Propaganda 101: How to Decode Political Ads

10/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Stephen Ducat Clinical Psychologist; Naturopathic Doctor; Co-founder of; Author, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity

The ultimate political power can be defined as the power to define -- the ability to wield such hegemony over the technologies of representation that one can determine the meanings words have for others. To uncritically employ terms and phrases like "liberal," "moderate," "conservative," "elitist," "family values," "patriotism," "Big Government," "national security," is to introject a linguistic Trojan horse that contains the worldview of those who rule. In so doing, our masters' imperatives take on the appearance of our own common sense.

Theodor Adorno once said that propaganda is psychoanalysis in reverse. One of our aims as analysts is to make the unconscious conscious, to render what playwright and psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls the "unthought known" more thinkable. Ideally, this work can help us know and bear what we are afraid to know, to think and feel in more complex ways, and to remember our dreams and reflect on their multiple layers of meaning.

Propaganda, on the other hand, functions to make us literally simple minded, to limit our thoughts and emotions, and channel them in a direction congenial to the interests of those in power. The goal of propaganda is not to wake us up but to put us to sleep -- whether that is the cozy somnambulation of shopping or the paranoid and violent sleep of the fascist rally. The aim of advertisers, commercial or political, is not just to have us dream but to put us in a dream of their own design. In so doing, they tell us who we are -- which is to say, who they need us to be.

That said, not all forms of persuasive communication are equivalent. There is a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, propaganda, with its ultimate aims of mystification, the facilitating of domination, and submission to authority -- and, on the other hand, subversive counterpropaganda that aims at transparency, reciprocity, and collective and democratic self-authorization. Or, to put it more succinctly, there is a difference between gleefully spinning stories without regard for the truth, which the Right has been astonishingly good at -- and weaving the truth into an emotionally compelling narrative that inspires people to act, which the Left has been appallingly bad at.

As a side note, I'm aware of the understandable post-modern allergy many of us have to notions of truth. But appreciating the multiple cultural and individual perspectives on what constitutes truth does not mean we have to exile ourselves from the "reality-based community" (as a Bush White House aide once referred to those engaged in the quaint practice of journalism).

That consideration aside, I want to share with you a few ways we can reverse-engineer the dream-work of advertisers, and thus show how they create meaning. There are a number of approaches that are often used in conjunction with one another, whether the products are cars or candidates. The first can be called referential because the ad relies on a referent from the larger social world, something that is used to lend its meaning to the product. The referent can be a celebrity, an animal, a landscape, a piece of music, or, more often than not, a familiar or archetypal story in which the product plays a starring role. For example, a beer has its uses (and its pleasures), but to make it mean something, an object that the culture has already imbued with meaning -- say, a macho athlete known for his many sexual conquests -- must be recruited into the ad, and placed in a narrative that can allow its significance to transfer to the beer.

This highlights another aspect of referential ads. They present the product as a kind of intermediate currency -- something that can bring us experiences we are told we could never have on our own. As one frozen vegetable ad says, "Birds Eye peas will do anything to attract your husband's attention." In other word, the target demographic of middle class females is told, "You, dear lonely housewife, may not be interesting enough to command your spouse's desire. But these peas are. By serving our libido-enhancing legumes, you will become exciting by association." One way we can understand this process is as the fetishism of commodities at the consumption end of capitalist production. In other words, not only do commercial goods appear to act as agents in the economy. But in private life they are endowed with potency we seem to lack.

A second strategy employed in advertising can be called the "get'm sick, get'm well" approach. A disturbing emotion, like fear or envy, is generated in the first half of the ad narrative, and is associated with the competing product or candidate. This is antidoted by the second half of the ad, in which a reassuring feeling, like safety or pride, is elicited, and linked to the commodity or politician being promoted. I'm reminded of an old Gahan Wilson cartoon. A group of wholesome-looking, all-American kids are selling lemonade at their makeshift street corner stand. The sign says, "Lemonade, Five Cents." Around the corner we see customers gripping their bellies in agony and lurching toward another stand, where the kids with a more demonic countenance are sitting behind a sign that reads, "Lemonade Antidote, Fifty Dollars." Get'm sick, get'm well.

