Tag Archives: persuasive techniques

The Not-So-Surprising Similarity Between Propaganda, Advertising, and Statistics

23 Apr

Look up propaganda and one of the first definitions you’ll find is this:



1. Information, esp. of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

This came up because I was teaching my students about propaganda used during WWII to increase patriotism, both through appeals to pride, such as the following:

photo 3

and appeals to fear, such as:

photo 4


I wanted the class to really understand how propaganda was a government’s attempt to influence the way people think, often in ways that might not be in their best interest, or in ways we don’t consider morally right.  But for fourth graders, this is a tough pill to swallow. They understood the injustice of the second posters, but propaganda is still a pretty big concept.  So I linked it to advertising.

Students readily understand that Hershey’s really wants to sell chocolate bars, and that the way they slant information tries to convince the consumer to think a way that’s not in his or her best interest.  Case in point: the  “Snickers stops the hunger” campaign.  Umm, yes.  If by, “stops the hunger,” you mean because you have an extra 50lbs of “snickers gut” hanging from your belt, then yes, yes it does.  Advertising isn’t propaganda because it doesn’t have a political base, but I’m letting that slide for now.

The class’s assignment was as follows.  Design a “propaganda” poster that convinces the reader that a particular fruit or vegetable was disgusting and dangerous.

photo 2


The most interesting thing about this assignment?  How many students struggled to come up with a fruit or vegetable they didn’t like.  Apparently I have a class full of children who adore brussels sprouts and broccoli.

The ins and outs of how to convince people that their fruit or vegetable was yucky was the interesting part.  We looked at a bunch of propaganda posters and advertisements, and realized that arguments were generally built on one of four platforms:

1) A compelling picture.  Cruel Japanese soldiers with a red background, a triumphant American soldier with a flag waving in the background, or a brown and moldy piece of fruit.  Something to draw your eye and make you feel a strong emotion.

2) The The false comparison.  This is where the “a mushy banana will lead to a mushy brain” comes in.  Propaganda and advertisers routinely make connections that aren’t real.

3) Impressive statistics.  “9 out of 10 dentists prefer Colgate.”  According to whom?  Kids used bar graphs, pie charts, and stats to explain why their vegetables were the worst.

4) Appeal to an expert.  My favorite on this one is Airborne’s, “Developed by a teacher!”  campaign.  Many of my students went the doctor route, such as, “Doctors warn that too much watermelon can be deadly!”  A surprising number also went with the political expert–Barack Obama is an anti-fruit spokesman on many of these posters.

Here are a few of the final products:

photo 2

photo 1

photo 1

The class had a lot of fun, and I think they not only learned some persuasive techniques of their own, but hopefully to have a more discerning eye when they look at advertisements or see their local news.

For those of you interested, it also addresses common core standards 4.3 and 4.6, which concern explaining ideas in a historical text and comparing different accounts of the same information, including point of view and focus.



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