The word propaganda should bring images of World War Two Nazi Germany to mind as Joseph Goebbels of the Third Reich infamously marred this word for all time. Before the century of twin world wars, the word propaganda was associated with the Catholic Church and its religious based agenda of mass world conversion. The word propaganda used to literally mean a committee of Catholic cardinals in charge of propagating the faith through missionary work, and dates back to the year 1622, originating with the Papacy of Pope Gregory XV.
The 20th century saw the use of propaganda increase as new media forms amplified the power of scripted persuasion many times over. The moving film image, mass-produced newspapers, and eventually radio and other communication advances, allowed this amplified power to grow exponentially. World War One began with Hollywood stars patriotically pitching in to help Uncle Sam raise money for war. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith would go on to form the film company United Artists after hawking United States issued war bonds, known as Liberty Bonds or Liberty Loans, to the American people. Not only did Hollywood celebrity endorsements of Liberty Loans raise money for the war effort, this entertainment industry sponsorship also raised public interest in Wall Street investment opportunities and helped secure Hollywood a significant, continuous role in shaping human perception and behavior, not just in America, but internationally as well. This showed the world the powerful impact celebrities can have on civilization.
World War One ended just as the wireless era of radio broadcasting was dawning. During the subsequent decades, technological achievements continued. By the 1920s mass-produced movies began to include sound. The radio programming format was just being established and television was just starting to transition into a commercialized form when World War Two broke out in Europe.
In addition to mass-produced newspapers and radio broadcasts, newsreels shown in darkened film theaters would be the means by which many of us would learn about the lives of all sorts of celebrities and world-changing events. There were even film theaters dedicated to only showing newsreels. These theaters existed in parts of the world until the middle of the 20th century. Newsreels, created in 1911 by the French entrepreneur Charles Pathé, were popular up to the 1960s when television news broadcasts began to replace this older informational medium. A few countries would continue to produce newsreels into the 1990s. Many of us would learn about warfare from the images we saw on the silver screen. We would still learn about current events from traditional media like newspapers and word of mouth. Old media never disappears as new media comes online. Less of the old media might be produced, that is true, but what happens is that old media becomes the content for the new media. Shakespeare’s plays, an oral tradition acted out on a stage for a passive audience, became the content for the mass-produced printed book, a visual artifact that requires literate and active participants. The content available through social media perfectly illustrates this idea. We can use some type of computer device, connected to the internet, to read the text from a favorite book, listen to music from a favorite album, hear an old radio broadcast, or watch a favorite film or television program. Old media forms can also be restructured into new forms. The newsreel’s development into broadcast television news demonstrates this process.
The power of scripted persuasion is what allows many of us to believe that the art of public relations is not actually the practice of propaganda reconfigured into a more politically palatable presentation. Back around the time of the second world war, the word propaganda became associated with the Nazi regime’s communication efforts. Yet despite its supposed reputation as a dirty word and even dirtier practice, propaganda was never limited to one government. All governments have always engaged in this practice; the United States government is not exempt from this law. All corporations use these methods. Advertisers and marketers are propagandists too; but of course, here in the good old U.S.A. and in polite company, we are to use the term public relations and avoid the word propaganda like a biblical plague.