Soc 3041: Spin and ads as propaganda.



What I want to cover today is the issue of corporate power, ads and spin as propaganda and within this look at the relation between propaganda and ethics.


It is often assumed that propaganda and spin are unethical in a way that adverts are not. I want to consider today the degree to which ads and the selling of products and presentation packages are unethical.


Let us start with the general notion of ethics and propaganda.





the very idea of propaganda as unethical in the sense that it is usually seen as a form of address that sets out to deceive – to persuade by dodgy means.


In other words propaganda by its very nature is often regarded as illegitimate ethically  that it is a ‘wrong form of activity’ – not because it directly harms anyone,


but uses deceitful methods to gain our attention and ultimately to recruit us to a cause. In everyday talk, calling something ‘propaganda’ is a negative evaluation of it.



It is opposed to the truth – but how opposed – opposed because it is lying? Or because it is doing several things – informing you…but with the aim of leading you to see the things depicted (if a picture/poster) as rather different (good or bad) from how a more careful rational view would lead us to believe.


And it is trying to get you to accept the message and join the party/buy the item etc. And of course being deceitful OR not quite telling the truth, embellishing, exaggerating/underplaying





But equally it s not only the means and aims/purposes of propaganda that may be seen as unethical, but perhaps the kinds of messages that are encoded by propaganda.



Nazi propaganda was not wrong as propaganda – after it’s what all pol parties do…but what was arguably so wrong was the kinds of messages that were used and the political ends that were promoted – the latter somehow making the propaganda wrong in the first place.


We think that racism, anti-semitism, etc is unethical, so if we encode such images/message in propaganda that makes the very character of that propaganda unethical – “that’s a really unpleasant poster” and the people who made it (“they should not have put that up” -  AS WELL AS the activities it promotes – namely racist activities.


So one has to think through how propaganda links to the idea of the unethical as ‘wrong-doing’ – in what ways does propaganda engage in forms of wrongdoing? –


not only by direct harm but by breaking rules of how we treat others;


how we incite others to treat others; how we get people to accept our messages – in deceitful ways? i.e. fooling you into accepting them through clever – i.e. subliminal encoding – not being upfront in how we present the ideas and you are suckered into going with it.


Advertising works this way as well and as such is propaganda.

And you could explore all these aspects of propaganda as ‘unethical’ with analyses using concrete examples taken from posters, ad campaigns, political elections, from today and yesteryear.



Now I want to widen the matter by considering the sues that Miller and Dinen pick up on in the book  sent you.


What they do is to argue that from a rather instrumentalist way that corporate capitalism is not only using propaganda/spin to make profits, but has indeed distorted democratic processes deliberately to soften up US/UK public and politicians so that they do not challenge or question business interests.


They review the history of the 20th century in terms of the creation of PR as a means to spread concretely a network of pro-corporate business agents and agencies who influence reaches into the decision making  processes of political parties.


The early history of all this s rather dark as it involves the recruitment of people involved n running spying agencies ad in the US context strike breaking using the Pinkerton agencies to use violent means and the PR agencies to square matter wt the public by blaming communist agitators.


But what we are talking about here is the way in which the ethics of PR are not just being used to change the consciousness of people at the local level of their image of a good/product but of a renegotiation of the power structure such that the state adapts in all is policies t the interests of maximising corporate commerce’s ability to make profits irrespective of the popular democratic and social needs of society whereby taxes are imposed to fund what people want and need.


Here we concerned with political ethics


And not just the polite ethics I have discussed earlier.


The means of gaining power over governments is via networks that have grown up between PR agencies, politics, think-tanks, and finally ministers.


And thus here we have the fulfilment of what Wright-Mills so long ago called the Power Elite.





1)    If it is, why is propaganda unethical


2)    Is advertising unethical qua propaganda – Is I propaganda? How can you distinguish?


3)      Does the phenomenon of corporate power take us to a whole new ballgame f ethics and propaganda such that spin and advertising and pressure group activity is a far too polite way of discussing a serious challenge to democracy?