No such thing as bad publicity

“The first essential in propaganda is repetition. In the short memory of the public lies the propagandist’s greatest asset and his greatest handicap. It helps him to turn on his tracks without fear of exposure; but it imposes the imperative duty of ceaseless reiteration. Journalists, perhaps, more than any other people, realise how quickly the public will forget. An event flashes up from the darkness into the glare of the headlines, then as quickly fades. New incidents crowd so quickly upon one another that often before their true significance can be appraised they are forgotten. This inexorable rule applies in every cross-section of human interests. At the peak of a murder trial, the life-story of an illiterate farm labourer is familiar to millions who, a few months later, would be unable even to recall his name. Or, to go to the other extreme, a statesman makes a speech that is flashed almost instantaneously across the world, to be eagerly scrutinised in the chancelleries, excitedly discussed in the press, and debated by the man-in-the-street. Yet, here again, the curtain of oblivion falls…..

Behind this confused, uncertain panorama of day-to-day events the propagandist must be ceaselessly at work. If he has merely to telephone his orders to various State-controlled publicity men his task is comparatively simple.

But when he is working with no official backing, perhaps in opposition to the ruling Government or social system itself, he must reckon with all kinds of complications. He must play countless variations on the main theme. This repetition, if obvious, carries with it the danger that his public may be bored, and lose interest in his arguments. But if he persists and secures a sufficient number of new ‘slants’ to his appeal, he is bound to impress some section of the public. And, in time, what he preaches becomes woven into the warp and woof of their minds. It is something to be accepted without argument as part of that deep core of loyalties every human being must possess.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make certain that somewhere all the time, someone is considering, discussing or criticising the propaganda subject. The deadliest enemy of any cause is indifference, and violent attacks are infinitely preferable to being ignored. When Sir Oswald Mosley was injured by stone-throwers at a public meeting, papers in opposition to him insistently appealed that he should be ‘left alone’. They realised that one foolish impulse had made Fascism front page news in every paper in the country. Its leader had purchased the publicity at heavy personal cost, but there is no doubt the incident was valuable propaganda.”
Propaganda Boom. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club, London. 1938.

This book could have been subtitled The Powers of Persuasion. The word propaganda, today, is used in a negative sense (the enemy produces propaganda, we “release information”) but in 1938 Mackenzie insisted that propaganda was “ethically neutral” – it could be used for good or bad – and gave it a fairly wide definition.

“Propaganda is an attempt, either unconsciously or as part of a systematic campaign by an individual or group holding certain beliefs or desiring certain ends, to influence others to adopt identical attitudes.”

Which covers what we would call P.R. “spin”, not to mention the output of the entire advertising industry! In other words, we are bombarded with it all the time. So here’s a thought that should encourage us to keep our guard up –

“Where the object of propaganda is to convince the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time, it is not, as a rule, rational in its appeal. The fundamental point in this type of propaganda is that reflection is a slower process than instinct. Since few people have the necessary strength of will to choose the harder road, an approach which arouses instinctive reactions is much more likely to succeed than one which imposes a tax, however slight, on the mental processes.”

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