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Political Persuasion

A college student's perspective on the two crazy worlds of PR and politics

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Propaganda

Subliminal Messages in Politics

The other day, my Communication Theory Professor made a presentation about subliminal messages in communication.  Above, you will find a 30 second television advertisement from George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.  Many people argue that his communication team used subliminal messages to subtly attack his opponent, Al Gore.  The ad blames the Clinton/Gore administration for the high cost of elderly prescription drugs.

If you look closely, the word “RATS” is flashed for a split second, before the complete word “bureaucrats” appears.  The word “RATS” is seen alongside images of Vice President Al Gore.  Many people believe that this controversial ad was intentional and meant to be processed by the American people at an unconscious or subliminal level.

According to a BBC New Article, President Bush denied the ad’s subliminal message…

“This kind of practice is not acceptable,” declared Bush. “Conspiracy theories abound in American politics, but I don’t think we need to be subliminal about prescription drugs.”

After my Professor presented this video, he asked if anyone noticed the word “RATS” flash across the screen.  About half the class picked up on the message the first time.  My Professor then replayed the ad, and the class was generally, in shock.  In my opinion, subliminal messages is meant to evoke fear — a popular propaganda technique used throughout history.  In my last post, I analyzed the “Is This Tomorrow?” political pamphlet, which depicted the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” through images of flames and fearful Americans fighting for their lives. This idea can make the American public uneasy.  Many individuals are likely to take action, as a result.

In 1974, the FCC said that subliminal advertising was not in the public’s best interest.  Although there is no definitive understanding on how the brain processes subliminal messages, I still find this ad a bit disturbing.  The brain’s “unconscious state” is an extremely difficult concept to grasp.  Many researchers including Bill Cook of the Advertising Research Foundation say that subliminal advertising is part of the popular science agenda like “astrology and alien abduction.” Although it has not been proven whether subliminal messages affect the way we think, advertisers may insist on using this technique.

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Cold War Propaganda and Comics

Above is a political pamphlet published in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild Education Society of St. Paul, Minnesota. At just ten cents a copy, this pamphlet features a full-color comic and advice on how to “fight communism with ten commandments of citizenship.”  Approximately four million copies were printed and distributed to church groups throughout the country (http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/is-this-tomorrow.html).

I cannot help but wonder how this political pamphlet would be perceived today.  I remember having a discussion in one of my classes last year about how many Americans are desensitized to the media.  It takes a lot to convince us, and sometimes, we do not take threats seriously, until it actually happens.

The period from 1947-1953 marks the beginning of the Cold War–from the Truman Doctrine to the Korean War.  I find this pamphlet interesting because it appealed to a niche market — churchgoers.  The pamphlet, like many YouTube videos and online forums went viral, in a sense, and created a stir among Americans nationwide.

Superpowers and Superheroes

As I was perusing potential topics for my upcoming communication theory paper, I came across David Crowley’s book, Posters of the Cold War.  I was immediately drawn to the front cover, which features a poster by Polish artist Roman Cieslewicz (depicted above). Side by side stand two nearly identical superheroes.  The only differentiating factor is the logo on their chests (one represents the USA while the other represents the USSR).

“In the iconoclastic political atmosphere of the 1960s, many radicals were highly critical of the USA and the USSR. The superpowers were accused of exercising a destructive influence on the rest of the world and of betraying their own origins in revolutions motivated by high ideals.” – David Crowley

Before reading this book, I thought critically about Cold War propaganda from two major perspectives:

1. The media that were used to criticize Soviet ideology and promote American values.

or

2. The media that were used to criticize American values and support the Soviet ideology.

I realized I neglected an alternative perspective that is critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union.  There was a widely held belief (as portrayed in Cieslewicz’s 1968 Superman poster) that both superpowers exercised a destructive and disproportional influence over the rest of the world.

Superman, which was featured as the cover design for the Paris-based left-wing art magazine Opus International, essentially mocked the “war of ideals” between the two superpowers.  Cieslewicz ironically portrays the flaws in both nations through the depiction of strong, heroic figures.

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