Skip to Main Content

Modern Understandings of Propaganda 1920–2020: Late-Twentieth-Century Understandings (1987–1999)

By Burton St. John III

Late-Twentieth-Century Understandings (1987–1999)

The previous era reflected diffuse conceptualizations of propaganda. This expansiveness began to contract somewhat in the late 1980s. After Tedlow’s 1979 book on public relations, propaganda, and corporations, book-length examinations of propaganda waned until Marvin Olasky’s 1987 Corporate Public Relations. In slightly over 150 pages, Olasky, whose background was in American cultural studies, makes no claims to exhaustively tracking how public relations and propaganda developed. He emphasizes, instead, how key industries, such as the railroads and the steel industry, used propagandistic public relations approaches to achieve their ends, often while misinforming the public. Olasky maintains that corporations would be more ethical in their attempts to influence others if they pursued private, rather than public, relations—that is, if they focused on the people closest to the organization, such as employees and vendors.

Olasky’s book, however, was greatly overshadowed in 1988 by the release of one of the most prominent latter-day books on propaganda, Manufacturing Consent, by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. The authors, with backgrounds in finance and linguistics respectively, criticize the news media for being the key amplifier of propaganda messages in the US and across the world. They offer a propaganda model consisting of five filters: the concentrated power of the mass media, the distorting influence of advertisers, the overreliance on corporate and government sources, the blowback from power centers, and the pressure to frame the news through the lens of anti-communism. As such, Herman and Chomsky offered the first book-length treatment of how news outlets willingly cooperate with powerful actors to spread propaganda. In the following year, Joyce Nelson’s Sultans of Sleaze provided perspectives reflective of her role as an ecofeminist activist. Influenced by Herman and Chomsky’s earlier work on human rights, Nelson offers a damning view of public relations as an instrument of powerful actors in both business and government who use deceptive messaging to maintain the status quo and prioritize their agendas over larger common goods (e.g., protecting the health of the citizenry against global pollution). As with Herman and Chomsky, Nelson criticizes the news media for being too beholden to their sources in the corporate and policy-making arenas.

By the early 1990s, this late 1980s criticism of the role of the news media in spreading propaganda tended to dissipate. Authors were more interested in theorizing and describing the complexities of propaganda. In 1991, Anthony R. Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson’s Age of Propaganda succinctly summarized how understandings of propaganda had changed. In the early twentieth century, propaganda was understood as outright deception by those seeking to amplify their biased interests. Now, say the authors in a similar vein as Ellul’s 1965 writing on propaganda, it is about the suggestive manipulation of the audience, especially through attempts to align propaganda with the viewpoints of the audience members. The authors make the disturbing point that propaganda in an open society can degenerate into a persuasion arms race in reverse. That is, the more individuals heed propaganda, the less informed and more simplistic they are in their understanding of the world around them. This, in turn, leads propagandists to use even more simplistic messages to connect with the citizenry’s impoverished mind frames.

As the mid-1990s approached, readers had increasing choices on books about propaganda and public relations. In 1993, academics James E. Combs and Dan Nimmo released The New Propaganda: The Dictatorship of Palaver in Contemporary Politics. Despite the word “politics” in their title, the authors examine propaganda as baked into the business, cultural, academic, and legal structures of modern society. Organizations face the difficulty of trying to have their needs met in a message-saturated world and turn to palaver—or the use of ingratiating talk that is often long-winded and circular—to catch the attention of the audiences they want to influence. Two years later, media and PR critics John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry tracked how public relations firms too often pursued underhanded measures when assisting their clients through greenwashing, corporate espionage, and front groups. While critics of PR have long noticed these kinds of unethical behaviors, Stauber and Rampton’s work is notable for being the first book-length treatment of propaganda that examines it exclusively through the lens of deceitful tactics. Their book is also distinctive because the authors are transparent about their treatment of PR; they have no interest in attempting to show a “balanced” view of PR, because the PR industry uses propaganda to tell people how to understand and navigate the world around them and, in the process, squelch citizens’ interest in charting their own course through participating in democracy. The year 1995 also brought the volume Propaganda, edited by Robert Jackall. Across three sections that encompass the history and ubiquity of propaganda, Jackall reprints some iconic pieces on propaganda, including short excerpts from Lasswell, Lippman, Doob, and George Orwell, and offers some original work in conjunction with anthropologist Janice Hirota. The original works by Jackall and Hirota provide insights into the legacy of the CPI and the nature of day-to-day propagandist work in both the public relations and advertising fields, most notably the extent to which these workers use various tactics to rationalize the nature of their work.

Academic Stuart Ewen’s 1996 book PR!: A Social History of Spin presents the first extensive account of the rise of propaganda and public relations crafted for the layperson. Ewen, a professor of history and media studies, starts the book with a recollection of his meeting with Edward Bernays—one of the last interviews with Bernays—and then provides a mostly chronological account of how PR became endemic to American society through its service to vested interests in politics and business. Ewen maintains that having a better sense of interconnectedness within a complex, modern culture is essential for resisting the dangerous manipulations of propagandists, but the book falters by resuscitating old arguments from the 1930s that hold that education is a key way to thwart such manipulations.

As the end of the 1990s approached, three notable volumes about propaganda appeared. J. Michael Sproule’s Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion, published in 1997, synthesizes various schools of thought about the value and potential threat of propaganda in a democracy. Sproule offers a wide view of the ascent of propaganda in the US, reaching back to WW I propaganda and the post-war rise of domestic propaganda, and ending with a rather clipped overview of propaganda in the US after the 1960s. Much like Ewen, however, Sproule struggles to identify approaches that the citizenry and policy makers might pursue to limit propaganda’s deleterious effects. He prefers advocating for more “critical thinking,” which sounds quite close to the advice of Ewen and others about improving education. Published that same year, Leon H. Mayhew’s The New Public: Professional Communication and the Means of Social Influence offers some observations about public relations and propaganda but is more interested in contextualizing their presence within an understanding of the public sphere and rhetoric. Australian scholar Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty also appeared in 1997. Carey details how propaganda arose in the US, was exported to other countries, and seeped into social science studies. Carey died in 1988, and by the time of the posthumous publication of this volume, events of the late 1990s—such as the US propaganda for the first Iraq war and the ascension of hard-Right propaganda through US talk radio—had already overtaken Carey’s observations.

More expansive and visually appealing thanks to its extensive reproduction of advertisements is Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business by Roland Marchand. Through a review of propaganda messages offered by such corporate titans as AT&T, GM, and GE, Marchand provides a vivid recounting of how, from the end of WW I through the late 1940s, corporations had both the resources and the will to spread ingratiating messages designed to encourage consumer support. He is particularly vexed by how corporations used propaganda to become more relatable to the average person but did this primarily as a gesture designed to obscure the self-interest of the corporation.

In sum, the books appearing in this era primarily used two approaches: historical tracking of the rise of propaganda and theorizing about how propaganda helps shape meaning in societies increasingly oversaturated with persuasive messages. A notable shift in this period, however, was either overt or implicit messages of how individuals might embrace an activist vigilance against the manipulations of propaganda, especially when they are in the service of vested interests whose policies and proclivities may not support the wider good.

Works Cited