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Reception & Propaganda
A Quick Lesson in Propaganda
Propaganda, n. 1. any organization or movement working for the propagation of
particular ideas, doctrines, practices, etc. 2. the ideas, doctrines, practices, etc.
spread in this way. (Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary)
Propaganda: 3. a storyforming/storytelling technique used to impact an audience in
specific ways, often employed to instigate deliberation and/or action. (Dramatica)
Propaganda is a wondrous and dangerous story device. Its primary usage in stories
is as a method for an author to impact an audience long after they have experienced the
story itself. Through the use of propaganda, an author can inspire an audience to think
certain ways, think about certain things, behave certain ways, and take specific actions.
Like fire and firearms, propaganda can be used constructively and destructively and does
not contain an inherent morality. Any morality involved comes from the minds of the author
and his audience.
This section is not about the morality of propaganda. It is designed as a primer on how to
create and employ propaganda in stories. With that in mind, let's get down to the
The Basics of Propaganda
The human mind seeks to understand itself and the world around it. It does this through
various ways including organizing information into meaningful patterns. Depending on the
quantity of the information and the accuracy of its interpretation, a mind will identify a
pattern (or several potential patterns) and supply the apparently "missing"
pieces to make the pattern, and therefore meaning, complete. This pattern matching and
filling in of missing pieces is intrinsic to the processes that create the human
"mind." By choosing which piece(s) of the storyform to omit, authors can
manipulate the impact a story will have on the minds of their audiences.
In its most basic form, propaganda is a way for authors to have an audience share their
point of view. Closed (or complete) stories allow authors to present their points of view
in the form of an argument which the audience can then take or leave. Open (or incomplete)
stories require their audiences to supply the missing pieces in order to get meaning from
the story. Just creating an open story, however, does not create propaganda. There must be
a pattern to what is missing.
The amount and nature of the missing pieces have a tremendous effect on the story's
propagandistic impact. If you leave too much out of your story, an audience may not make
the effort to "fill-in-the-blanks." The story may then be interpreted by the
audience as meaningless. If, however, you selectively leave out specific pieces of the
storyform, the audience may unknowingly fill in those holes with aspects of its personal
experience. In this way, the story changes from an argument made by the author to
the audience, to an argument made by the author and the audience. Unwittingly, the
audience begins to share the author's point of view and perhaps even become coconspirators
in its propagation: ergo, propaganda.
Since a propaganda story is based upon a tenuous relationship between an audience and an
author, both perspectives should be considered to understand the techniques that can be
used and the results that can be achieved.
Knowing (or preparing) your audience can have a tremendous effect on how your propaganda
will impact them. Here are some rules of thumb:
- The more specific the symbols you use to encode your story, the more limited an audience
it will affect. The less specific the symbols, the greater potential audience.
- The more specific the symbols used to encode the story, the greater the likelihood it
will have an impact on the portion of the audience that understands the symbols. The less
specific the symbols, the less impact the story will have.
- The more familiar an audience is with the symbols used to encode a story, the more
susceptible they are to propaganda. The less familiar, the less susceptible.
Here are the things an author should consider while creating a propaganda story:
1. Nature of Impact
How you want to impact your audience? Do you wish to play with your audience's:
- Motivations (what drives them)
- Methodologies (how they go about doing things)
- Purposes (what they are striving for)
- Means of evaluation (how they measure their progress - their personal yardsticks)?
Pick only one as the area of primary impact. This will become the area of the storyform
that you purposefully omit when storytelling. The remaining three areas will be used to
support your intent by drawing attention away from the missing piece(s).
2. Area of Impact
What part of your audience's world-view do you wish to impact?
- View of the world around them - "objective reality" (Objective Story)
- View of relationships (Subjective Story)
- View of themselves (Main Character)
- View of others (Obstacle Character)
Choose one of the perspectives. This will be the domain in which to place the
"hole" in the storyform. The area of impact determines which part of your
audience's world-view the propaganda will "infect."
3. Type of Impact: Specific vs. General
Do you want the impact on your audience to be of a specific nature, or of a broader, more
The more specific you make the propaganda, the more specific and predictable its impact
will be on an audience. The upside (from an author's point of view) is that specific
behavior (mental or physical) can be promoted or modified. The downside is that specific
propaganda is more easily identifiable and therefore contestable by the audience.
Specific propaganda is achieved by intentionally not encoding selected story
appreciations, such as the Main Character's motivation or the story Outcome (Success or
Failure). The audience will supply the missing piece from its own personal experiences
(e.g. the Main Character's motivation in Thelma and Louise.; what happened to
Louise in Texas that prevents her from ever going back is specifically not
mentioned in the film - that blank is left for the audience to fill).
