That was the famous message that Ronald Wilson Reagan delivered to Americans in a 1984 campaign advertisement. It pictured bright idyllic scenes of suburban life — everyone going back to work; interest rates down; inflation no longer threatening the economy.
These themes were designed to soothe a nation sick from the malaise of the 1970s and to say that Reagan stepped forward and restored the optimism of Americans.
Reagan, the former screen actor, television movie host and California governor, went on to win re-election.
Employing the simplest and most resonant terms and images, the ad defined his opponent as part of the problem and Reagan as the man who had the key to a better world.
“Reagan understood political communication and mastered propaganda,” said Frank Durham, University of Iowa associate professor, who teaches media history and culture, media framing and qualitative research methods.
Today, the presidential candidates in the campaigns are showing equal mastery of propaganda and drawing on themes that parallel the Reagan model. Just as Reagan’s ‘Morning again in America’ ad depicted him as the solution to malaise and stagnation nearly three decades ago, ads today often carry the same theme with a 21st Century twist.
Many are like trailers to action movies. Typical campaign ads have been built on pizzazz, frenetic pacing and bombarding flash words and images that assault the senses to target the subconscious. The ads convey no substantive messages and are geared toward searing impressions into the viewers’ minds.
While the notion of propaganda in American democracy may sound shocking to people taught to believe it is the insidious tool of dictators and their mind benders, experts agree it often straddles the line between truth and falsehood and that it can be used for bad and good purposes.
“Propaganda is not necessarily false,” Durham said, adding in a later email that “some propaganda is just informational.”
He said propaganda is communicated by basing it on themes that reflect cultural patterns that the public will recognize.
Nancy Snow, a professor of communication who specializes in persuasive and political communication and mass media history at California State University-Fullerton, said propaganda is most effective when it presents information as accurately as possible.
Propaganda is, of course, also “a tool to deceive.” In the end, it’s a matter of intent.
“Propaganda thrives in presenting different kinds of truths, including half-truths, incomplete truths, limited truths, out of context truths,” she wrote in an email.
Propaganda played a critical role in the formation of the U.S. “The American Revolution,” Snow wrote, “occurred in part because of a sustained, successful propaganda movement throughout the colonies. Starting more than a decade before the ‘shots were heard around the world’, the propaganda movement helped fuel the fires of revolution.”
In modern campaign advertising, the images and words play on viewers’ sense of history and on conventional cultural themes that will resonate, which again is characteristic of propaganda.
Snow and Durham said that historically, the American Revolution and the rising of the Soviet Union helped form the United States and in many respects, to this day, define what it means to be an American.
The history of the country cultivates a cultural pattern. In accordance with that pattern, Americans historically have seen the U.S. as a country of free and hard-working citizens, as the most powerful nation in the world and as the defender of the free world against the former Soviet Union, which, for decades, was seen as the evil empire.
Durham said, “As long as you are telling the same story, it doesn’t matter what face you put in your story; what information you include or exclude in the story.”
That same story theme and pattern has emerged in this year’s campaign. In the campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “Proven Leadership” ad pictures Barack Obama’s America as grim and troubled. With ominous background music, thunder and lightning, the nation is a washed-out picture of deserted, rain-drenched streets, closed factories, empty rooms and peeling walls. It starts slowly, quickly building up speed until words, phrases and images – all negative – are making split-second appearances that leave no time for comprehension. Nevertheless, the impressions – negative images associated with Obama – pound the senses.
What follows in the ad is a vision of Perry’s America: the same slow-to-frenetic pacing, but showing budding green fields, rippling American flags, bustling job sites, horses galloping, children who play with toy war planes under real ones streaking across the sky and Perry’s sound bites – “a renewed nation needs a new president,” “The U.S. of America is the last great hope of mankind” – ending with an abrupt but long silence, a waving American flag and “Perry for President.”
The ad plays to the public’s fear that the future is bleak and Perry – like Ronald Reagan in 1984 – would restore the country’s vitality. Durham said political ads that have used fear appeals delivered the similar theme – helpless people have much to fear, such as communism and terrorism. And the opponent is indirectly symbolized as “the monster” or someone who surrenders to the “monster.”
The message is that if you elect the candidate, he or she will protect you and restore the powerful number one country, Durham said.
The historical schemas and rooted cultural patterns are framed in these political ads, he said.
The results, according to Stephen Ducat, a clinical psychologist in California and a former professor of political psychology, tend to leave people unaware of the information or facts that may be false. Propaganda makes people simple-minded and limits the audience’s thoughts and emotions by reframing connotations of certain words.
For example, in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, candidates replace the word ‘capitalist’ with the more positive phrase “job creator.”
The Perry ad flashes messages through the fast-pace of the advertising so quickly – almost instantly – viewers have no chance to assess one image or piece of information before confronted with another.
“The goal of propaganda is to put us in a dream framed by advertisers and to direct our emotions to the interests of those in power,” Ducat said.
Some news organizations make inconsistent efforts to report false and misleading ads and statements through ad watch stories and fact-check columns. In the current campaign, a surge in fact-checking websites and columns give the public a chance to become more aware of false ads. But their value to inform the public discourse is limited in quality and reach.
“Current fact-checking is not that well-done,” said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science and public administration at California State University in Fullerton.