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March 1, 2012 1:57 AM   Subscribe

Why do I find propaganda so creepy?

I have a massive fascination with propaganda and I love seeing and hearing example of it in the media, be it modern or historic, but part of my fascination is that I find a great deal of it just outright creepy and even quite frightning; whether it be an old WWII poster or many of the public information films, there's something about this stuff that hits me right on the horror bone and I've never been able to figure out quite why that is.

Can any of you shed some light on just why I find this stuff so damn scary?
posted by DuchessProzac to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
how do you deal with run of the mill manipulation? personally, manipulation is one of my triggers so i get fairly angry/freaked out by propaganda.
posted by nadawi at 2:11 AM on March 1, 2012

I have similar reactions to certain types of propaganda. For me it's more of an uncanny valley type issue - like you're seeing something that's trying very hard to be real life, but only getting close enough to give you a sensation of 'unreality'. I think I see it the way some people might see zombies or live dolls.

I think a lot of people might chock the feeling up to deep subconscious fears or something, and there might be something to that, but I think a natural aversion to the style might be a simpler and more common explanation.
posted by softriver at 2:15 AM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you recognize it as propaganda, you shouldn't be freaked out by it. It's the propaganda that does not obviously appear as such that I find creepy. Most viewers of Fox News would deny up and down that they are watching propaganda as would most readers of the NY Times.

Maybe what hits your horror bone with the in-your-face propaganda is the undeniable realization that there are forces who want to manipulate you.
posted by three blind mice at 2:45 AM on March 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's designed to manipulate you by appealing to emotions, and the subconscious, not to persuade you by appealing to principles. Also, it's meant to influence people en masse, and does not as such address the individual. Both of these things deny or disregard your agency and your sense of self.
posted by thelonius at 3:49 AM on March 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

How do you feel about advertizements?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:08 AM on March 1, 2012

Manipulation of this sort is an affront to your intelligence. The worry that it may impact you in spite of your foreknowledge could definitely come across as concerning creepiness
posted by MangyCarface at 6:15 AM on March 1, 2012

For me (specifically when watching old propaganda that I know is propaganda), it's the fact that the lies/misrepresentations/appeal to emotion/etc. actually convinced innumerable people to take action for a cause. It's kind of... the horror at how easily taken in people are by these things when they want to believe them. OTOH, I think people nowadays are a lot more skeptical because of all the false PR out there (not just with political propaganda, but with miracle cures, "too good to be true" deals and the like).
posted by DoubleLune at 6:37 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Because you're perceiving how authorities can control people without needing to use force but by gently persuading them it's for their own good.
posted by John Cohen at 6:39 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's possible you're the type of person who likes to make your own judgment call rather than someone or an entity dictate it for you. It's like the equivalent of a religious zealot, preaching how my soul needs to be saved.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


It touches your "horror nerve" because you have the ability to see what millions cannot.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:07 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am you! I've had a lifelong horror of, and subsequent fascination with, all forms of propaganda and public informations films. So much so, that I'm now writing my doctoral thesis on the subject.

And like you, I've never quite been able to put my finger on what it is about them that can be so terrifying. Some public information films give me the absolute shrieking abdabs - and not the ones you might think, the ones that are supposed to scare, such as those about whole families dying in house fires for want of a smoke alarm (complete with creepy music and a soundtrack of screaming children). The ones that often make me want to hide behind the sofa are usually perfectly innocuous 1970s ones about cycling proficiency tests and suchlike and if I can give a reason for it at all it is always something quite random, like an inexplicably terrifying typeface used for the end message.

Were you exposed to much of this kind of thing when you were a child? People I've spoken to about this in the past often say that the stuff they saw when they were very young and could be frightened by much more leftfield things as children are (like the narrator's tone of voice or the interpreted look in the eyes of a illustrated person on a poster for example) has stuck with them and can give them chills to this day, even if they don't actually remember it much.
posted by Acarpous at 8:27 AM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree that if you have been educated to look for deeper meaning beyond superficial messages then it is easy to see the frightening manipulations that happen in propaganda. Unfortunately, the most frightening propaganda is not nazi propaganda or soviet propaganda but the stuff that is inundating us Americans on a daily basis in news and advertising. I won't derail by going into further details but most of the stuff that hits us daily makes Goebbels look like an amateur.
posted by JJ86 at 8:28 AM on March 1, 2012

Response by poster: Acarpous, I grew up in the 80s and although I missed out on Apaches and The Finishing Line I was terrified of the 'magpie' theft awareness ads and pretty much every other PIF that aired throughout the decade.

One of the things that gets me, is the sound quality almost always seemed poor and the PIFs could have been about how to tie your shoelaces properly and I'd still probably fill my knickers because they all had this strange 'quality' about them which even thinking about makes me suddenly feel very much like bad things are going to happen.
posted by DuchessProzac at 9:54 AM on March 1, 2012

Have you watched Century of the Self, the documentary where Adam Curtis exposes the roots of propaganda/advertising as Freudian tools to control the masses? It certainly creeped me the hell out. It's all on youtube, here's part 1.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:44 AM on March 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: No, I've not seen it, but I'll certainly plough through it all when I have time; I absolutely love stuff like that and things like The Wave.

I'm beginning to think my creeped out feelings towards this stuff is just how easy it is to fall prey to it without even knowing. I like to think I'm in control of my own minds and being able to spot things that are there to deliberately massage certain responses makes me uncomfortable as I have to wonder what things I'm not seeing through.
posted by DuchessProzac at 12:07 PM on March 1, 2012

You get freaked out, most likely, for the same reason people get freaked out when they watch cheery historical footage leading up to known tragedies*. Your knowledge of the imminent disaster is in conflict with the pleasant representation of events leading up to it. This is likely a relatively modern invocation of a very old instinct; after all, until modern times, we wouldn't have the foreknowledge of the outcome of something we were watching happen. The instinct being triggered, then, is our response when the observed world contains an inconsistency when compared to your personal model of the world.

Consider: if you don't know what the future holds, but you notice something seems a bit off -- be it a beautiful meadow where suddenly the birds stop singing, or traffic in the adjacent lane that has stopped in an unusual place for no reason you can ascertain, or a propaganda film that glosses over something that is actually quite negative and important -- your discomfort will make you attentive and heighten your awareness. Thus, that discomfort is very useful for survival. It is also very useful for authors to exploit through the technique of foreshadowing.

That's my thought, anyway.

*like news coverage of the Hindenberg leading up to the disaster, or footage of Senna's last race leading up to his fatal crash.
posted by davejay at 12:11 PM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

As a kid, I didn't like the hollow-sounding audio common to cheap films with bad production values, and my kid-safety radar didn't appreciate duplicitous strangers trying to convince me of things, whether it was about paper towels or the usefulness of heroin.

Do you also respond negatively to flying production logos?
posted by Sallyfur at 1:34 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Propaganda, no matter what its subject or point of view, always gives me a sense that I am fundamentally unsafe in the world. I would like to conduct my life on the basis of trust; I assume that most people are mostly good, and that I can generally trust the information that my senses bring me about the world. But the existence of propaganda proves to me that I'm wrong and stupid, because the world is full of deceitful people who will devote their considerable talents to manipulating me for their own nefarious purposes. Propaganda makes me feel vulnerable and inadequate; it makes me feels deceived and deceivable; it makes me feel that I must always be on my guard, when that is not my natural or preferred state. It robs me of the choice to be trusting.

And what is true of propaganda is equally true of most advertising, political campaigning, "branding," and marketing. We live in a sea of deception, and we're constantly damaged by it.
posted by Corvid at 2:09 PM on March 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

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