One of the most frequent manifestations of this in political ads is the generation and amelioration of national security anxiety. While most often stated indirectly through symbols, allegories, and metaphors, the generic, subtextual message of such ads is usually something like this: You helpless and vulnerable citizens have much to fear. The terrorists, evildoers, and disgruntled swarthy hoards from the global South are after you and your family. They are massing at our porous borders as we speak. You know you are too weak and frightened to defend yourself. You are scared, and filled with shame over your impotence. And, my opponent, who is even weaker, wants to coddle, surrender to, and be sodomized by those who threaten you. But if you elect me, I will not only protect you but also undo the years of humiliation you have been forced to suffer. My superior capacity to mobilize ruthless violence will keep you safe and avenge the unforgettable slights and psychic wounds that still haunt you. Most importantly, by putting me in power and letting me act in your name, you will share in my power and potency.

There is a third feature of many political ads that, though not a technique, powerfully, if often unconsciously, informs the process of creating meaning: projection. It has become commonplace for politicians to accuse their opponents of something of which they themselves are guilty. When done consciously, it can help to preempt scrutiny or at least blunt the eventual effects of the truth leaking out. This was obviously the case with McCain campaign's attacks on Obama for having remote and superficial ties to failed mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, while all along a major campaign figure, his senior adviser and campaign vice chairman, Rick Davis, was not only a former lobbyist for these companies but had been on a $15,000 a month retainer from Freddie Mac as recently as last month.

But sometimes the projection in ads is unconscious. And, as with anyone who uses this common defense mechanism, there is a motivation on the part of the candidate, and perhaps even among his close allies, to not know something- a quality or feature of the candidate's history that is so unbearable it must be repudiated, attributed to another, and attacked.

In this McCain ad, meant to be an inspiring affirmation of the Republican nominee's character, we see all of the features I've outlined being displayed -- the use of a referent, the get'm-sick-get'm well approach, and projection.

Among the many referents the ad employs, Winston Churchill, of course, figures prominently. He is not only exhorts us to fight, fight, fight. But he signifies the "Good War", which Bush and McCain have long sought to conflate with the US occupation of Iraq. In case Churchill's early appearance in the ad is too subtle for some viewers, his voice reappears later in the ad to narrate, and thus rewrite, McCain's POW story (more about that shortly).

Theodore Roosevelt, the founding father of the 20th century American imperium, is another major referent. Though no doubt placed there because of his status as a fantasied hero and Mt. Rushmore icon, there is another reason Roosevelt is an object of identification for McCain. Like McCain, TR relished the opportunity to affirm his manhood by smiting those of other nations who got in the way of American global dominance.

In this Republican manufactured dreamscape, the "get'm well" aspects are designed to antidote an implied "get'm sick" condition that is imagined to precede the narrative of the ad. This occurs at several levels. More consciously, there is a retort to a fictive opponent who has called for surrender. McCain implores, "Do not yield...we're Americans. We'll never surrender. They will!" At a more unconscious level, we can read this as a repudiation and projection of his own shame-filled history of submission to and collaboration with his North Vietnamese captors (something most ordinary mortals would do under torture). In his case, this involved making false confessions and videos.

Interestingly, in 1992 there was a Republican-run Senatorial hearing on the Pentagon's classified archive of POW/MIA files. John McCain single-handedly blocked the release of those files, which fellow Republicans attributed to his desire to cover up his own record of compliance with his jailers. As Army Corporal Bob Dumas said back then, "He gave the enemy information they wanted." And now, to salvage his hero status for both himself and the electorate, McCain is giving the public the information he wants us to have. He would rather be viewed as the "maverick" that did nothing but defy his captors.

A projection is also discernable in McCain's off-handed swipe at Obama's supposed entitlement to the presidency (that uppity Negro just doesn't know his place), which can be read as more than a subtle racist sentiment. It is also a denial of the privileges accorded McCain by virtue of being the son of an important Admiral -- not just his legacy admission to Annapolis, where he graduated near the bottom of his class, but also the special treatment his military patrimony accorded him at the Hanoi Hilton.

By way of concluding, let me say that ads are reassuringly discrete and identifiable examples of propaganda. The problem is that ads are no longer confined to measurable commercial time or space slots. The world is filled with supraliminal and subliminal product placement -- whether that product is a commodity, a politician, an ideology, or a policy. Campaigns are now like Christmas; the shopping season never ends.

I'm Stephen Ducat, and I approve this message.