Persuasion is pervasive in communication—and communication is how we create our reality from our most insignificant interactions to the societies we shape with our shared values. As the writers of the Old Testament pointed out: God said let there be light. And there was.
When people or organizations attempt to persuade, it is because they want something. It could stop there. The distinctions between the persuasive tactics employed by the disciplines of public relations, advertising, and propaganda might be considered trivial—they are only a means to an end.
When we consider ethics (or academic definitions), these distinctions might become more important. Advertisers have an economic end. This is much easier to justify ethically then other forms of persuasion. People need things, they want things and advertisers might just be there to let us all know there’s something out there we can buy if we want or need it. Of course, when advertisers set out to manipulate humanity’s dark, deep-seated, animalistic, egoistic subconscious desires, well, that’s a different story isn’t it?
Public relations is tricky. These folks sit on the fence and it is difficult at times to tell if they are selling something or promoting an idea or just simply lying for some organization’s financial or social gain. A public relations campaign to promote a benefit event for child cancer patients is a beautiful thing. One that allows a dubious organization to continue socially or environmentally damaging practices without taking accountability or losing stock value might make a fellow wonder how humanity will survive the next couple of centuries.
Propaganda is a bit more clear-cut. There seem to be no rules (because the ones in power make the rules). Here is where we see the most gruesome violations of justice, decency, integrity and responsibility and the grossest displays of shortsightedness and narcissism. As the film, The Century of the Self, points out, propaganda has brought us everything from the stock market crash of 1929 to the Holocaust in World War II. We could even make the argument that American obesity and our culture of debt are the results of a “successful” propaganda campaign.
Propaganda, more so than PR or advertising (though they do as well), sees autonomous, valuable individuals as mindless tools with which money and power are created. As Edward Bernays said: “[The individual is] a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.” That’s probably not how most people like to be thought of.
Many persuasion tactics in the 20th century and in to the 21st have operated under the assumption that humanity is a swirling mass of frustration, dissatisfaction and guilt, feelings of inadequacy, selfish desires, and violent tendencies. And they’ve worked rather well so there must be something to it.
But humanity is a two-sided coin and the other side is spontaneous cooperation, organized progress, tolerance, reason, love, and a wide array of breathtaking achievements. Take the Enlightenment for example, or the civil rights movement, or the Indian revolution or the fact that societies throughout history have generally operated well and peacefully until someone came along who wanted more power, more influence, more sway, or more money—which are exactly the things these institutions of persuasion are after.
As we move into a new century and perhaps a new phase of our social development, it is crucial that we consider the ethical, long-term implications of our persuasive objectives. We must take responsibility for the powerful, creative force that communication offers us. We wouldn’t want to lie to our spouse? Our children? We wouldn’t steer them toward destruction for our own gain? Why would we do this to our societies, our countries, or the big family that is humanity as a whole?
(This blog is adapted from a paper the author wrote for a class at Boise State University)