"….Working in the world of Propaganda": Purposeful Persuasion and Trailermaking Technique

Livy: A Roman Writer and Rhetorician

In an interview for the documentary feature, “Coming Attractions: A History of the Movie Trailer,” Nancy Goliger, Executive VP of Marketing and Creative Affairs for Paramount Pictures, (one of the most senior and respected executives in the industry) offered the following answer, in response to the question of whether trailers “deceive.”

“Do trailers deceive an audience?  I think anyone who chooses to be in the advertising world…has to just give that up.  You have to understand that you’re working in the world of propaganda.”

I’ve thought about this reply for some years now because of her choice of this extraordinarily fraught term to describe modern movie advertising.

Defined neutrally as “a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels,” propagandashares techniques with advertising and public relations, each of which can be thought of as propaganda that promotes a commercial product or shapes the perception of an organization, person, or brand.”   (Wikipedia:  “Propaganda,” defined.)

The Propagator!

Given what movie trailers are designed to do (and what they do actually do) it appears that we in the movie marketing business work in a field whose communicational strategies and techniques have been anticipated, articulated and elaborated by such august and notorious predecessors as Pope Gregory XV, the celebrated Roman writer Livy, political-journalist Walter Lippman,  Public Relations inventor Edward Bernays and Nazi Germany’s Joseph Goebbels, etc., etc., etc..

First, a reminder that “propaganda,” derived from the Latin, propagare—a term related to the agricultural word propages, “a slip, a cutting of a vine” refers to the process of planting shoots from a parent plant—and understood since 1622 as “to propagate,” or literally, “that which must be disseminated.”   It should also be noted that the negative connotations carried by the word “propaganda” since the first decades of the 20thcentury, derived from its embrace by National Socialist (Nazi) and Scientific Socialist (Communist) regimes as methods of political persuasion and cultural transformation.

He got all the notoriety: Bernays and Lippman were lauded

After US experience with propaganda in World War I (both our own, that of our allies and that of our enemies), the American populace recoiled from the baldly deceptive and ham-fisted  practice, although enduring lessons were learned by governments, political consultants, and industry about manufacturing consent and engineering desire within the mind of the public.

Freud's Nephew; Father of Modern Propaganda

One of Bernay's Great Achievements- Women Smoking!

With respect to trailers (creative products and marketing tools) and trailermaking (a commercial practice and a visual art), Goliger’s identification of advertising as propaganda (a message; a communications content designed to persuade its receiver, typically through emotion, misrepresentation and unconscious processes, rather than logic or reason), makes it possible for us to learn something useful, interesting and surprising from a consideration of its method, its technique and its practice.

Walter Lippman - Political Journalist and Uber-Propagandist

What was provocative was the realization of just how familiar and expert we in the entertainment advertising business are with propagandistic method and technique.  What is useful, is the clear and comprehensively presented list of propagandistic technique found in the Wikipedia entry (scroll down to section 3. “Techniques”), a list I recommend to any copywriter, editor, or creative director, as a resource for approaches to try when the obvious ones haven’t worked.

(With respect to our ethical and moral obligations, I realize we’re selling “entertainment” but it is naïve to think that the stories we tell, the archetypes we engage, the images we present, the emotions we stimulate are not profoundly ideological and thus participants in political and cultural narratives, which have real impact on and real consequences for real people in real, historical circumstances.  It is certainly conceivable that there will be projects whose ideology, politics and cultural consequence may prompt one to refuse the work!)

I invite you to check out the link on your own.  In my next post, I’ll be re-presenting the list—scrubbed of inapplicable techniques and strategies—and adding my own comments and examples.   Look for it next week.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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.
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