Some Propaganda Techniques

Below is a list of some of the more commonly used propaganda techniques. The list is derived from Analyzing Controversy: An Introductory Guide by Gary Clabaugh, La Salle University, and Edward Rozycki, Widener University (McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, 1997). Be on the alert for these techniques as you read the Taking Sides debates.


One kind of generalization that can be hard to identify, interpret, or test is the reification. To reify means to treat a vague general term as if it were a concrete, even living, thing. Reifications tend to obscure important questions about responsibility, cost, and benefit. In addition, they are frequently used to demean or demonize entire groups of people. We encounter reifications every day. Here are a few headlines from a major metropolitan newspaper. See if you can identify some generalizations.

These are story headlines, and, in most cases, in the body of the story, we learn who in the drug company failed to act, which city and union officials extended the strike deadline, and so forth. Sometimes, however, these vital details never emerge.

Consider a column we found on the commentary page of a local newspaper with the headline: "UN should clean up its act." The columnist charges that "... the UN's bureaucracy has long ago forsaken its commitment to Article 100 of the [UN] Charter." (Article 100 forbids UN staffers from seeking or receiving instructions from any government.) He denounces "UN apparatchiks [who] have tried to cover their trail . . ." and charges that "The UN bureaucracy . . . inhabits a culture of paranoia, fearful always that a powerful member country or a powerful block of countries is looking over their shoulder." [Emphasis added.] There are over 20,000 UN employees working worldwide at many different jobs, but the reader is encouraged to lump them all together as "apparatchiks" (a derisive term for Soviet-era bureaucrats) and "the UN bureaucracy." Some UN employees may well deserve such labels; but most must surely be worthy and do admirable work. Consider, as an example, those who sacrificed their lives attempting to bring food and medicine to besieged Bosnians. Do they deserve such labels?

Name Calling

Many people would not directly insult those who disagree with them. Such people often pride themselves on either their civility or objectivity. Nonetheless, they often subtly insult their opponents not by focusing on the argument but by questioning their opponents' character or motives. In evaluating competing sides of a controversial issue, look for terms that delegitimate interests (rob them of their legitimacy). Whose interests they invalidate can be quite revealing. For example, in "The Tilt to the News: How American Journalism Has Swerved from the Ideal of Objectivity," The World and I (December 1993), H. Joachim Maitre denounces the alleged liberality of National Public Radio (NPR). He cites as an example NPR's correspondent at the Supreme Court, Nina Totenberg, for her "stubborn effort to prevent Clarence Thomas from being confirmed as a justice of the Court." He might have said "intensive," "tireless," or "persistent" effort. "Stubborn" delegitimates her actions without giving reasons as to why he thinks she was wrong.

Emotions And Persuasion

However irrelevant they might be when it comes to factual claims or the logic of an argument, feelings still play a particularly crucial role in persuasion. In fact, Aristotle classified emotional appeals (pathos) as one of the most effective means of influencing others.

Some appeals to emotion are uncalculated, coming from disputants who are emotionally wrapped up in the issue themselves. But others emanate from practiced publicists or cunning propagandists who play on emotions as skillfully as a virtuoso plays the piano. We should be wary of this. Some classic appeals to emotion that you should watch out for follow.

Appeals to Envy

Envy, we are told, is one of the seven cardinal sins. And it is all too common. A Danish proverb asserts, "If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill." Perhaps this is why appeals to envy are so seductive. Essentially, a disputant appealing to envy will try to manipulate you into accepting an argument because of jealousy of the other person. Loaded language is a key indicator that an appeal to envy is being made. In analyzing controversies, be alert for loaded words or phrases that might be used to trigger and exploit envy.

The table below contains a sample of loaded words that appeal to envy. Compare the terms that capitalize on envy in the left column with their more neutral alternatives in the right column.

          Loaded Words That Play on Envy    Alternative, More Neutral Words
          ------------------------------    -------------------------------
          fat cat                           wealthy
          favored                           prosperous
          haughty                           cultured
          snobbish                          educated
          conceited, stuck-up               self-confident
          pushy                             assertive
          aggressive                        in control
          power mad                         masterful
Appeals to Fear

Fear as a self-protective response is perfectly reasonable. But this same emotion can cloud judgment. And, as in the case of envy, fear can be played upon. Some possible indicators that fear is being appealed to are terms like those in the left-column below rather than those in the right-column.

