Learning from Propaganda: Helpful Hints for Connection with Audiences


In my post last week, I examined Nancy Goliger’s observation that by any objective/neutral definition of propaganda, we in the a/v marketing industry are participants in such communicational activity.

Then, as I read more about propaganda, I encountered a comprehensive list of strategies and techniques for generating the “purposefully persuasive” and emotionally (if not always rationally) powerful messages, that are to be propagated.

But the weird, wonderful, coincidental and significant thing about that list is how uncannily well it describes many of the strategies, approaches and practices with which any experienced trailer producer will be intimately familiar.

As an educator, I was excited to obtain a handbook (recipe, framework program?) for what we attempt as movie advertisers and how we accomplish it. As a copywriter, I was gratified to learn the proper names and distinguished provenance for so many of the rhetorical tricks of my trade.    I determined to share the list with you, my readers, as I will soon be sharing it with my students.

The Wikipedia entry on propaganda notes that:

“A number of techniques based in social psychological research are used to generate propaganda. Many of these same techniques can be found under logical fallacies, since propagandists use arguments that, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid.

Some time has been spent analyzing the means by which the propaganda messages are transmitted. That work is important but it is clear that information dissemination strategies become propaganda strategies only when coupled with propagandistic messages. Identifying these messages is a necessary prerequisite to study the methods by which those messages are spread. Below are a number of techniques for generating propaganda.”

(In quotes, I’ve presented the applicable techniques and strategies from the Wikipedia entry on Propaganda.  In italics, you will find my notes on each relevant technique, offering examples or elaboration that makes the connection to trailers compelling, when not downright explicit and obvious.

Ad nauseam

This argument approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited or controlled by the propagator.”

Copy–especially tagline(s)and calls to action– and Key Art come to mind as examples of Ad Nauseam messaging.  Insofar as a trailer is a marketing tool that positions the film within the mind of the audience,  repetition, consistency and redundancy of the marketing message ensure the brand identity of the feature to be released.   

Appeal to authority

Appeals to authority cite prominent figures to support a position, idea, argument, or course of action.”

The hosted trailer is an implicit appeal to the authority of the host, whether she is a star, an actor, the director or the producer. Another more explicit appeal to authority is to be found in those trailers that quote the reviews of critics or celebrities. 

Appeal to fear

Appeals to fear seek to build support by instilling anxieties and panic in the general population, for example, Joseph Goebbels exploited Theodore Kaufman’s Germany Must Perish! to claim that the Allies sought the extermination of the German people.”

Marketers and advertisers (and campaign managers) know that appealing to our reptile brain (i.e. Fear/lust/hunger/reward/self-preservation, etc.) is a reliably effective strategy.  Of course, horror, sci-fi and suspense films rely on the appeal to fear, at least in its vicarious, entertaining, manifestation in order to sell tickets.

“Appeal to prejudice

Using loaded or emotive terms to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition. Used in biased or misleading ways.”

Basically, this is the essence of good copywriting. 


Bandwagon and ‘inevitable-victory’ appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that ‘everyone else is taking.’”

Ever see a trailer in which audiences are interviewed leaving the theater?  Or, have you ever seen a poster or trailer trumpeting the fact that the film it advertises is the “#1 comedy/film/horror movie/family entertainment, etc. etc. in the nation.” This is the “bandwagon” or “cultural phenomenon you don’t want to miss” approach at work.

Join the crowd

This technique reinforces people’s natural desire to be on the winning side. It is used to convince the audience that a program is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their best interest to join.”

See my comment above under “bandwagon.”

Beautiful people

The type of propaganda that deals with famous people or depicts attractive, happy people. This makes other people think that if they buy a product or follow a certain ideology, they too will be happy or successful.”

While this is most clearly manifest in commercial advertising, we in the entertainment biz are not unfamiliar with the power of personal beauty, nor shy about exploiting it to sell tickets.

Black-and-white fallacy

Presenting only two choices, with the product or idea being propagated as the better choice. For example: ‘You’re either with us, or against us….’”

Trailers simplify and foreclose extraneous options for the ones most dramatically satisfying or appealing.  Good copy often uses binary oppositions—making the world seem much simpler than it is—in the service of clear messaging and maximizing emotional affect and effect. 

Classical conditioning

All vertebrates, including humans, respond to classical conditioning. That is, if object A is always present when object B is present and object B causes a negative physical reaction (e.g., disgust, pleasure) then we will when presented with object A when object B is not present, we will experience the same feelings.”

