This is a condensed version of Donna Woolfolk Cross' essay "Propaganda: How Not to Be Bamboozled"


For good or evil, propaganda pervades our daily lives, helping to shape our attitudes on a thousand subjects. Propaganda works by tricking us, by momentarily distracting the eye while the rabbit pops out from beneath the cloth. Propaganda works best with an uncritical audience. Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister in Nazi Germany, once defined his work as "the conquest of the masses." the masses would not have been conquered, however, if they had known how to challenge and to question, how to make distinctions between propaganda and reasonable argument.

People are bamboozled mainly because they don't recognize propaganda when they see it. They need to be informed about the various devices that can be used to mislead and deceive - about the propagandist's overflowing bag of tricks. The following, then, are some common pitfalls for the unwary.

1. Name-calling

The propagandist tries to arouse our contempt so we will dismiss the "bad name" person or idea without examining is merits.

For example: a candidate for office being described as a "foolish idealist" or a "two-faced liar".

When the propagandist uses name-calling, he doesn't want us to think - merely to react, blindly, unquestioningly. So the best defense against being taken in by name-calling is to stop and ask, "Forgetting the bad name attatched to it, what are the merits of the idea itself? What does this name really mean, anyway?"

2. Glittering Generalities

Glittering Generalities are really name-calling in reverse - words with good connotations - "virtue words".

For example: "justice," "motherhood," "the American way," or "our constitutional rights."

We often make the mistake of assuming we are personally unaffected by glittering generalities. Forgetting the virtue words attached to it, what are the merits of the idea itself? Both name-calling and glittering generalities work by stirring our emotions in the hope that this will cloud our thinking.

3. Plain Folks Appeal

"Plain folks" is the device by which a speaker tries to win our confidence and support by appearing to a person like ourselves - "just one of the plain folks."

For example: Candidates go around shaking hands with factory workers or kissing babies in supermarkets.

The irrelevancy of the plain-folks appeal is obvious: even if the man is "one of us" (which may not be true at all), that doesn't mean that his ideas and programs are sound - or even that he honestly has our best interests at heart.

4. Argumentum ad populum (stroking)

Argumentum ad populum means "telling the people what they want to hear." The colloquial term from the Watergate era is "stroking," which conjures up pictures of small animals or children being stroked or soothed with compliments until they come to like the person doing the complimenting - and, by extension, his or her ideas.

For example: Politicians tell farmers that they are the "backbone of the American economy" and college students thaty they are the "leaders and policy makers of tomorrow."

The intent here is to sidetrack us from thinking critically about the man and his ideas. Our own good qualities have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

5. Argumentum ad hominem

Argumentum ad hominem means "argument to the man." When a propagandist uses this, he wants to distract our attention from the issue under consideration with personal attacks on the people involved.

For example: When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, some people responded by calling him the "baboon." But Lincoln's long arms and awkward carriage had nothing to do with the merits of the Proclamation or the question of whether or not slavery should be abolished.

Do the personal qualities of the person being discussed have anything to do with the issue at hand? Leaving him or her aside, how good is the idea itself?

6. Transfer (Guilt or Glory by Association)

Glory by association: The propagandist tries to transfer the positive feelings of something we love and respect to the group or idea he wants us to accept.

For example: "This bill for a new dam is in the best tradition of this country, the land of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington." Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington were great leaders that most of us revere and respect, but they have no logical connection to the proposal under consideration - the bill to build a new dam.

Guilt by association: Works the same way, but in reverse.

For example: "John Doe says we need to make some changes in the way our government operates; well, that's exactly what the Ku Klux Klan has said, so there's a meeting of great minds!" There is no logical connection between John Doe and the Ku Klux Klan except that which the propagandist is trying to create in our minds.

7. Bandwagon

The bandwagon urges us to support an action or an opinion because it is popular - because "everyone else is doing it."

For example: "Let us join together in this great cause," or "More and more citizens are rallying to my cause every day. Join them - and me - in our fight for America."

8. Faulty Cause and Effect

This device sets up a cause and effect relationship that may not be true. Just because one thing happened after another doesn't mean that one caused the other.

For example: "After I came to office, the rate of inflation dropped to 6 percent." But did the person do anything to cause the lower rate of inflation or was it the result of other conditions? Would the rate of inflation have dropped anyway, even if he hadn't come to office?

False cause and effect reasoning is terribly persuasive because it seems so logical. Don't be taken in by false cause and effect; be sure to ask, "Is there enough evidence to prove that this cause led to that effect? Could there have been any other causes?"

9. False Analogy

An analogy is a comparison between two ideas, events, or things. But comparisons can be fairly made only when the things being compared are alike in significant ways. When they are not, false analogy is the result.

For example: "Don't change horses in the middle of a stream" is a famous proverb that is often used to convince voters not to change administrations in the middle of a war or other crisis. But the analogy is misleading because there are so many differences between the things compared. In what way is a war or political crisis like a stream? Is the President or head of state really very much like a horse? And is a nation of millions of people comparable to a man trying to get across a stream?

Analogy is false and unfair when it compares two things that have little in common and assumes that they are identical. We can decide for ourselves whether an analogy is false or fair by asking, "Are the things being compared truly alike in significant ways? Do the differences between them affect the comparison?"

10. Begging the Question

Begging the question occurs when, in discussing a questionable or debatable point, a person assumes as already established the very point that he is trying to prove.

For example: "No thinking citizen could approve such a completely unacceptable policy as this one." But isn't the question of whether or not the policy is acceptable the very point to be established?

We can protect ourselves against this kind of faulty logic by asking, "What is assumed in this statement? Is the assumption reasonable, or does it need more proof?"

11. The two extremes fallacy (False dilemma)

We are often told to "listen to both sides of the argument." But who's to say that every argument has only two sides? Can't there be a third - even a fourth or fifth - point of view?

For example: "America: Love it or leave it" implicitly suggests that we either accept everything just as it is in America today without complaint - or get out.

Don't be duped; stop and ask, "Are those really the only two options I can choose from? Are there other alternatives not mentioned that deserve consideration?"

12. Card stacking

Card stacking is a device of propaganda which selects only the facts that support the propagandist's point of view, and ignores all the others.

For example: "Representive McNerd introduced more new bills than any other member of the Congress," and neglect to mention that most of them were so preposterous that they were laughed off the floor.

The best protection against card stacking is to take the "Yes, but ..." attitude. This device of propaganda is not untrue, but then again it is not the whole truth.

13. Testimonial

The testimonial device consists in having some loved or respected person give a statement of support (testimonial) for a given product or idea. The problem is that the person being quoted may not be an expert in the field; in fact, he may know nothing at all about it.

For example: Testimonial is used extensively in television ads, where it often appears in such bizarre forms as Joe Namath's endorsement of a pantyhose brand.

As people, we must question whether celebrities are in any better position to judge than we ourselves. Too often we are willing to let others we like or respect make our decisions for us, while we follow along acquiescently. And this is the purpose of testimonial - to get us to agree and accept without stopping to think.


The cornerstone of democratic society is reliance upon an informed and educated electorate. To be fully effective citizens we need to be able to challenge and to question wisely. A dangerous feeling of indifference toward our political processes exists today. We often abandon our right, our duty, to criticize and evaluate by dismissing all politicians as "crooked," all new bills and proposals as "just more government bureaucracy." But there are important distinctions to be made, and this kind of apathy can be fatal to democracy.

If we are to be led, let us not be led blindly, but intelligently, gently, with our eyes open. If we are to continue to be a government "by the people," let us become informed about the methods and purposes of propaganda, so we can be the masters, not the slaves of our destiny.

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