There I was, blithely running on about the altruism of George Clooney and Jeff Skoll for taking such noble risks with their wonderful, socially relevant new films. Their innovation has been the single most promising development I’ve observed in the past year and I talk about it all the time, as if it were my own accomplishment (which in a way it is, since I thought it up and started promoting it in my book several years before I ever heard of Participant Productions).
But a few days ago I ran into the first critic of the idea – someone who wrote a comment on my blog entry saying, “Far be it from me to question anyone’s sincerity or motivation. But let us also acknowledge that propagandists are nothing if not sincere. And let’s not exaggerate the degree of actual financial risk incurred by these super-rich propagandists. Finally, let’s not cheapen the word ‘altruism.‘”
Such cynicism. Nevertheless, one has to expect some people to react that way. And so it’s time for me to reckon with this word “propaganda” – a strangely pejorative term in Western society. What does it mean and how bad is it, anyhow?
Nicholas Reeveshas written a relevant book on the subject, The Power of Film Propaganda. He accepts the definition proposed by Terence Qualter: “Propaganda is the deliberate attempt by the few to influence the attitudes and behavior of the many by the manipulation of symbolic communication.” Reeves points out a couple of interesting facts: First, the truth or falsity of the message is not what makes it propaganda. Instead, the defining quality is how the message is intended to be used. Second, propaganda, by definition, is intentional. It is perfectly possible to influence large numbers of persons without intending to do so, but such outcomes cannot properly be considered as propaganda.
According to this definition, people who try to influence each other individually or in small batches are not propagandists. Almost everybody does try to influence others – usually in a personal way. Parents influence their children. Teachers influence their students. Therapists influence their clients. Managers influence their employees. None of these relationships constitute propaganda. As a professor I hope I had some influence over my students and colleagues – sometimes even in large batches. Occasionally I had to teach 300 students in one lecture hall, so that makes me a propagandist, I suppose. What about pastors? How large does their congregation have to be for them to qualify as propagandists?
The people whom I respect most are those who want to make a difference in the world. Since the most effective way to do that is through mass communication, evidently the people I respect are propagandists. Of course, I admire only those propagandists whose ideas and values I honor. It’s the validity of their message that matters – not the sheer fact that it is delivered by just a few persons to large audiences. I wouldn’t admire Clooney and Skoll if their movies were promoting foolish ideas, and my admiration of their work is not diminished by calling them “propagandists.” What will benefit humanity most is storytelling that conveys wise messages and influences large audiences to live in more constructive, sustainable ways. If you want to call that propaganda, fine. It sure beats telling stories that amount to silly twaddle. We’ve got a world to save, people!
There is another question that’s important: To what extent is propaganda effective in changing the hearts and minds of audiences? I’ve said that storytelling is immensely powerful, but you may doubt it. In fact, there’s a lot of research on the question, and the conclusions of different studies do not always agree. Here I’ll contrast two books, Reeves’s The Power of Film Propaganda, and a book by Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers, Entertainment-Education: A Communication Strategy for Social Change.
Reeves compares the success of propaganda films made by Britons, Soviets, German Nazis, and Italians between 1917 – 1948, which were intended to stir up the patriotism of their respective citizens during and after wars. For some reason, he does not cover the Hollywood films made during World War II, notably by Frank Capra, or the numerous pro-war films featuring John Wayne (see photo). Reeves points out that some of the finest films ever made were propaganda movies, such as Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which glorified Nazi Germany. Yet he concludes that public opinion was not affected by these powerful images as much as the creators had expected. The truly effective films were also entertaining. People went to see them for the same reason they would choose other movies: great stories, excellent photography and music, and fascinating characters. Unless these qualities were present, people tended to avoid shows that they knew had been produced by the state to promote its ideology. Reeves wrote,
“Of the films that did reach that mass audience, those that were positively received were almost always films that confirmed and reinforced existing ideas and attitudes – films that set out to challenge and change those ideas and attitudes proved almost entirely unsuccessful….In very different ways, therefore, the history of film propaganda in Nazi Germany and Britain during the Second World War serves to demonstrate not the power of film propaganda, but rather the powerful constraints within which such propaganda operates. …Cinema audiences exercised considerable discrimination, both in the films that they chose to see and in the meanings that they constructed in the films that they did see.”
Reeves concludes, then, that propaganda films were far less effective than expected, even by Goebbels, the most powerful propagandist of all time.
However, filmmakers need not give up hope of making a difference, for other studies reveal much stronger effects. The book by Singhal and Rogers does not refer to “propaganda” at all, but “education,” presented in the context of programs that are entertaining. By now, the techniques for making influential educational dramas have been well documented and are being used in many countries around the world. The approach was invented in Peru in 1969 in a television soap opera called Simplemente Maria about a single mother who enrolled in adult literacy classes in the evenings and climbed the social ladder by hard work with her trusty Singer sewing machine. Lots of other young female viewers enrolled in adult literacy and sewing classes. The show was broadcast in other Latin American countries, always with the same impressive results.
Between 1972 and 1982, Miguel Sabido produced one new soap opera per year in Mexico, which produced dramatic public responses in terms of adult literacy, family planning, and gender equality. These shows were commercial successes even while they were influencing Mexican society measurably. Sabido always began the story with the characters holding views typical of the larger society. Throughout the year, they encountered situations that challenged their assumptions and made them consider making changes, such as adopting birth control. As the audience followed their story, they adopted the same values. Everywhere in Mexico the shows were discussed, and during that period Mexico’s birthrates dropped more than in any other country.
Edutainment television has been introduced to many other countries, where the social messages are proving to be remarkably influential. In South Africa, for example, there is a mass media campaign called “Soul City,” which promotes health and education. Soap operas are unmatched as a means of promoting the prevention of HIV in Africa. By the definition proposed above, these programs can certainly be considered “propaganda,” but I can’t imagine anyone objecting to them for that reason.
If propaganda comprises only productions that are created specifically to sway the opinions of viewers, then relatively few such programs exist. But if we look at shows in general, we’ll find an enormous number of influential productions, most of which are not created deliberately to change the viewer’s mind.
In fact, everything we do in the presence of other people may influence someone, whether we intend it or not. The same goes for filmmaking. It’s impossible to avoid influencing people, unless you become a hermit, and even then others will inhale air molecules that you’ve exhaled. We are all connected, and we all make a difference, for good or ill. It’s a delusion to try to avoid making a difference, so we’re better off purposefully leaving the best possible mark on the world.
The films that show violence teach people to solve their problems by resorting to violence. Women learned to smoke from watching glamorous movie stars in the 1930s. People are learning to stop smoking by watching shows today that no longer show characters smoking. We can teach ways of living sustainably in the world by producing shows about lovable characters who take care of the environment.
You can’t help sending messages by the way you live, just as you can’t help speaking prose. We may as well decide what messages we’ll try to send, even if, in forming our conscious intention, we become “propagandists.” Likewise, filmmakers can't help influencing their audiences. They have no choice. But they can choose how to influence society.
I can live with that. Can you?