Propaganda can be dated back to 1622 when Pope Gregory XV created "a commission of cardinals charged with spreading the faith and regulating church affairs in heathen lands."1 The ability to control societal thoughts and opinions through propaganda has always been a valuable asset; therefore, this ability will always be pursued. However, the power to manipulate people's thinking comes at an ethical price.
The ethical implications of propaganda are highly complex; Edward Bernays, often referred to as the "father of public relations," argued in his work "Propaganda" that opinion leaders in democratic societies not only can but should use propaganda to mold public sentiment for the greater good of society. Although there may be benefits to our collective welfare from this "manufactured consent," the potential for manipulation and erosion of democratic principles cannot be ignored.
The ethical use of propaganda hinges on transparency, honesty, and a genuine commitment to the welfare of society; however, this is almost always impossible to achieve. The overarching incentive to pursue self-interest is rarely overlooked, especially in the corporate world.
Democratic governments that participate in the use of propaganda, when impartial and nonbiased, serve the people that it overlooks, creating an equal, critically thinking, well-informed citizenship.
Corporations, driven by the imperative to maximize profits and market share, will often do so by any means necessary, foregoing the commitment to provide clear, truthful, and informative media. There are countless examples of corporations using propaganda in an unethical way.
Examples of Unethical Use of Propaganda in Business
One notable example of a company engaging in the unethical use of propaganda is Volkswagen's "Clean Diesel" campaign. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that Volkswagen had installed software in their diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests.
The software could detect when an emissions test was being performed by using factors like the position of the steering wheel, the vehicle speed, and the duration of the engine's operation. It would alter how the engine ran, adjusting various engine parameters, such as fuel injection timing and exhaust gas recirculation, to meet emissions standards set by regulators. Volkswagen marketed its diesel cars as environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient, emphasizing low emissions and compliance with environmental standards.
The "Clean Diesel" campaign sought to position Volkswagen as an eco-conscious alternative, which played on the propaganda used by the United States government in the face of escalating environmental challenges to promote consumer choices towards more sustainable options.
The ethically acceptable propaganda spread by the United States government, framing eco-friendly behaviors as socially responsible and aligning them with prevailing societal values, was manipulated by this corporation to maximize profits.
This objectively positive narrative pushed by the government fostered a new sense of environmental responsibility among the masses, which Volkswagen hijacked and used as an opportunity to falsely present itself as "eco-conscious," aiming to influence consumer perceptions and drive sales.
The narrative pushed by the government in attempts to spread awareness of the need for environmentally friendly practices to slow climate change was used as a cash grab for a corporation, showcasing the inability of businesses to wield propaganda ethically.
Selective Disclosure of Information
Beyond deceptive advertising in propaganda, another common technique corporations use in manipulating the public is a selective disclosure of information. Enron, once considered one of the most innovative and successful energy companies in the United States, became one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in U.S. history because of its unethical practices enabled by its misuse of propaganda.
Enron participated in numerous corporate fraud and accounting scandals to mislead investors and the public. It created a complex network of off-balance-sheet entities, which were not included in its financial statements. These entities, including partnerships, were used to keep substantial amounts of debt off Enron's books, providing a distorted view of the company's financial position.
Enron selectively disclosed information to investors and the public, emphasizing positive aspects of its financial performance while concealing the existence and extent of its debt and financial obligations, resulting in highly inflated stock prices.
The severe ethical wrongdoing by Enron had catastrophic effects on countless innocent people. As the truth about Enron's financial practices began to surface, the company's stock price collapsed, resulting in substantial financial losses for investors and leaving thousands of their employees without a job.
In a broader sense, propaganda from corporations can undermine autonomy by influencing individuals in ways that limit their ability to make independent, informed decisions. Autonomy refers to the capacity for self-governance and the ability to make choices free from external manipulation or coercion. When corporations employ propaganda techniques, they compromise your ability to critically analyze the information being presented.
One way they may achieve this is through emotional manipulation. Propaganda frequently relies on emotional appeals to influence behavior. Corporations may use emotional triggers like fear, joy, or a sense of belonging to sway consumer preferences. When emotions are manipulated, individuals may make decisions driven by sentiment rather than rational judgment, compromising their autonomy by being influenced in ways they might not consciously choose.
An example of emotional manipulation occurs in the Tobacco industry, where tobacco companies advertise smoking by featuring images of individuals enjoying a cigarette in leisurely settings surrounded by friends. The advertising creates a message associating smoking with a good time and well-being.
Although a majority of us are well aware of the serious health implications that come with smoking, the propaganda attempts to create a culture that accepts and promotes the use of tobacco. The use of emotional propaganda undermines our ability to think critically about the decisions we are about to make; the tobacco industry's profit incentive sacrifices our health for their sales.
The unethical nature of propaganda, exemplified by instances like deceptive advertising and selective information disclosure, is evident in its capacity to manipulate emotions, exploit societal values, and compromise individual autonomy.
Ethical considerations must be prioritized, emphasizing responsible communication and a commitment to societal well-being in the use of propaganda within democratic frameworks. Upholding transparency and honesty remains crucial to counteracting the potential negative impacts of propaganda on public opinion and democratic principles.
Collom, Justin K.R. “The Art of Mass Manipulation: How Big Corporations Utilize Psychological Tricks in Media.” LinkedIn, 20 Oct. 2023, www.linkedin.com/pulse/art-mass-manipulation-how-big-corporations-utilize-tricks-collom/.
Collom, Justin K.R. “Unmasking the Power of Propaganda: Controlling Populations and Modern Tactics.” LinkedIn, 23 May 2023, www.linkedin.com/pulse/unmasking-power-propaganda-controlling-populations-modern-collom/.
Hotten, Russell. “Volkswagen: The Scandal Explained.” BBC News, BBC, 10 Dec. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772.
Segal, Troy. “Enron Scandal: The Fall of a Wall Street Darling.” Investopedia, Investopedia, www.investopedia.com/updates/enron-scandal-summary/. Accessed 14 Dec. 2023.
1“The Story of Propaganda: AHA.” The Story of Propaganda | AHA, www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/em-2-what-is-propaganda-(1944)/the-story-of-propaganda. Accessed 14 Dec. 2023.