The more general you make the propaganda, the less specific but all-pervasive its impact
will be on an audience. Instead of focusing impact on the audience's motivations,
methodologies, purposes, or means of evaluation, generalized propaganda will tend to bias
the audience's perspectives of their world. The upside (from an author's point of view) is
that generalized propaganda is difficult for an audience to identify and therefore more
difficult to combat than the specific form of propaganda. The downside is that it does not
promote any specific type of behavior or thought process and its direct impact is less
General propaganda is achieved by intentionally not encoding entire areas of the story's
structure or dynamics. For example, by leaving out almost all forms of the story's
internal means of evaluation, Natural Born Killers forces its audience to focus on
the methodologies involved and question its own (the members of the audience) means of
4. Degree of Impact
To what degree do you wish to impact your audience? The degree to which you can impact an
audience is dependent on many variables not the least of which are your storytelling
skills and the nature of the audience itself. There are some basic guidelines, however,
that can mitigate and sometimes supersede those variables when skillfully employed.
Shock as Propaganda
One tried-and-true method is to control what an audience knows about the story before
experiencing the storytelling process so that you can shock them. Within the context of
the story itself (as opposed to marketing or word-of-mouth), an author can prepare the
audience by establishing certain givens, then purposefully break the storyform
(destroy the givens) to shock or jar the audience. This hits the audience at a
Preconscious level by soliciting an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction. This type of
propaganda is the most specific and immediately jarring on its audience. Two films that
employed this technique to great effect are Psycho and The Crying Game.
Psycho broke the storyform to impact the audience's preconscious by killing the
main character twenty minutes or so into the film (the "real" story about the
Bates family then takes over). The shock value was enhanced through marketing by
having the main character played by big box office draw Janet Leigh (a good storytelling
choice at the time) and the marketing gimmick that no one would be allowed into the movie
after the first five or ten minutes. This "gimmick" was actually essential for
the propaganda to be effective. It takes time for an audience to identify on a personal
level with a main character. Coming in late to the film would not allow enough time for
the audience member to identify with Janet Leigh's character and her death would have
little to no impact.
The Crying Game used a slightly different process to achieve a similar impact. The
first twenty minutes or so of the film are used to establish a bias to the main
character's (and audience's) view of reality. The "girlfriend" is clearly
established except for one important fact. That "fact," because it is not
explicitly denoted, is supplied by the mind of the main character (and the minds of the
audience members). By taking such a long time to prep the audience, it comes as a shock
when we (both main character and audience) find out that she is a he.
Awareness as Propaganda
Another method is to be up-front about the nature of the propaganda, letting your audience
know what you are doing as you do it to them. This impacts an audience at a Conscious
level where they must actively consider the pros and cons of the issues. The propaganda
comes from controlling the givens on the issues being discussed, while the audience
focuses on which side of the issues they believe in.
A filmic example of this technique can be seen in JFK. By choosing a controversial
topic (the assassination of President Kennedy) and making an overly specific argument as
to what parties were involved in the conspiracy to execute and cover-up the assassination,
Oliver Stone was able to focus his audience's attention on how "they" got away
with it. The issue of who "they" were was suspiciously contentious as the
resulting media bru-ha-ha over the film indicated. Who "they" were, however, is
not the propaganda. The propaganda came in the form the story's given which is that
Lee Harvey Oswald had help. By the end of the story, audiences found themselves arguing
over which of the parties in the story were or were not participants in the
conspiracy, accepting the possibility that people other than Oswald may have been
Conditioning as Propaganda
Presenting an audience with an alternative life experience is yet another way to impact
your audience. By ignoring (or catering to) an audience's cultural bias, you can present
your story as an alternative reality. This impacts an audience by undermining or
reinforcing their own personal Memories. By experiencing the story, the message/meaning of
the story becomes part of the audience's memory base.
The nature of the propaganda, however, is that the story lacks context, which must be
supplied by the audience. Thus personalized, the story memory is automatically triggered
when an experience in the audience's real life summons similarly stored memories. Through
repeated use, an audience's "sensibilities" become conditioned.
In Conditioning propaganda, audience attention is directed to causal relationships like When
A also B (spatial), and If C then D (temporal). The mechanism of this
propaganda is to leave out a part of the causal relationships in the story, such as When
A also B and If ?? then D. By leaving out one part, the objective contextual meaning
is then supplied automatically by the audience. The audience will replace ?? with
something from its own experience base, not consciously considering that a piece is
missing because it will have emotionally arrived at the contradiction: When A also B
and then D.
