Detecting propaganda

When I was a young mother in the mid-60s, I stumbled across something in a book of essays which has since profoundly affected my perception.

In fact, the essay would find itself on my list when one of those questionnaires asks what three things I’ve read have had the most impact on my life.

In 1946, the essay writer, Clyde Raymond Miller, wrote the bible on propaganda and its detection. Miller’s book, The Process of Persuasion, Crown Publishers, New York City, continues to be used today as the definitive work on the subject.

Let me stop here and say that “propaganda” is often uniquely associated with Josef Goebbels, Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. That is a mistake. Propanda has universal usage and can bring about outcomes good or bad.

The essay Miller wrote, which so profoundly affected my thinking, follows. I have made no attempt to update his 1946 perspective. Just for fun, as you read through his “seven devices of propaganda,” make a list of current labels, situations and events which come to mind.

Aside from 1940s references, the essay itself is timeless and should be essential reading for every American.

I give you Clyde Raymond Miller:


Clyde Raymond Miller

If American citizens are to have clear understanding of present-day conditions and what to do about them, they must be able to recognize propaganda, to analyze it, and to appraise it.

But, what is propaganda?

As generally understood, propaganda is expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends.

Thus, propaganda differs from scientific analysis. The propagandist is trying to “put something across,” good or bad, whereas the scientist is trying to discover truth and fact. Often, the propagandist does not want careful scrutiny and criticism; he wants to bring about a specific action. Because the action may be socially beneficial or socially harmful to millions of people, it is necessary to focus upon the propagandist and his activities the searchlight of scientific scrutiny. Socially desirable propaganda will not suffer from such examination, but the opposite type will be detected and revealed for what it is.

We are fooled by propaganda chiefly because we don’t recognize it when we see it. It may be fun to be fooled but, as the cigarette ads used to say, it is more fun to know. We can more easily recognize propaganda when we see it if we are familiar with the seven common propaganda devices. These are:

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

Why are we 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 or do if we thought about it calmly, dispassionately. In examining these devices, note that they work most effectively at those times when we are too lazy to think for ourselves; also, they tie into emotions which sway us to be “for” or “against” nations, races, religions, ideals, economic and political policies and practices, and so on through automobiles, cigarettes, radios, toothpastes, presidents, and wars. With our emotions stirred, it may be fun and infinitely more to our own interests to know how they work.

Lincoln must have had in mind citizens who could balance their emotions with intelligence when he made his remark: “… but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”


“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 centuries the name “heretic” was bad. Thousands were oppressed, tortured, or put to death as heretics. Anybody who dissented from popular or group belief or practice was in danger of being called a heretic. In the light of today’s knowledge, some heresies were bad and some were good. Many of the pioneers of modern science were called heretics; witness the cases of Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno. Today’s bad names include: Fascist, demagogue, dictator, Red, financial oligarchy, Communist, muckraker, alien, outside agitator, economic royalist, Utopian, rabble-rouser, trouble-maker, Tory, Constitution wrecker.

“Al” Smith called (Franklin D.) Roosevelt a Communist by implication when he said in his Liberty League speech, “There can only be one capital, Washington or Moscow.” When “Al” Smith was running for the presidency many called him a tool of the pope, saying in effect, “We must choose between Washington and Rome.” That implied that Mr. Smith, if elected president, would take his orders from the pope. Likewise, Mr. Justice Hugo Black has been associated with a bad name, Ku Klux Klan. In these cases some propagandists have tried to make us form judgments without examining essential evidence and implications. “Al Smith is a Catholic. He must never be president.” “Roosevelt is a Red. Defeat his program.” “Hugo Black is or was a Klansman. Take him out of the Supreme Court.”

Use of “bad names” without presentation of their essential meaning, without all their pertinent implications, comprises perhaps the most common of all propaganda devices. Those who want to maintain the status quo apply bad names to those who would change it. For example, the (William Randolph) Hearst press applies bad names to Communists and Socialists. Those who want to change the status quo apply bad names to those who would maintain it. For example, the Daily Worker and the American Guardian apply bad names to conservative Republicans and Democrats.


“Glittering Generalities” is a device by which the propagandist identifies his program with virtue by use of “virtue words.” Here, he appeals to our emotions of love, generosity, and brotherhood. He uses words like truth, freedom, honor, liberty, social justice, public service, the right to work, loyalty, progress, democracy, the American way, Constitution defender. These words suggest shining ideals. All persons of good will believe in these ideals. Hence, the propagandist, by identifying his individual group, nation, race, policy, practice, or belief with such ideals, seeks to win us to his 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.

In the Name Calling and Glittering Generalities devices, words are used to stir up our emotions and to befog our thinking. In one device “bad words” are used to make us mad; in the other, “good words” are used to make us glad.