          Loaded Words Appealing to Fear    Alternative, More Neutral Words
          ------------------------------    -------------------------------
          bully                             assertive
          aggressive                        self-confident
          sneaky                            cautious
          underhanded                       circumspect
          secret                            discreet
          surreptitious                     watchful
          out-of-control                    spontaneous
          impulsive                         freewheeling
          rash                              instinctive
          reckless                          carefree

The point is that the same essential trait or behavior can be referred to in a way that plays on our feelings-in this case, fear.

Appeals to Hatred

Hatred is strangely seductive, and zealots of every stripe seem to need a devil. Hitler, for instance, demonized the Jews, and it served Stalin's murderous purposes to incite hatred for "wreckers" (of the revolution) and so-called enemies of the people.

Loaded language is particularly effective in triggering hate. For example, there seems to be a nearly endless supply of nasty words that promote and exploit hatred for particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups. These are all too commonly known, and we omit a chart of examples for the sake of good taste. Bear in mind, however, that there are subtler loaded words that also play on hatred. Here are some code words used to trigger revulsion: welfare queen, bleeding heart, fascist, extremist, international banker, one-worlder, tree-hugger, union buster, puritan, bureaucrat, shyster, and draft dodger. Of course, there are many, many more.

Appeals to Pride

Pride is another of the so-called seven deadly sins-the one, we are told, that most surely separates a sinner from the grace of God. Often we can spot appeals to pride by looking for characteristic indicator phrases like the following:

An inverse appeal to pride plays on our fear of seeming stupid. Persuasion professionals are well aware of this and cleverly use it to their advantage. To make you feel alone and stupid in your opinions, for instance, they might commission a poll with loaded questions; then release the findings to the press. Essentially they are saying "Look at all the people who agree with us. You must be wrong." Be alert for such maneuvers.


Slogans are vague statements that typically are used to express positions or goals. They characteristically conceal potential conflict while promoting broad but only shallow consensus. Because of their vagueness, they are easy to agree with; but we often later find that others interpret them in ways we find objectionable.

Slogans are not so vague as to be meaningless. On the contrary, slogans are powerful persuaders precisely because they do mean something. Crucially, however, what that something is differs dramatically from person to person.

Consider the following:

Pseudo Solutions

When a real solution to an urgent problem is not forthcoming, many arguers offer pseudo solutions, vague generalizations that sound convincing and incite people to a cause but say little more than "Let's solve this problem by doing something that will solve this problem." That's pretty safe advice, but with these solutions, arguers are really avoiding the possibility of failure, evading details, and neglecting to talk about who will shoulder the cost. Real-solution proposals, on the other hand, require the risk of failure, saying exactly what is to be done, and, often as not, wrestling with issues of cost.

To distinguish pseudo solutions from potentially workable ones, use the "Can it fail?" Rule. This involves asking, Can the solution fail? "No" identifies pseudo solutions. "Yes" identifies real possibilities.

Consider the following problems and paired "solutions." The "a" items are pseudo solutions. The "b" items are real proposals. Can you see why?

          PROBLEM                               SOLUTION
          -------                               --------
          1. That party is too noisy.           a. Quiet it down.
                                                b. Call the cops.

          2. Kids aren't doing homework.        a. Motivate them.
                                                b. Assign lunch detentions.

          3. Trains are seldom on time.         a. Improve on-time performance.
                                                b. Purchase more locomotives.

          4. Government is wasting money.       a. Improve fiscal efficiency.
                                                b. Decentralize purchasing.

          5. Too many are using illegal drugs.  a. Teach them to say "No!" to
                                                b. Spend 10 percent more on
                                                   drug education.


Controversies may rest not on deliberate misinformation but on the incorrect assumption that the fundamental sources of knowledge that we depend on are functioning well. It is this presupposition of their trustworthiness that supports our arguments. For instance, consider the following presupposition shared by disputants on either side of the controversy "Should Marijuana Be Legalized as a Medication" from Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues on Drugs and Society, Second edition (Guilford, CT: Dushkin, 1996, pp. 135-143). Professor Lester Grinspoon argues that marijuana has proven beneficial to patients suffering from various medical problems. He feels that the federal government is unjustifiably prohibiting its use. Eric Voth, a medical professional, counters that marijuana has no real medical benefits and its use should be prohibited. Underlying both of their arguments is the presupposition that adults cannot be permitted to treat their own bodies as they choose. A libertarian who worries about governmental restrictions on personal liberty would immediately recognize this deep assumption and challenge it. The point here is that controversies rest on presuppositions that may in themselves be challenged.