Trailer rhetoric and editorial formula rely on audience conditioning.  The audience has been trained to understand copy, scene selection and editing choices as shorthand for a variety of emotions and ideas, to which it responds appropriately.  

Common man

The ‘plain folks’ or ‘common man’ approach attempts to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience.”

Use of slang, colloquialism, and an accessible vocabulary (approximately 10th grade level in English)  in trailer and movie poster copy (taglines, slogans, calls to action, story exposition, etc.) are obvious instances of this dynamic at work. 

Cult of personality

A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. The hero personality then advocates the positions that the propagandist desires to promote. For example, modern propagandists hire popular personalities to promote their ideas and/or products.”

Of the four key appeals that trailers typically foreground – Stars, Story, Spectacle and genre—Stars and their equivalents media personalities are consistently identified as being the most important. 


This technique hopes to simplify the decision making process by using images and words to tell the audience exactly what actions to take, eliminating any other possible choices.”

Much of the best copy is imperative, ordering the audience to perform this or that action and telling them how to feel about some situation.


The creation or deletion of information from public records, in the purpose of making a false record of an event or the actions of a person or organization, including outright forgery of photographs, motion pictures, broadcasts, and sound recordings as well as printed documents.”

As Andy Kuehn once said, “we can lie like nobody’s business….the problem is, when you’ve got something really good, nobody believes you.” Trailers routinely reorganize plot elements and “recut” the film to serve the marketing objective.  Most often, “the truth” of the film is conveyed by a trailer that— given its length—can only tell a version of that truth.  Given that editors routinely “alter” the footage (whether through filters, tempo, pacing) of the feature for the trailer, the comment about “false records” and “forgeries,” made me wince before it made me smile.


The use of an event that generates euphoria or happiness, or using an appealing event to boost morale.”

Euphoria, happiness and the rush of excitement are what we might call optimum reactions to the work we do in the trailer biz.


An attempt to justify an action on the grounds that doing so will make one more patriotic, or in some way benefit a country, group or idea the targeted audience supports.”

The flag is an extraordinarily powerful symbol; patriotism is a near universal sentiment whose definition is intensely and almost inarticulably personal.  What movie advertiser wouldn’t exploit such resources (presuming they advance the marketing objective) to connect with and emotionally compel the audience.  

Foot-in-the-door technique

Often used by recruiters and salesmen. For example, a member of the opposite sex walks up to the victim and pins a flower or gives a small gift to the victim. The victim says thanks and now they have incurred a psychological debt to the perpetrator. The person eventually asks for a larger favor (e.g., a donation or to buy something far more expensive). The unwritten social contract between the victim and perpetrator causes the victim to feel obligated to reciprocate by agreeing to do the larger favor or buy the more expensive gift.”

Is it overly cynical of me to suggest that the free-sample that a trailer delivers establishes an obligation—however weak—that we might purchase a ticket to see the rest?  

Glittering generalities

Glittering generalities are emotionally appealing words that are applied to a product or idea, but present no concrete argument or analysis. This technique has also been referred to as the PT Barnum effect.”

Circus hyperbole and bombast characterized the dominant style in the early years of movie trailers.  But glittering generalities rule advertising, then as now.  As a copywriter, I’d be proud were someone to describe my work in such terms.


A half-truth is a deceptive statement, which may come in several forms and includes some element of truth. The statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may utilize some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade, blame or misrepresent the truth.”

Uh, yes. See “misdirection” trailers.  There is “no blame” here. A trailer—as a 2 minute representation of its feature—can never be but a half-truth; or a 20th truth.

Latitudes of acceptance

If a person’s message is outside the bounds of acceptance for an individual and group, most techniques will engender psychological reactance (simply hearing the argument will make the message even less acceptable). There are two techniques for increasing the bounds of acceptance. First, one can take an even more extreme position that will make more moderate positions seem more acceptable. This is similar to the Door-in-the-Face technique. Alternatively, one can moderate one’s own position to the edge of the latitude of acceptance and then over time slowly move to the position that was previously maintained.”

Trailer editing and rhetoric strike me as historical exemplars of this dynamic.   Quick cutting has gotten quicker, and audiences have been trained to digest the enormous volume of story information presented.  The volume of movie entertainments and their advertising has increased to deafening levels while the audience has accommodated itself to the aural assault. Violence, sexual content and story information have all intensified and become more explicit, and the audience has been conditioned to accept the continually revised formula. 

Lying and deception

Lying and deception can be the basis of many propaganda techniques including Ad Hominem arguments, Big-Lie, Defamation, Door-in-the-Face, Half-truth, Name-calling or any other technique that is based on dishonesty or deception. For example, many politicians have been found to frequently stretch or break the truth.”