The propagandist is most effective in the use of these devices when his words make us create devils to fight or gods to adore. By his use of the “bad words,” we personify as a “devil” some nation, race, group, individual, policy, practice, or ideal; we are made fighting mad to destroy it. By use of “good words,” we personify as a godlike idol some nation, race, group, etc. Words which are “bad” to some are “good” to others, or may be made so. Thus, to some the New Deal is “a prophecy of social salvation” while to others it is “an omen of social disaster.”

From consideration of names, “bad” and “good,” we pass to institutions and symbols, also “bad” and “good.” We see these in the next device.


“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. For example, most of us respect and revere our church and our nation. 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 public opinion. These symbols stir emotions. At their very sight, with the speed of light, is aroused the whole complex of feelings we have with respect to church or nation. A cartoonist by having Uncle Sam disapprove a budget for unemployment relief would have us feel that the whole United States disapproves relief costs. By drawing an Uncle Sam who approves the same budget, the cartoonist would have us feel that the American people approve it. Thus, the Transfer device is used both for and against causes and ideas.


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 grandest ‘lift.’” “We believe the John L. Lewis plan of labor organization is splendid; the CIO should be supported.” This device works in reverse also; counter-testimonials may be employed. Seldom are these used against commercial products like patent medicines and cigarettes, but they are constantly employed in social, economic, and political issues. “We believe that the John L. Lewis plan of labor organization is bad; the CIO should not be supported.” (BJ: I would only note here that famous people are often used in the testimonial device, like actress Sally Field selling us bone-strengthening medicine.)


“Plain Folks” is a device used by politicians, labor leaders, businessmen, and even by ministers and educators to win our confidence by appearing to be people like ourselves – “just plain folks among the neighbors.” In election years especially do candidates show their devotion to little children and the common, homey things of life. They have front porch campaigns. For the newspaper men, they raid the kitchen cupboard, finding there some of the good wife’s apple pie. 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 – “just plain folks,” – and therefore, wise and good. Business men often are “plain folks” with the factory hands. Even distillers use the device. “It’s our family’s whiskey, neighbor; and neighbor, it’s your price.”


“Card Stacking” is a device in which the propagandist employs all the arts of deception to win our support for himself, his group, nation, race, policy, practice, belief, or ideal. He stacks the cards against the truth. He uses under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts. He resorts to lies, censorship, and distortion. He omits facts. He offers false testimony. He creates a smoke screen of clamor by raising a new issue when he wants an embarrassing matter forgotten. He draws a “red herring” across the trail to confuse and divert those in quest of facts he does not want revealed. He makes the unreal appear real and the real appear unreal. He 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. Some member nations of the Non-Intervention Committee send their troops to intervene in Spain. Card Stacking employs sham, hypocrisy, effrontery. (BJ: “The Big Lie” falls into this category: if you tell a lie often enough people will believe it. The release of falsified documents is included in “The Big Lie.”)


The “Band Wagon” is a device to make us follow the crowd, to accept the propagandist’s 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, 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 Negroes; 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. In newspaper articles and in the spoken word this device is also found. “Don’t throw your vote away. Vote for our candidate. He’s sure to win.” Nearly every candidate wins in every election – before the votes are in. (BJ: It is my fervent prayer that “one day a lemming will fly.”)


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, they can make us zealots in behalf of the program they espouse. As we said at the beginning, propaganda as generally understood is expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends. Without the appeal to our emotion – to our fears and to our courage, to our selfishness and unselfishness, to our loves and to our hates – propagandists would influence few opinions and few actions.

To say this is not to condemn emotion, an essential part of life, or to assert that all predetermined ends of propagandists are “bad.” What we mean is that the intelligent citizen does not want propagandists to utilize his emotions, even to the attainment of “good” ends, without knowing what is going on. He does not want to be “used” in the attainment of ends he may later consider “bad.” He does not want to be gullible. He does not want to be fooled. He does not want to be duped, even in a “good” cause. He wants to know the facts and among these is included the fact of the utilization of his emotions.

Keeping in mind the seven common propaganda devices, turn to today’s newspapers and almost immediately you can spot examples of them all. At election time or during any campaign, Plain Folks and Band Wagon are common. Card Stacking is hardest to detect, because it is adroitly executed or because we lack the information necessary to nail the lie. A little practice with the daily newspapers in detecting these propaganda devices soon enables us to detect them elsewhere – in radio, newsreels, books, magazines, and in expression of labor unions, business groups, churches, schools, political parties. (BJ: Written before television, the Internet and email.)


Great thanks to my friend Shari Nevels, who typed the essay onto my computer, error-free, while visiting this summer.


airth10 said...

I guess the greatest propagandist I've known as president is Ronald Reagan. His propaganda made most people feel good about America. He used most of the techniques listed above. After all, he knew propaganda because he was an actor.

Anonymous said...

Pleased to see this essay on your blog. I have taught high school “Government and Economics” classes for twenty years, and this is required reading for my students. So many have told me how much it has helped them to think for themselves. You know, education is not what you put into your students, but what you can get out of them. No student should leave high school without this knowledge. Yet, sadly, many high schools today do not offer civics classes which equip our youth to better understand how our government works. The thesis of Miller’s essay and book is the goal of my course, “Think for yourself!” That is the basic essential of democracy.

Anonymous said...

That is a great article! I'd never read it, but it certainly has been with us through this Primary and Election Season. And, Reagan is the perfect illustration. Hmmm...I'll have to try to perfect some of those techniques.

B.J. said...

Mr. Tremont (as I’m sure you’re used to being addressed)

Your comment made me happy. My civics teacher at Jackson (Miss.) Central High School was “Big John” O’Leary, an Irishman who loved this country. He used to bemoan the fact that he once bought 400 shares in a new company, and his wife, who thought he had lost his mind, made him sell them. The company? Coca-Cola.

In my opinion, this essay is the most important statement I’ve ever published on my blogs. Will it be read? As a longtime teacher, I am certain you know that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Then again, as I’m sure you are aware, you never know who you might influence.

Best to you, BJ

Anonymous said...

No, you don't. I have already printed it to ponder for the future, as you have done. And as your teacher did before you. Messages in a bottle? Feathers on a breeze? You put them out there is what you do. Bauk.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we all just need a wake-up call, don’t we? Thank you for this essay. Eowny, I printed it, too, because it’s definitely a keeper. I will share it with my teenagers!

Anonymous said...

Good idea to note how this essay applies today. I enjoyed making notes. A friend linked to your blog, said I ought to read this post. Glad he did!

Anonymous said...

You said Shari typed this up for you, right? Can you send me an attachment of what she typed? I wouldn't mind re-reading this in the future and having a copy on my computer.

I agree that Reagan was good at propaganda. He really made everyone feel like everything was just fine. For the longest time, I thought he was our greatest president. Why can't we have a combination of the good from all of those past presidents? Carter might not have been great but his heart is the best of all presidents. He, to this day, tries to make America better. (Habitat for Humanity, adopting kids, Carter Center work around the world, etc.) Clinton proved his passion for other women but also proved his passion for this country. Right now, the leaves of the Bushes are so bitter tasting that I choose not to include them at this time.

The Founding Fathers and first presidents chose to have a true separation of Church and State. That really is not the case now. We ask more about the candidates’ religious beliefs at times. I do not need to know any man's religion. It is something they chose to enhance their personal journey and has nothing to do with this job.

Abraham Lincoln... so much can be said about this man. I realize history has a way of rounding the sharp edges, but the ideal of Abraham Lincoln as taught in school is fantastic. We need a candidate of this quality, and we need to start looking for this candidate today for the next election. I am so tired of dogma from the Republicans and Democrats. LOL... we may need to bring back the Whig party. Something different that will address actual needs rather than the needs of the dogma. I try to stay abreast of all of this political stuff, but I have too much music running in my head from graduate school. lol.

I really think Obama will do some good things and is inheriting a terrible job. Kudos to him for even wanting the job. After careful contemplation, I see that a new party might be a better choice for the next election. I really want something to be done about the economy. I want a candidate to say that taxes will be high for all people and lowered once certain quotas are met. Why can't we tax the hell out of luxury items? We can not run a government without money. I am not saying to tax milk but jewelry, certain cars, certain boats, etc. These material things are not needed to live a full life, and if people choose to to enhance life with these items, they also must pay the tax. Let's all bite the bullet and get a portion of this taken care of.


Anonymous said...

For sure it's a keeper. To bad so many do not teach this in school anymore. Worse still, the people who might read it and let it go right over their heads.

Truth hurts sometimes!

And come every election season, more propaganda is piped into people's heads than drops of water in the ocean. And they believe it as Gospel Truth! To their own detriment! Then ship it around the world via the internet.

Does this nation stand a chance after the past eight-years? Let's hope there's enough common sense to know we can't take another four of it. It will take much longer than eight years to even get an up hill start from the sell out of our country and its people.

Anonymous said...

Huey Long once addressed voters in Winnfield, Louisiana. He told them that he was offended by the fact that the "United States Government" was investigating him, alleging that he stole $1 Million. He wasn't offended that they were investigating him, he said, but he was offended that the allegation was that he only stole $1 Million. "I stole $2 Million," he said.

Now that you have stopped smiling over this true tale, why aren't you angry? Don't ever think, anyone, that you aren't susceptible to propaganda. Today we call it "swiftboating."

Anonymous said...

LOL! My propoganda detection skills picked up several name callings, a band wagon, and possibly a glittering generality and a testimonial (I am not entirely sure)!

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