Marketing and propaganda are not two subjects from separate books. There is a huge overlap.
All marketing is not propaganda and all propaganda is not marketing. Propaganda is a technique of doing marketing.
Let’s define these concepts before we talk about the differences, overlaps and where you stand.
Just like ideas, definitions are almost endless. Every professional has their own combination of words that they use when asked, what is marketing. Here’s a pretty decent one: “Marketing is the activity, and processes, for creating, communicating, delivering, offerings that have value for customers, clients, and partners alike.”
Marketing is a way to influence people. There is no secret, and there is no attempt to pass it off as anything but a company trying to gain share in the market.
There is a marketer behind most communication that we consume.
But how did it evolve from town-criers to target ads on your devices, in your news feeds, on your home screens? Was it propaganda then? Is it propaganda now?
Just like marketing, there are quite a few answers to ‘what is propaganda?’ The definition on the first result page of Google says, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” and supporting this, the other meaning for the word, is displayed as “a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.” which shows the connotation that is associated with the term today.
Today, the most recognisable forms of propaganda are therefore, religious and political. Sometimes, both.
But is Propaganda now in itself a Marketing tactic?
Propaganda works. There is no doubt about it. Look at history and you’ll know how it has made and destroyed nations.
Also, propaganda lasts longer.
When they started selling vacuum cleaners through extensive advertisements, there was a peak in sales of dustpans and brushes too. This is called the spill-over effect. What was sold along with the product was the idea of indoor cleanliness. Today, it has become a part of our lifestyles.
In marketing terms, propaganda enabled the creation of markets that were more stable. Of course, there were zero chances of stability in the minds of the consumer regarding their freedom of choice between various options (thankfully) but propaganda made it possible for people to have certain reactions in the market which cancelled out the whimsical aspect of choices.
We are hardwired for empathy. Rational appeals are not exactly the mass favourites. They are healthy food because rational arguments tend to raise questions instead of answering them.
Between the 500–3000 marketing communications that an average human consumes in a day, yours has to be truly exceptional to not only be rational but also demand attention, make them question and finally compel them to take the action of purchase. On the other hand, emotional appeal simulates them to have impulses that they already have experienced.
How is Propaganda influencing us all?
An individual’s buying decisions are influenced by many psychological factors like perception, motivation, learning, beliefs, and attitudes. When we talk about the mass, it becomes necessary for a marketing strategist to generalise.
Most want to be a part of “the group.” The theory of “groupthink” comes into play. With theories of marketing, it has become easier to convince and manipulate groups into making purchases for the most inane products and services. The marketer creates the want, and the herds become confirming consumers, with everyone reinforcing a purchase on everyone else.
The use of persuasion is part and parcel of the human apparatus in order to adapt, especially when we are unwilling to undertake the effort that the change demands. In these cases, persuasion and convincing are slow doses of change which we accept gradually like baby steps instead of a cold-turkey approach.
Is there Psychology behind Propaganda?
Both Marketing and Propaganda are powerful tools. Both employ the same media formats and platforms to spread their messages. Both have similar functions like, to influence attitudes, emotions, opinions and ultimately, the actions of people.
The most visible aspect of the difference, where the line is drawn between the two is the truth. Propaganda tries to pass itself off as truth.
There is an old saying, “when we do it, it’s marketing. When they do it, it’s propaganda”
It sounds humorous, but has a lot of meaning behind it.
Does someone consuming Propaganda lead to direct action?
This is the process from the time a person consumes marketing communication and makes a purchase. Between market potential to suspects becoming prospects and finally consumers, the strategy should be strong as well as porous enough to pass through this filter.
Strategy is the name of the game. Propaganda is now as prevalent in the marketing industry (if not more so in the digital world we now all live in) as it is in religion and politics.
That is where ethics come into the picture. In such a competitive and saturated world, it becomes difficult to not sell your soul for a piece of the market share, but just like branding, in the long run, to stay true to the heart, exaggeration must not be at the cost of truth.
Is social media itself Propaganda?
It is said that since the advertiser pays the piper, they must call the tune. But, if the platform publishes biased news, it tends to lose circulation when the bias is realised by the consumer. Content producers live in the same environment as the rest of the consumers, and so do copywriters, editors and marketing strategists. Everyone is subject to propaganda.
Then do people power the media? Definitely. But they are not to be credited solely. It is a whole ecosystem where everyone and everything is interdependent. It is a free world.
Companies today will find it difficult to run on a product-centric approach of marketing. The strategy of noise doesn’t work today. Instead of creating a want in the consumer to sell a product, marketers are focusing on targeting their needs in order to sell.
Propaganda views crowds as faceless groups devoid of individualism. With tools that we have today like big data for targeted campaigns, marketing has become consumer-centric, it has become more personal, humanised. It speaks to you on your terms, reflects your heart at its best, not to your vanity or ego.
The consumer is empowered and if propaganda works, it is up to the consumer. They have become sophisticated at telling the difference between good marketing and subtle propaganda. The skip ad button is very accessible. Consumers are free agents of their will.
Finally, are we numb to all the Propaganda out there now?
If marketing and advertising is successful in selling a product, competitors will find it necessary to discover other products or characteristics of products in line with the consumer’s ideas. In a way, this is counter-propaganda where the consumer influences the producer to customise their provision, rather than have their ideals changed. This creates a win-win environment where consumers are not sold leftovers of the world war, but marketing compelling improvements of the product to fit their needs and also constantly increasing their own standards of wants.
Thanks to copywriters, advertisers, press agents, public relations managers and all the divers of the media industry (both good and bad,) it may result because of saturation, the consumer becomes impervious to propaganda. Whether a person acts wisely or foolishly, they will take responsibility and reap benefits or penalties for their own actions. Eventually, learn to consume communication discriminatingly in the light of all the information available.
Today’s customer will not take words at their face value. We question everything. Propaganda merchants beware, for we have seach engines and review sites available at the tip of our fingertips, and we’re not afraid to use them.