I repeat the immortal words of Andy Kuehn:  Nobody expects movie advertising to be truthful.  We can lie like nobody’s business.  Or Benedict Coulter, founder of the Trailer Park: I don’t think that trailer deceive, I mean occasionally we are able to stir the audience to see a movie  that’s not that great.  Or Nancy Goliger, again, “We don’t always have the luxury of telling the honest, honest truth.”  Experience has shown, however, that a campaign waged in defiance of the reality and inspiration of the film marketed will earn the audiences resentment, and worse, it’s word of mouth.

Milieu control

An attempt to control the social environment and ideas through the use of social pressure.”

While control of the social environment is an awfully high hurdle for movie marketers, managing the social environment has never, perhaps, been easier to undertake. Release of stills, teasers, epks, featurettes, interviews, premiere dates and “news” is the coin of the publicity/promotion realm, of which trailers remain the key element.  Social media has transformed and intensified  fan-culture, although it should be noted that the “control/management” isn’t always unidirectional or top-down.

Obfuscation, intentional vagueness, confusion

Generalities are deliberately vague so that the audience may supply its own interpretations. The intention is to move the audience by use of undefined phrases, without analyzing their validity or attempting to determine their reasonableness or application. The intent is to cause people to draw their own interpretations rather than simply being presented with an explicit idea. In trying to “figure out” the propaganda, the audience forgoes judgment of the ideas presented. Their validity, reasonableness and application may still be considered.”

Many trailers don’t have or take the time to be explicit about the movie being promoted.  Generalities and vagueness are necessary and appropriate.  Besides, if you left your seat (at the theatre; at your desk) knowing just exactly what the film was about, why would you pay to see it again.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning involves learning through imitation. For example, watching an appealing person buy products or endorse positions teaches a person to buy the product or endorse the position. Operant conditioning is the underlying principle behind the Ad Nauseam, Slogan and other repetition public relations campaigns.”

We have all learned through imitation, whether in the multi-plex, or at home watching TV with friends, or even alone in front of the computer screen, reacting as has been modeled for us by our betters– whether the celebrity host, the voice of God announcer,  or the movie star.


Favorable generalities are used to provide simple answers to complex social, political, economic, or military problems.”

See obfuscation or generalities. 

Pensée unique

Enforced reduction of discussion by use of overly simplistic phrases or arguments (e.g., ‘There is no alternative to war.’)”

Much of the best copy is sloganeering, in which a forceful articulation of a message gains by its simplicity, meter and memorability, independent of its actual sense. 

Quotes out of context

Selectively editing quotes to change meanings—political documentaries designed to discredit an opponent or an opposing political viewpoint often make use of this technique.”

In a trailer that mis-directs, often in service of legitimate marketing objectives and in order to conserve a film’s “surprise,” quotes out of context are essential.  Come to think of it, quotes out of context are nearly indispensable for film trailers generally.  

Rationalization (making excuses)

Individuals or groups may use favorable generalities to rationalize questionable acts or beliefs. Vague and pleasant phrases are often used to justify such actions or beliefs.”

Copy rhetoric exemplifies this technique.  See the “call to action” taglines of many action/adventure flics for instance.  (viz. “Bring it on,” etc.)   Violent video games are notorious for promoting questionable acts and beliefs.  I know from experience: some of my best lines were both nihilistic and sexy!


This is the repeating of a certain symbol or slogan so that the audience remembers it. This could be in the form of a jingle or an image placed on nearly everything in the picture/scene.”

Consistent Brand identity and on-message positioning are elemental qualities of trailers.


A slogan is a brief, striking phrase that may include labeling and stereotyping. Although slogans may be enlisted to support reasoned ideas, in practice they tend to act only as emotional appeals. Opponents of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq use the slogan ‘blood for oil’ to suggest that the invasion and its human losses was done to access Iraq’s oil riches. On the other hand, supporters who argue that the U.S. should continue to fight in Iraq use the slogan ‘cut and run’ to suggest withdrawal is cowardly or weak.”

A tagline is another name for a slogan. While the best manage to convey story information AND emotional essence, they must also be accessible, memorable and brief.   There’s not time for a disquisition on the complexities of a serious subject.  That should take place in the film, if at all.


This technique attempts to arouse prejudices in an audience by labeling the object of the propaganda campaign as something the target audience fears, hates, loathes, or finds undesirable. For instance, reporting on a foreign country or social group may focus on the stereotypical traits that the reader expects, even though they are far from being representative of the whole country or group; such reporting often focuses on the anecdotal. In graphic propaganda, including war posters, this might include portraying enemies with stereotyped racial features.”

