50 Types of Propaganda

By Mark Nichol

Are you a propagandist? If you write nonfiction intended to persuade, yes, by a broad definition, you almost certainly are. Here are fifty terms for, and definitions of, forms of propaganda, at least one of which such writers will likely employ in a given piece of content.

Propaganda (the word is from a New Latin term meaning “propagating,” synonymous in this connotation with publicizing) has been defined as “communication intended to shape perceptions, manipulate cognition, and direct behavior.” That’s a broad definition — a narrower one would limit propaganda to willful, prejudicial manipulation of information — but it helps writers and readers understand that because almost any content can be considered propaganda, they must be alert to the subtext of almost any content they produce or consume.

1. Ad hominem: attacking opponents rather than opponents’ ideas or principles
2. Ad nauseam: repeating ideas relentlessly so that the audience becomes inured to them
3. Appeal to authority: use of authority figures (or perceived authority figures such as celebrities) to support ideas
4. Appeal to fear: exploitation of audience anxieties or concerns
5. Appeal to prejudice: exploitation of an audience’s desire to believe that it is virtuous or morally or otherwise superior
6. Bandwagon: exploitation of an audience’s desire to conform by encouraging adherence to or acceptance of idea that is supposedly garnering widespread or universal support
7. Beautiful people: depiction of attractive famous people or happy people to associate success or happiness with adherence to an idea or cause or purchase of a product
8. Black-and-white fallacy: presentation of only two alternatives, one of which is identified as undesirable
9. Classical conditioning: association of an idea with another stimulus
10. Cognitive dissonance: using a favorable stimulus to prompt acceptance of an unfavorable one, or producing an unfavorable association
11. Common man: adoption of mannerisms and/or communication of principles that suggest affinity with the average person
12. Cult of personality: creation of an idealized persona, or exploitation of an existing one, as a spokesperson for an idea or a cause
13. Demonizing the enemy: dehumanizing or otherwise denigrating opponents to sway opinion
14. Dictat: mandating adherence to an idea or cause by presenting it as the only viable alternative
15. Disinformation: creating false accounts or records, or altering or removing existing ones, to engender support for or opposition to an idea or cause
16. Door in the face: seeking compliance with a request by initially requesting a greater commitment and then characterizing the desired outcome as a compromise or a minor inconvenience
17. Euphoria: generating happiness or high morale by staging a celebration or other motivating event or offer
18. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt: disseminating false or negative information to undermine adherence to an undesirable belief or opinion
19. Flag waving: appealing to nationalism or patriotism
20. Foot in the door: manipulation by encouraging a small gift or sacrifice, which establishes a bond that can be exploited to extract more significant compliance
21. Glittering generalities: applying emotionally appealing but vague and meaningless words to an idea or cause
22. Half-truth: making a statement that is partly true or only part of the truth, or is otherwise deceptive
23. Inevitable victory: assurance of uncommitted audience members and reassurance of committed audience members that an idea or cause will prevail
24. Join the crowd: communication intended to persuade the audience to support an idea or cause because it is or will be the dominant paradigm
25. Labeling or name-calling: using euphemistic or dysphemistic terms to encourage a positive or negative perception of a person, an idea, or a cause
26. Latitudes of acceptance: introducing an extreme point of view to encourage acceptance of a more moderate stance, or establishing a barely moderate stance and gradually shifting to an extreme position
27. The lie: false or distorted information that justifies an action or a belief and/or encourages acceptance of it
28. Love bombing: isolation of the target audience from general society within an insular group that devotes attention and affection to the target audience to encourage adherence to an idea or cause
29. Managing the news: influencing news media by timing messages to one’s advantage, reinterpreting controversial or unpopular actions or statements (also called spinning), or repeating insubstantial or inconsequential statements that ignore a problem (also called staying on message)
30. Milieu control: using peer or social pressure to engender adherence to an idea or cause; related to brainwashing and mind control
31. Obfuscation: communication that is vague and ambiguous, intended to confuse the audience as it seeks to interpret the message, or to use incomprehensibility to exclude a wider audience
32. Operant conditioning: indoctrination by presentation of attractive people expressing opinions or buying products
33. Oversimplification: offering generalities in response to complex questions
34. Pensée unique (French for “single thought”): repression of alternative viewpoints by simplistic arguments
35. Quotes out of context: selective use of quotations to alter the speaker’s or writer’s intended meaning or statement of opinion
36. Rationalization: use of generalities or euphemisms to justify actions or beliefs
37. Red herring: use of irrelevant data or facts to fallaciously validate an argument
38. Reductio ad Hitlerum: persuasion of an audience to change its opinion by identifying undesirable groups as adherents of the opinion, thus associating the audience with such groups
39. Repetition: repeated use of a word, phrase, statement, or image to influence the audience
40. Scapegoating: blaming a person or a group for a problem so that those responsible for it are assuaged of guilt and/or to distract the audience from the problem itself and the need to fix it
41. Selective truth: restrictive use of data or facts to sway opinion that might not be swayed if all the data or facts were given
42. Sloganeering: use of brief, memorable phrases to encapsulate arguments or opinions on an emotional rather than a logical level
43. Stereotyping: incitement of prejudice by reducing a target group, such as a segment of society or people adhering to a certain religion, to a set of undesirable traits
44. Straw man: misrepresentation or distortion of an undesirable argument or opinion, or misidentifying an undesirable persona or an undesirable single person as representative of that belief, or oversimplifying the belief
45. Testimonial: publicizing of a statement by an expert, authority figure, or celebrity in support of an idea, cause, or product in order to prompt the audience to identify with the person and support the idea or cause or buy the product
46. Third party: use of a supposedly impartial person or group, such as a journalist or an expert, or a group falsely represented as a grassroots organization, to support an idea or cause or recommend a product
47. Thought-terminating cliché: use of a truism to stifle dissent or validate faulty logic
48. Transfer: association of an entity’s positive or negative qualities with another entity to suggest that the latter entity embodies those qualities
49. Unstated assumption: implicit expression of an idea or cause by communication of related concepts without expressing the idea or cause
50. Virtue words: expression of words with positive connotations to associate an idea or cause with the self-perceived values of the audience

