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Propaganda in the Classroom

What's Wrong With This Picture?
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Effective propaganda sometimes depends on our tendency to see or hear what we expect, rather than what is there.  Exploiting this tendency, propagandists can say or show one thing, knowing most of us will see or hear something else. Non-controversial examples showing how easily information can be "hidden in plain sight" are found most readily in non-propaganda.

Below is a summary block that appeared in the middle of a page from the January 5, 1988 edition of the journal Science (reprinted on page 187 of Can You Believe Your Eyes? by J. Richard Block and Harold Yuker, Bruner/Mazel Inc. 1992).
 
The AIDS epidemic
continues to focus on the
the established risk groups.

If you're like most of us, you didn't notice the duplicate 'the' appearing at the end of the second line and again at the beginning of the third until you knew it was there and specifically looked for it.  The proofreaders obviously missed it too.  The reason for such oversights, according to Block and Yuker, is that most of us pay very little attention to short words, especially those that appear at the end of a line.

They go on to state that if something is familiar, we pay even less attention when we see it.  For example,
 
I
love
Paris in the
the springtime

Because most Americans know this phrase from the famous song, they are even less likely to spot the extra 'the' than in the first example.

Discrepancies in images are often harder to spot.  The best non-propaganda example of which I'm aware is the picture below.  It appeared as an album cover in 1976.  The photo depicts numerous 'errors' that most cannot see unless they are pointed out, and some have problems with even then.  Given the album's title, we can assume that the photographer, the producers and the marketers were not attempting to manipulate us, but to demonstrate our perceptual blind spots.  Indeed, Andrew Gold (the performer) claims that there are 32 things wrong with the picture, and credits photographer Ethan Russell for the idea and its execution.

If you want to use this image with your students, try the following.

  1. Print a copy of the image for each student in your class.  (For a larger image that makes a better print, click here or on the photo below.  As long as you are using a JavaScript enabled browser, a new window will open.  When you are finished with the larger image, close the new window, being careful not to exit your browser program.)
  2. Distribute the copies.
  3. Have your students quietly look at the handout, attempting to find anything that might justify the album's title. Giving them 3-5 minutes, ask them to note down anything they believe to be out of the ordinary.
  4. Divide the class into small groups, no bigger than 5 students each.  Designate a discussion leader and a recorder for each group, or have the groups do so as their first order of business once they've convened.
  5. Have the groups form discussion circles, arranged so as to not disturb each other.
  6. Give the groups 15 to 20 minutes to discuss the handout and to arrive at a consensus list of any problems they can find in the picture.  While they work, move among them, observing but not participating.
  7. Reconvene the class at the end of the work period.
  8. Allow the recorder from each group to report the list of discrepancies his/her group found.  As each group reports, have your students add new items to a master list for later use.  Alternatively, you can keep the master list on the board.
  9. After all groups have reported, review the master list and attempt to reach a class consensus on what it should contain.
  10. Andrew Gold claims that there are 32 things wrong with the picture, and promises a list that is not yet on his site.
  11. I've compiled my own list.  If you want, prepare a copy of it for each of your students, distribute it, then discuss it in comparison to the one your class developed.
  12. Assuming that your class is like the ones I've asked to work with this picture over the years, you'll probably want to discuss why even relatively uncontroversial "errors" are not readily seen until pointed out (or looked for by somebody searching for things out of the ordinary).  My answer - we almost always see what we expect to see, not necessarily what is there, unless we have good reason to be on guard against deception.


So, do propagandists use these types of techniques too?

When trying to answer this question, the first thing to remember is that, even if we exclude advertising, most of what we see on TV, hear on radio, and read in newspapers and magazines is propaganda (information used to manipulate our behavior and beliefs).  By definition it is manipulative.  Even if it attempts to maneuver us into social, political or commercial positions we might arrive at independently, given appropriate unbiased information and good reasoning skills, we can't know that beforehand if our information environment is biased and we seek out no alternatives.  We might very well be taking actions and positions against our best interests, and be completely unaware of it.  Even the news, which most of us would consider sacrosanct and non-propagandistic, is often regurgitated from government and business sources and press releases, especially in local papers and broadcast markets, and in times of national emergency.  As for broadcast and print content, it will often be pulled, or not even considered for broadcast or publication, if deemed offensive to the interests of the advertisers who pay the bills.  (On this point, Michael Mann's motion picture The Insider makes a good discussion starter.)  Think about this, the vast majority of those who work for a living are employees, and as such have no say in running the businesses for which they work.  However, when was the last time you read or heard a "labor" report as opposed to a "business" one?  Even public broadcasting has numerous daily, weekly, and in some cases hourly business reports, but not one regularly scheduled labor report.

If the above is true, and the evidence I'm aware of shows that it is (see these online resources and these books), then the grandest deception in contemporary society is the belief that we make up our own minds about issues of importance to us; that we decide independently what to buy, for whom to vote, what to believe, etc.  (Jeffrey Schrank's Snap, Crackle and Popular Taste: The Illusion of Free Choice in America is on point here.)  Fallacious argument and manipulative language are used to do to written and oral communication what Ethan Russell did in the album cover shown above.  The difference is that Russell let us know what he was up to, and challenged us to find it; propagandists hide their work, and deny it if discovered.

Accepting that manipulation is at the heart of all propaganda, and that language manipulation is ubiquitous, it is still interesting to ask if techniques like those Russell used in the album cover are in the propagandist's bag of tricks.  Considering the amount of propaganda in our culture, they (hidden manipulations like those in the photo above) are probably not used all that often.  The creative talent necessary to execute them is expensive, and the cost, if caught and exposed, might be high.  For some reason we consider retouching a photo to be scandalous, while engaging in fallacious reasoning is not.  Nevertheless, photo manipulation is becoming more common, especially in news.  When image manipulation is used for clearly propagandistic purposes (commercial or otherwise), it is most often in such a way that, if caught, the creators and distributors can indignantly deny any manipulation, blaming wild imaginations and enemy agendas for the accusations.  (An interesting example of this was the flap over the Bush/Cheney 2000 campaign ad allegedly containing a subliminal attack on Democrats as "Rats".)