Trailers rely on compression, simplification and stock or formulaic characters and set ups in order to convey great quantities of story information and strong emotion quickly. 


Testimonials are quotations, in or out of context, especially cited to support or reject a given policy, action, program, or personality. The reputation or the role (expert, respected public figure, etc.) of the individual giving the statement is exploited. The testimonial places the official sanction of a respected person or authority on a propaganda message. This is done in an effort to cause the target audience to identify itself with the authority or to accept the authority’s opinions and beliefs as its own.”

Critic Reviews and “audience reaction” trailers exemplify this tendency.  A guest appearance on Leno or Letterman by the star or celebrity producer/director can do the same.

Third-party technique

Works on the principle that people are more willing to accept an argument from a seemingly independent source of information than from someone with a stake in the outcome. It is a marketing strategy commonly employed by Public Relations (PR) firms, that involves placing a premeditated message in the “mouth of the media.” Third-party technique can take many forms, ranging from the hiring of journalists to report the organization in a favorable light, to using scientists within the organization to present their perhaps prejudicial findings to the public. Frequently astroturf groups or front groups are used to deliver the message.”

Again, festival laurels, positive critical response, and audience-reaction trailers are all aspects of the 3rd party technique.

Thought-terminating cliché

A commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance.”

Any good copywriter knows a million of these.  They are ubiquitous and indispensable in the trade.


Also known as association, this is a technique that involves projecting the positive or negative qualities of one person, entity, object, or value onto another to make the second more acceptable or to discredit it. It evokes an emotional response, which stimulates the target to identify with recognized authorities. Often highly visual, this technique often utilizes symbols (e.g. swastikas) superimposed over other visual images (e.g. logos). These symbols may be used in place of words.”

A trailer editor who isn’t an adept at this visual technique will not keep his job for long.

“Selective truth

Richard Crossman, the British Deputy Director of Psychological Warfare Division (PWD) for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) during the Second World War said ‘In propaganda truth pays… It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist is the man who tells the truth, or that selection of the truth which is requisite for his purpose, and tells it in such a way that the recipient does not think he is receiving any propaganda… […] The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.’”

This is the art of the editor, who combines images and sounds, graphic design and words (copy or dialogue) into a 2:00 minute trailer that evokes an expected emotional and/or cognitive response that captures the spirit or inspiration of the film while also emphasizing what is most commercially appealing about it.  Truth in advertising is a profoundly subjective quality, nonetheless critical to excellence in the trailer.

Virtue words

These are words in the value system of the target audience that produce a positive image when attached to a person or issue. Peace, happiness, security, wise leadership, freedom, “The Truth”, etc. are virtue words. Many see religiosity as a virtue, making associations to this quality affectively beneficial. Their use is considered part of the Transfer propaganda technique.”

Trailer Copy depends implicitly on virtue words and shared value systems. 


As my final thought in this post (though, not perhaps, my final word on the correspondences between marketing and propaganda), the Wikipedia entry I’ve been quoting above continues, instructively:

“Common media for transmitting propaganda messages include news reports, government reports, historical revision, junk science, books, leaflets, movies, radio, television, and posters….In the case of radio and television, propaganda can exist on news, current-affairs or talk-show segments, as advertising or public-service announce “spots” or as long-running advertorials. Propaganda campaigns often follow a strategic transmission pattern to indoctrinate the target group. This may begin with a simple transmission such as a leaflet dropped from a plane or an advertisement. Generally these messages will contain directions on how to obtain more information, via a web site, hot line, radio program, et cetera (as it is seen also for selling purposes among other goals). The strategy intends to initiate the individual from information recipient to information seeker through reinforcement, and then from information seeker to opinion leader through indoctrination.”    [MY EMPHASIS]

Have I become an obsessive reader, or does the above description sound like the smart but by no means atypical campaign for a Summer tent-pole release, beginning a year out with teaser and key art to seed awareness, an awareness developed by social media buzz, gossip and the release of additional stills, followed by carefully targeted and scheduled uploads of footage to the film’s website and other digital outlets, articles and interviews with principle actors published in mainstream and insurgent media, crowned by the official theatrical trailer, but not omitting the pre-release tv spots saturating the airwaves and softening up the anticipated audience for the 4000 screen roll-out?

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
This entry was posted in Observations and Provocations and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Learning from Propaganda: Helpful Hints for Connection with Audiences


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *