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Propaganda and Advertising have Poor Real-Life Efficacy: 1

The title of this post might, at first glance, seem almost counter-intuitive to whatever most of you desire to believe about the efficacy of advertising and propaganda. After all, why would all those super rich and therefore allegedly “smart” people spend tens of billions on advertising if it was largely futile? Or why would various governments spend even more money and devote a lot of personnel to create and disseminate propaganda. Surely, even semi-competent people would not spend that much money and effort on something of negligible efficacy. Or would they?

Let us start by talking about all the disastrous, expensive and ultimately ruinous wars initiated by “great leaders” and “highly trained generals” throughout human history, such as WW1 and WW2 and the present. Or think about all the giant multi-national corporations (Xerox, Kodak, Motorola, Blockbuster etc) that have failed because their leadership kept on making bad and ultimately disastrous decisions. My point is that there is no evidence that all those supposedly “smart” leaders of large corporations and nations (and their underlings) are even reasonably good at their jobs- in spite of being paid a lot of money and wielding much power.

If all that evidence doesn’t satisfy you, ponder a bit about how a mediocre reality TV star such as Trump won the republican nomination by steamrolling 16 “professional” life-long politicians and then defeated the darling of the neoliberal establishment, aka HRC, in the 2016 presidential general election. My point is that people who are supposed to be “elite” are, for all practical purposes, incompetent posers who just happened to get a lucky break or hit a lucky streak in their past. Their choices and decisions should not, therefore, be interpreted as evidence of deep thought, competence or efficacy.

But what about all those books you have read touting the amazing effectiveness of propaganda and adverting? What about all those documentaries made by Adam Curtis? What about all those books written by Noam Chomsky, especially this one? Surely, all these supposedly brilliant left-leaning “intellectuals” must have some wondrous insight into the power of propaganda and advertising that is not obvious to “non-experts”. Or maybe they want to pretend to believe in something which can explain their own impotence while simultaneously making a decent amount of money and fame?

To make a very long story a bit shorter, I shall now talk about a few examples of what are often considered to be best examples of success for propaganda and advertising to show you that the real reason why most people appear to go along with that crap is very different from what you are willing to accept.

Example 1: Propaganda in World War I

The attempts by all belligerent European governments to sell the idea of fighting WW1 to their subjects.. I mean citizens.. is sometimes seen as the first instance of governments deploying mass propaganda on a large and systematic scale. But was it really effective? Or were the other reasons behind the public support for war? Have you ever considered that the real reasons for public support for that war might have something to do with the expectations and mindset of people in that era?

Ok, let me ask you a question. What percentage of the population, including the “elites”, of that era could even imagine a war on such a gigantic scale going on for four years? If you don’t believe me.. read the correspondences of both soldiers and generals who fought in that war. It quickly becomes obvious that even 2-3 years into WW1, most of those involved in the actual fighting and planning believed that some new military tactic, weapons system or strategy would somehow magically translate into a swift and decisive victory.

Furthermore, the general public in European countries had not lived through such a large war on their soil, let alone one that could last more than a few weeks. Perhaps most importantly, the very high number of deaths and casualties in each participating nation, within even the first few months of that war, made it basically impossible for either the people of those nations or their leaders to settle for anything short of “total victory”. It was really about an uncontrollable and escalating cycle of vengeance at a time when contemporary culture was characterized by social darwinist thinking.

I would go so far as to suggest that the total absence of propaganda during that time would have no worthwhile effect on the conduct, length or outcome of that war. The sheer amount of wishful thinking based on past experiences in pre-modern societies based on social darwinism combined with the high number of children per woman and the second stage of the industrial revolution made every single aspect of that war pretty much inevitable. The government support of propaganda and advertising were, at best, avenues for creating patriotic sounding jobs for the sons of rich and connected people who did not want to risk their lives at the front.

Example 2: Militaristic Nationalism in Japan between 1920 and 1946.

Another important, though less commonly discussed, alleged example for success of propaganda concerns the rise of extreme militaristic nationalism between 1920 and 1946. It is, for example, common knowledge, that the Japanese armed forces fought bravely and often to the last man even in seemingly futile battles such those for Iwo Jima and Okhinawa. Then there are all those accounts of Kamikaze plane attacks and Banzai charges. By any measure, the soldiers and other personnel of the Imperial Japanese forces during WW2 were highly driven and ideologically motivated. But was it due to propaganda?

Many conventional historical accounts of 1920s-1930s era Japan strongly suggest, or just outright say, that the government- especially factions controlled by the military establishment put in a lot of effort and resources to inculcate a certain nationalistic ideology among the Japanese people. This extended from simple censorship of media to elaborate mock training of schoolchildren to fight in wars. But how much effect did any of these traditional and non-traditional avenues of propaganda have on the type of nation that Japan became in the late 1930s and really 1940s?

In my opinion- very little and here is why. Understanding the reasons which led to the Japanese people embracing an extreme right-wing nationalistic ideology predicated in their racial superiority requires us to put ourselves in the world as seen by the average Japanese person in the that era. Japan, you see, went from a medieval feudal society to a modern industrialized one within less than 50 years from the beginning of the Meiji period. By the beginning of WW1, and certainly by its end in 1918, its industrial, academic and engineering achievements had surpassed almost every other country but a few (USA, UK, France and Germany).

All these achievements and competencies had, however, not been helped it increase its global prestige, power or access to raw materials. In contrast, even third-rate European powers like Portugal, Netherlands and Belgium had large colonies in Asia and Africa. The treaty of Versailles simply confirmed that Japan, as an Asian country, would never be welcome as an equal in the imperialist white man’s club. At that time, Korea was the only real overseas colonial possession of the Japanese empire- and it was hardly a desirable one.

But it was a much bigger problem than diplomatic slights at the hands of white European nations. Japan had a large population but only a small part of it was arable or inhabitable. One unintentional, but somewhat welcome, consequences of the industrial revolution in Japan was that many millions of newly educated and skilled Japanese started moving to Korea, China and other East-Asian countries to make a living. There they encountered nation after nation of subjugated Asian people living in a pre-industrial era.

It is therefore not surprising that the idea of racial superiority was so readily accepted by Japanese people in that era. They could see that their country was the most developed and powerful country for thousands of miles in any direction. And yet, this did not translate into any material advantage for them. It is therefore not surprising that leaders spouting right-wing militaristic ideas about conquering and exploiting the resources of surrounding countries became popular in Japan. They were just saying out loud what everyone else was thinking.

In the upcoming part of this series, I intend to talk about why Nazi propaganda appeared to be so effective until the final year of WW2, why soviet propaganda appeared to succeed until the early 1970s and why american propaganda appeared to succeed for decades before entering its death spiral after 2008. Here is a hint.. in all three cases, people appeared to go along with the propaganda only as long as the underlying system provided at least part of what it had promised.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. December 4, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    when are the libertarian tough guys gonna critique the trickle down effect:

    Never, because the delusions of intellectually mediocre people are often the only things that keep them going.

    • Libertarians are superhumans
      December 5, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      • P Ray
        December 5, 2017 at 10:10 pm

        The lesson I take away from it is:
        The person with the saw will always be in demand.

  2. Yusef
    December 4, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    “The attempts by all belligerent European governments to sell the idea of fighting WW1 to their subjects.. I mean citizens.. is sometimes seen as the first instance of governments deploying mass propaganda on a large and systematic scale. But was it really effective? Or were the other reasons behind the public support for war?”

    Have you read any historical accounts of the buildup to WWI? Don’t you think you should familiarize yourself with a topic prior to pontificating on it? I do. You simply don’t know what you are talking about. “All belligerent European governments”. That’s an ignorant label and I think it is unwise for any of us to assume we know what you are talking about when you use it. Explain it, if you can. For one thing, when people speak of WWI being the first example of an effective propaganda campaign– and I have heard that statement made by informed people– they are speaking of the propaganda campaigns conducted in Britain. Britain. Not “all belligerent European governments to sell the idea of fighting WW1.”

    I’ve never heard any historian who has studied the use of WWI propaganda claim it was the only reason behind public support, so here again we see your use of a straw man. You present a weak argument– actually a stupid misrepresentation of an argument– and easily knock it down. That makes you feel strong, I suppose.

    It’s not really true European people didn’t understand war was horrible and wished to avoid it, though it is true WWI was more horrible than anyone ever could have imagined. There were plenty of 19th century bloodbaths and misadventures. People understood they were basically screwed if they ended up “impressed” into service and sent off to die for the fucking King and Queen. Believe it or not, most people understood they were “subjects”. They knew damned well they weren’t citizens. Most of the British Isles remembered not being subject to the so-called British monarchs– who, by the way, by this time were Germans from Hanover.

    This is tautology: ” the real reasons for public support for that war might have something to do with the expectations and mindset of people in that era”. The reason people thought the way they did is because of the way they thought. It’s true and it is true because it is true.

    Wake up, please.

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