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What is Propaganda?

Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell provide a clear and concise propaganda definition in their book Propaganda & Persuasion (2014). They write, “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (7). In other words, propaganda is a systematic method of manipulation, and it’s quite a successful one. Propaganda has been employed extensively in the political sphere since the 19th century to further various agendas by politicians, opposing candidates, and special interest groups. Propaganda is used to highlight the negatives or positives of an idea, a person, or legislation. Hitler used propaganda extensively to promote his anti-Semitic ideas and his vision for Germany in a post-World War I era. In the United States, propaganda was harnessed to boost morale for the general public during war time and for recruitment purposes.

Propaganda Examples

Propaganda relies heavily on ethos and pathos, and will only use logos if it accesses the other two. It isn’t terribly concerned with facts, figures, or truth; instead, propaganda relies mostly on the emotional responses of its audience to generate agreement and action. While students may recognize that there are similar techniques used in both propaganda and advertising, propaganda is generally considered to be a negative term, even though it can be applied to achieve positive goals. Advertising is generally not a negative concept, although it does aim to psychologically prompt its target audience into buying a product. Advertising is primarily concerned with increasing sales; propaganda, on the other hand, is more concerned with changing public attitudes and policy.

Propaganda is defined by particular characteristics, which set it apart from straightforward information, and usually reveal hidden or underhanded motives. These characteristics include:

  • Appeals to the emotions (pathos) rather than intellect

  • Information is value-laden and accesses audiences’ judgments, prejudices, and sense of ethics (ethos)

  • Uses selective information; not balanced

  • Intentions or motives matter; there is a specific goal for the information

Propaganda uses various mediums to gain attention and target audiences. These mediums include:

Visual and Audio Media
  • TV
  • radio
  • cinema
  • documentaries
  • commercials
  • songs
  • news
  • talk shows
  • websites
  • blogs
  • social media
  • social networking
Arts and Literature
  • paintings
  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • plays
  • performance art
  • comics
  • newspapers
  • magazines
  • rallies
  • political events
  • concerts
  • sports events
  • public squares and town halls

There are very obvious uses of propaganda that many students will be familiar with, such as the anti-Semitic propaganda of Nazi Germany, or the pro-war posters in the United States during World Wars I and II. Check out The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, which was written as a pro-democracy novella for the occupied countries of World War II. Steinbeck’s book was considered a huge success, and was covertly translated and passed out by underground rebels across Europe.

In response to the rise of propaganda and concern that the general public did not know how to critically analyze information, the Institute of Propaganda Analysis was established in 1937 by Edward Filene, Kirtley Mather, and Clyde R. Miller. The purpose of the Institute was to provide the general public information about the types of propaganda, the tactics used in propaganda, and strategies to analyze it in order to combat the psychological effects and success of such information. It operated until 1942, and it classified propaganda into seven key categories.

Institute of Propaganda Analysis: Types of Propaganda


Creates a sense of isolation for audience members who have not yet joined the cause. It appeals strongly to our sense of conformity and longing to belong to a part of a group.


Endorsement by a well-known, well-liked celebrity, political figure, or other entity. This creates a sense of trust and likeability for the cause because of the person promoting it.

Plain Folks

Endorsement by regular, ordinary people, to show how the policy or idea has helped them. This creates a sense of normalcy about the idea that’s being promoted, and shows how its success will fit into everyday life.


Employs techniques that access the audience’s preconceived positive feelings about something, and transfer them to the idea being promoted. It relies heavily on symbolism to connect the audience’s emotions to the idea.


Uses names that evoke a negative emotional response, such as fear, anger, or annoyance. By comparing the person or idea with something else that is hated, the audience creates an association between the two in their minds.

Card Stacking

Uses selective information to present only one side of an argument or story. This focus portrays the issue at hand unfairly, and many people may be swayed in one direction or the other because of incomplete information.

Glittering Generalities

Uses strongly loaded words that access the positive emotions of the target audience. Typically, glittering generalities employ the use of slogans, and carefully selected words in the slogans often appeal to the virtues the audience holds dear.

Books and plays that have been classified as propaganda:

Common Core State Standards

Although this activity can be used for multiple grade levels, below are Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade-appropriate strands.

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically

A great way to have students gain an understanding of propaganda is to have them create propaganda of their own. On their own or in a group, have students select a rule or aspect of school they dislike: detention, school lunches, homework, final exams, etc. Then, have them spin it into something positive to promote it to their classmates. As they craft their plan, they should use one of the types of propaganda, and be able to explain how their strategy accesses the emotions of the audience. If they incorporate logos and ethos as well, they should include that in their explanations. Have students create a storyboard they can present to the class that promotes their topic in a positive light.

Propaganda Class Assignment
Choose an aspect from school that is typically negative, and spin it into a positive promotional advertisement for your classmates. Utilize at least 5 kinds of propaganda in your storyboard, and label it below each scene you depict. Be prepared to present your storyboard to the class, and be able to explain each cell. Let's see if you can change your classmates' attitudes!
33 Points
25 Points
17 Points
Propaganda Content and Techniques
Student depicts a minimum of 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product is creative, interesting, and makes good use of the propaganda techniques. The techniques used are used correctly, and the storyboard achieves its propaganda goals of being persuasive.
Student depicts a minimum of 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product is creative and coherent. Some techniques may be used incorrectly, or may be confused. The storyboard makes a good attempt at being a persuasive piece of propaganda.
Student depicts less than 5 types of propaganda for their chosen school topic. Their finished product lacks effort. Some techniques may be used incorrectly, or may be confused or combined. The storyboard makes some attempt at being a persuasive piece of propaganda, but it is limited.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate and neat. Time and care is taken to ensure that scenes are eye-catching and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is appropriate but may seem rushed. Some art may be haphazardly placed and lack of attention to detail is noticeable.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is inappropriate or too limited. Some scenes may have been left blank.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.

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