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4 Responses to “50 Types of Propaganda”

  • Roberta B.

    All the tricks of the trade exposed! Excellent! We expect these tactics with product advertising, but find it sickening when they’re used in political campaigns.
    Reductio ad Hitlerem – That’s a new one on me (the label, anyway), since we’ve all heard that one lobbed into the discussion, usually as a last resort! So, there’s a name for it now. Great list!

  • Jean Kearsley

    Your definition of “cognitive dissonance” is rather muddled . . . though it’s actually producing some in my head!

    An earlier post on “10 Directional-Sign Disasters” had an excellent definition of the term, by example, in the first entry in that post of April 11th.

    I would say that cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable mental state induced by encountering any instance of opposite — or at least widely variant — concepts, usages or implications, and trying to process both at the same time. Note that the disparaty doesn’t have to be along a “positive” or “negative” axis. In fact, two proagandists each attempting to utilize cognitive dissonance for their own ends might have opposite impressions of which pole was positive and which negative!

    The definition you provided above matches up, not with cognitive dissonance itself, but with techniques which can be adopted to trade on its existance to alter people’s perceptions. A well-managed presentation of charming “images” of an otherwise unpopular public figure can disrupt the thought processes of those who hold that individual in disdain, by conflicting with already held impressions. Eventually, by repetition or by sheer numbers, these instances of new (mis)information will have a disarming effect. The easiest way to avoid that uncomfortable dissonance is to reverse ones original opinion in favor of the unavoidable plurality of new-minted favorable sound- & video-bytes..

  • Stephen Thorn

    Marvelous idea for an article, Mark, and excellent execution of same! I recall in high school that we touched on a few of these techniques as advertising tools but your list is far more detailed and comprehensive, and therefore more useful, than those long-ago lessons. With the state of so-called “journalism” today and its ugly tendency to wear a cloak of respectability to mask its covert propagandizing to the public this information is especially vital. Good job.

  • Carl Clark

    This is a fantastic list, and I have cross-posted it extensively since it was originally written.

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