Are Created Equal

Both marketing and propaganda share many similar techniques to persuade people to take action.

However, there are also some unethical influencing techniques that rely on deception, subterfuge and confusion. If you see these being used in marketing or in propaganda, you may need to question the intent and dig a bit deeper to find the full truth.


12 Unethical Influencing Techniques

  • Attacking your competition or opponent and not their message or product. This includes name calling, stereotyping and scape-goating.
  • Distilling your message to a slogan and repeating your slogan over and over and over and over with the intent that with repetition it may become accepted as truth.
  • Getting authority figures or influencers to endorse a viewpoint or product that they may not personally use or believe in.
  • Generating fear or triggering anxiety against an enemy, person, viewpoint or product.
  • Using loaded or emotive words (e.g. Illegals vs Refugees).
  • Using the “everyone is doing it” line to get people to join the movement or winning team or buy a popular product.
  • Disgust. Linking a product, person or service to something traditionally seen as disgusting (Read more about disgust in marketing)
  • Dehumanising or demonising a person or product.
  • Appeals to patriotism. Suggesting that buying a product, viewpoint or service will make you more patriotic.
  • Creeping extremism. Most people don’t accept extreme views or comments at first glance, but through gradually moving the approach or argument to an extreme place you can move people along the agreement continuum.
  • Managing the media. Always ensuring that your particular viewpoint, message or product is the one promoted in the mass media.
  • Generalisations and mass simplifications. Turning highly complex issues into over-simplified slogans or comments

So, is marketing propaganda rebadged?

There is truth in marketing and in propaganda. You don’t need to sink to unethical approaches or strategies to promote your business or your viewpoint. Just remember to be aware of your intentions and your actions, and to ensure you are providing full facts to enable fair-minded people to make informed decisions.

About the Author

Ingrid Moyle

Ingrid Moyle (BA - Psych/Industrial Relations) is the Chief Web Wizard at Heart Harmony Communications. A self-confessed multipotentialite, Ingrid shamelessly blends her passions of human resources, psychology, web design and copywriting. When not hardwired to her computer, she quests for the perfect coffee while chasing virtual reality creatures across the backstreets of Brisbane.
Bowler hat with lightbulb.

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