A few days ago we had a lovely morning that was dry and in the low seventies, so I decided to walk to the YMCA for my yoga class. As I was walking, the old cigarette ad popped into my head, “I’d walk a mile for a _____” If you completed this with the word “Camel,” then you are as old as I am. Ads kept popping into my head. “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” “Fly the friendly skies of United.”
Those ads and this time of year made me miss being a classroom teacher because I always started out the school year with a unit on propaganda before we began reading Animal Farm. I explained to my students how propagandists, which include advertisers, must gain people’s trust and appeal to them emotionally. We went through all the different emotional appeals and then watched commercials so the kids could identify what techniques a particular ad was using. Every four years my propaganda unit took on even more significance as I added the study of the presidential election into the unit. My students had to watch political advertisements and speeches and identify the propaganda techniques that were used. They were asked to check what was said against the facts, if they were able to find any facts they could substantiate. Many times they said it wasn’t necessarily that the politician lied but that he or she only told one side of the story. What was left out was just as important as what was put in.
At the end of the school year I asked my students to tell me what had meant the most to them of all they had learned. What would they take to the grave? Invariably, my students told me that the propaganda unit had the most lasting effect on them because it made them start thinking for themselves instead of believing something because their parents believed it or friends or because they heard it through the media or out of the mouth of someone they believed was important. Hallelujah! Music to a teacher’s ears.
I wonder how many adults think as deeply as my students? I can’t help but wonder, as the political campaigns get under way, how many people are really thinking for themselves or are being sucked in by clever propaganda from the political parties and media spin? How many people always vote Democrat because… well, they just always have. Same for the Republicans. Do those people think that particular party always has the best answers? Do they believe most of what they hear on TV or read in the paper without checking facts? And where do we find those facts, facts not filtered through people’s biases? Is that even possible?
Anyway, it’s just a thought. Those ad campaigns were pretty effective. If you were smoking Camels, I don’t know how you could possibly walk a mile, but they were about the most popular cigarettes for men at one time. Made men look rugged and manly.
Just remember the difference between education and propaganda: Education teaches you how to think; propaganda tells you what to think. Use your head during this political season. Your country is counting on you.