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Is it Persuasion or Propaganda? How to Tell the Difference

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

With so much information coming at us all the time, we need to slow down and think about the messages we hear. Where do we get our information? Is it accurate? How do we measure accuracy in these days when opinion often masquerades as fact? Do we actively seek out information about subjects that will challenge or confirm rumors?

I will attempt to shine a light on this dilemma by providing tools that will help all of us tell the difference between persuasion and propaganda. Let's start with a few definitions so that we can share meaning going forward in the post.

Is the Message Meant to Persuade?

According to The American Heritage College Dictionary, to persuade means: "To induce to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty."

What is Propaganda?

Turning again to The American Heritage College Dictionary, propaganda is defined as: "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of its propagators."

Persuasive Technique

The structure of a persuasive text or speech does not have to follow that of the classical argument. However, it helps to understand the basic outline of an intentionally persuasive message. Whether delivering the argument in a debate, in a corporate presentation, or in an essay, each person making the argument will follow a similar linear structure.

  • Introduce subject and provide background relatable to their audience or reader

  • Clearly state both their claims and proof that supports the argument

  • Include anticipatory statements about the opposing viewpoints

  • Conclude in an effective way that summarizes main points

The writer or presenter must know the audience well in order to create an argument that will grab attention and apply to the daily lives of people listening or reading. For example, if the arguer wants to convince those in a particular voting district to support a proposition about building breakwaters to protect property on the coast, he or she will have a more amenable audience in beach front communities than farther inland.

A presenter with a goal of informing and changing minds must do research to prove that the argument not only has merit, but that the stance taken in the presentation is backed by fact. He or she must also present the evidence clearly. In the example above, that would mean quoting geologists about the rate of erosion in the hills close to the shoreline, which threatens houses. Of course, another aspect of the research should center on measuring the number of inches or feet the oceans near the shore have risen in a given number of years and how much they are expected to rise in the future. Finally, there are budgetary and tax considerations that must be put in context.

Next, the presenter will have to anticipate what the opposition might say. Bringing up opposing arguments and dispelling them with research findings is a proactive way of addressing concerns some in the audience may have that could derail the project when it's time to cast a ballot.

End on a strong note. Summarize the argument and the main points and emphasize how the subject is important to the audience.

The main technique here? Establish relatability with and relevance to the audience; research should prove the thesis, or main idea; and anticipate and address opposite points of view. By understanding how classic arguments are formed and expressed, audience members are in a good position to evaluate the effectiveness and truth worthiness of the message.

Propaganda Technique

Propaganda. The word practically drips with negative connotations. Whether deemed positive because we agree with the ideology expressed or negative because we witness the resulting harm to humanity, all propaganda utilizes similar tools and thrives in our sound-bite era of social media and the Internet. Value judgements aside, let's find out more about types of propaganda and how messages and images draw in an audience to do the bidding of the propagandist.

At its very basic level, propaganda appeals to emotion and uses cultural symbols and myths that are deeply ingrained in public consciousness. The messages are structured to support the organization's purpose or product, or it may be designed to meet the goals of a single leader at the top of the hierarchy. Images and messages may engender a sense of duty, bring us to the point of anger, or make us fearful. With further exposure to the messages, the emotional reactions share a purpose: bring us to action; fight for the cause; or vote for the leader.

How does propaganda make emotional appeals? Here are a few of the techniques used by propagandists to influence a targeted audience:

Glittering Generalities

The phrases used in this technique are immediately understood by the audience. The concepts express a feeling because the words hold deep significance, be it cultural or religious. What’s more, facts are not used to establish the phrases as true. There is no argument here, only phrases that appeal to beliefs and values held by the audience such as glory, honor, family, hope for peace.

In advertising, the phrase “Canada Dry Ginger Ale Tastes like Love” tries to equate a soft drink to the human experience of love.

In the political sphere, the generalizations often take the form of a slogan that also employs the bandwagon technique.

John McCain: Country First

Forward Together: Hilary Clinton


Advertisers use words like “Consumer’s #1 choice,” “America’s choice,” beckoning people to join the crowd. The appeal is to those who want to fit in with others.


Advertisers and politicians alike depend on celebrities to sell their products or support their ideology. Hollywood actors, well-known businesspeople, and popular, retired public servants lend credibility to the messages and help the propagandist establish a larger following.

Card Stacking

When companies leave out negative details about their brand from advertising, they are engaged in card stacking. An example that immediately comes to mind is an ad for a credit card that omits the fees incurred while only talking about money earned by using the card.

In the political sector, a candidate may advertise his support of a new law that cuts taxes without disclosing that these cuts will curtail important public benefits.

Name Calling

This technique is a way of discrediting a competitor. Some ads directly compare the favored brand – the one being advertised – to the competitor’s product. Politicians go for the jugular by demeaning an entire ideology through insults. The emotional appeal in both of these examples is to fear and distrust the opposition.

Watch Words about Propaganda

Understand how propaganda techniques manipulate people through emotional appeals. Because it isn't fact-based, be careful how you respond to these messages. Of course, not all of them result in negative consequences, but even the positive emotional appeals should be acknowledged for what they are: an attempt to sway an audience toward a desired mind set or buying decision.

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