There have been times over the years when I've looked hard for propaganda that shows its creators' efforts to hide visual information in plain sight.  I've found a few pieces where I believe the evidence is undeniable.  (Of course that doesn't mean the producers won't deny it.)  Usually the "hidden" messages deal with sex or death - the two great mysteries of human existence, of universal interest, guaranteed to attract people's attention (especially subconsciously).  The Classroomtools.com activity Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes contains my analysis of some of the most incontrovertible I've found.  Like Ethan Russell's album cover, some elements are clear when pointed out, others will be controversial.  In all cases though, it is certain something is there, and one must ask why.


Resources to extend this activity

Books Videos Web Sites Additional Activities Top of the page

Books

Can You Believe Your Eyes?
by J. Richard Block and Harold Yuker
254 pages (July 1992)
Brunner/Mazel Trade
ISBN: 0876306954

The Art of Optical Illusion
by Al Seckel
Paperback - 160 pages
1st edition (September 1, 2000)
Carlton Books
ISBN: 1842220543
Dimensions (in inches): 0.64 x 10.04 x 9.09

More Optical Illusions
by Al Seckel
Reading Level: Young Adult
Paperback - 160 pages
1st edition (April 2002)
Carlton Books
ISBN: 1842224875
Dimensions (in inches): 0.47 x 10.10 x 9.00

In Our Own Image
The Coming Revolution in Photography : How Computer Technology Is Changing Our View of the World
(Writers and Artists on Photography)
by Fred Ritchin
256 pages 2nd edition (December 1999)
Aperture
ISBN: 0893818577

Optical Tricks
by Walter Wicks
45 pages (September 1998)
Cartwheel Books
ISBN: 0590222279

Look-Alikes
by Joan Steiner
32 pages
Book & CD-Rom edition (September 1998)
Little Brown & Co (Juvenile Trade)
ISBN: 0316812552

Look-Alikes Jr.
Find More Than 700 Hidden Everyday Objects
by Joan Steiner and Thomas Lindley (photographer)
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover - 32 pages
Book & CD-Rom edition (September 1999)
Little Brown & Co (Juvenile Trade)
ISBN: 0316813079

The Magic Eye books

These books are beautiful illustrations of perceptual ambiguity, where what we see depends on our ability to tease information from an ambiguous image.  A very simple, but classic, illustration is the old woman/young woman.  A fuller explanation of this phenomenon is found at this IllusionWorks page. Also relevant is this IllusionWorks discussion of Camouflage images.

Barnes and Noble.com's list of books about Optical Illusions

Amazon.com's list of books about Optical Illusions

Wilson Bryan Key - Amazon.com's list of books by the controversial writer and researcher

Wilson Bryan Key began publishing books on subliminal messages embedded in advertising during the 1970s. Most of his books are out of print; but if you can find them, they are fascinating to read and guaranteed to engage.  At the time of this writing (February 2002), Subliminal Adventures in Erotic Art is still available as a new book, as is The Age of Manipulation.

August Bullock's The Secret Sales Pitch

Attorney August Bullock developed his interest in subliminal advertising in the 1970s.  An avid researcher, his book (published in 2004) uses more than 100 images he has collected over the years to illustrate in precise detail how advertisers convey subliminal messages, what those messages mean, and how they might work.  The book is beautifully printed on high quality paper.  Anyone interested in the possibility of the existence of subliminal messages will not want to miss it.

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Videos

If you want a look into the workings of propaganda in daily life, and how best to teach about it, you must not miss the work of Jeffrey Schrank.  The books he wrote in the 1970s are as useful today as when they were first published.  His more recent video work is available through his LearningSeed.com website.  For his current thinking about advertising and propaganda issues, look through his video catalog; especially the Communication Skills, Marketing and Persuasion, and Money and Consumer Skills sections.  Take special note of:

        BLIND SPOTS AND BIASES: HIDDEN FORCES THAT SHAPE YOUR DECISIONS

        PERCEPTION: THE ART OF SEEING

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Web Sites

Jeff Schrank's Perception slide shares

Jeff has posted two terrific slideshare presentations:

I think Schrank's Perception: How We See may be the single best piece on perception ever.

The Media Literacy Clearinghouse

If you teach about, or are interested in, media literacy, you cannot afford to miss this site.  It is a resource treasure trove.  The Visual Literacy section is especially apt for those interested in ideas like those raised on this page; as is their page titled Is Seeing Believing?  Prepare yourself to spend some time exploring.

Where subliminal embeds are attempted, they are undoubtedly based on research into optical illusions.  Here are links to some very good sites where classic illusions are presented and discussed.

Whether advertisers use subliminal techniques has been the subject of debate since Vance Packard raised the question in his 1957 bestseller The Hidden Persuaders.  Here are links to some of the better web sites devoted to exploring this issue.

The following sites present ads in which the webmasters believe they see subliminal messages.  They focus primarily on embeds, so much of what they see may be the result of overactive imaginations, but you can judge for yourself.

If you are curious to find out how well you (or your students) can tell if a photo has been digitally modified, you'll not want to miss the Fake or Foto challenge.  National Geographic has also posted a Photo Foolery challenge.

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Additional activities

Other classroomtools.com activities that will help your students develop their visual literacy skills are:

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original web posting: Sunday, January 20, 2002
last modified: Sunday, June 30, 2013