This type of propaganda is closest to the traditional usage of the term with
respect to stories, entertainment, and advertising. For example, look at much of the
tobacco and alcohol print advertising. Frequently the Main Character (the type of person
to whom the advertisement is supposed to appeal) is attractive, has someone attractive
with them, and appears to be well situated in life. The inference is that when you
smoke or drink, you are also cool, and if you are cool then you will be rich and
attractive. The connection between "cool" and "rich and attractive" is
not really in the advertisement but an audience often makes that connection for itself. In
Conditioning propaganda, more than in the other three forms of propaganda, the degree of
impact on your audience is extremely dependent on your audience's life experience outside
the story experience .
Crimes and Misdemeanors is a film example that employs this conditioning technique
of propaganda. The unusual aspect of the film is that it has two completely separate
stories in it. The "Crimes" story involves a self-interested man who gets away
with murder and personally becomes completely OK with it (a Success/Good story). The
"Misdemeanors" story involves a well meaning man who loses his job, his girl,
and is left miserable (a Failure/Bad story). By supplying two competing stories instead of
one, the audience need not supply its own experiences to arrive at a false context while
viewing this work. Audiences will come to stories, however, with a particular cultural
bias. In our culture, Failure/Bad stories which happen to nice people are regrettable, but
familiar; Success/Good stories about murderers are uncommon and even "morally
The propaganda comes into effect when the audience experiences in its own life a
Failure/Bad scenario that triggers a recollection of the Success/Good story about
forgetting the grief of having murdered - an option that the audience would not normally
have considered. Lacking an objective contextual meaning that sets one over the other,
both stories are given equal consideration as viable solutions. Thus, what was once
inconceivable due to a cultural or personal bias is now automatically seen as a possible
avenue for problem-solving.
Misdirection as Propaganda
The most subtle and possibly most effective form of propaganda from a single exposure is
the use of misdirection as a way to impact an audience's Subconscious. Like "smoke
and mirrors" used by magicians, this form of propaganda requires focusing the
audience's Conscious attention in one place while the real impact is made in the
Subconscious. Fortunately for propagandistic minded authors, this is one of the easiest
forms of propaganda to create.
This technique comes from omitting parts of the storyform from your storytelling. What you
leave out becomes the audience's blind spot, and the dynamic partner to the omitted
storyform piece becomes the audience's focus. The focus is where your audience's attention
will be drawn (the smoke and mirrors). The blind spot is where your audience personalizes
the story by "filling-in-the-blank." The story's argument is thus linked
directly to the audience's subconscious, based on the context in which the story is
Let's look at some dynamic pairs of partners that appear in a storyform. The following
pairs concern the nature of the impact on your audience:
Motivation <p;> Purpose
Means of Evaluation <p;> Methodology
Should you wish to impact your audience's motivations, omit a particular motivation in
the story . The audience, then, focused on the purpose they can see will automatically
supply a motivation that seems viable to them (e.g.: Thelma and Louise ).
Here are the storyform dynamic pairs that relate to story/audience perspectives:
Objective Perspective <p;> Subjective Perspective
Main Character Perspective <p;> Obstacle Character Perspective
Combining a nature with a perspective gives an author greater control over a
story's propaganda. For example, if you wish to impact your audience in how they view the
means of evaluation employed by the world around them, omit the Objective Story means of
evaluation elements and the audience's attention will be distracted by focusing on the
methodologies employed (e.g.: Natural Born Killers).
A Word Of Warning
Propaganda is powerful but using it involves risks. It is like a virus or engaging in germ
warfare. Once an audience is exposed to a propagandistic message, the only way they can
neutralize it is to balance it with an equal but opposite force. Audiences frequently
don't like to think they are being manipulated. If the audience becomes aware of the
nature of your propaganda, the equal but opposite force can take the form of a backlash
against the author(s) and the propaganda itself. Look at the strong reaction against
advertisers who "target" their advertising to specific demographic groups (e.g.
African Americans, women, Generation X, etc.), particularly if they are trying to sell
liquor, tobacco products, or other items considered "vices" in America.
Once released, propaganda is difficult to control and frequently becomes subject to real
world influences. Sometimes propaganda can benefit from real world coincidences: The
China Syndrome's mild propaganda about the dangers of nuclear power plants got a big
boost in affecting its audience because of the Three Mile Island incident; the media
coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder case may not have tainted potential jurors, but Natural
Born Killers' propaganda against the media's sensationalization of violence got a
little extra juice added to its punch. Often real life or the passage of time can
undermine the effectiveness of propaganda: it is possible that Reefer Madness may
have been effective when it first came out, but audiences today find its propaganda
against drug use obvious, simplistic, risible and, more importantly, ineffective.
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