Propaganda Posters: Do They Really Have an Effect?

If you live in China, you’ve seen them. Even if you can’t read Chinese, you can probably guess what they’re saying. They’re the red and yellow banners fluttering from official buildings everywhere, the tackily illustrated posters telling you not to spit on the street, and the collages of hundreds of smiling Chinese faces with big characters telling you: “A Harmonious Society Comes From the Heart.” They’re commonly called propaganda, though they might just as aptly be labeled public service announcements of a sort. Few countries have them in the abundance China does, so one can’t help but wonder, are they actually doing anything?

Most foreigners tune them out, and many Chinese people would report the same. But that might not matter. While (as far as we can tell), there aren’t any studies of these posters and banners specifically, studies of advertisements generally have shown that ads can and do have an effect on the viewer — even when the viewer’s focus is elsewhere. This study, for example, found that banner ads on websites are effective even when viewers don’t notice them or click on them. If public service ads work the same way (and why wouldn’t they), all those messages about harmonious and civilized society might well be working their way into your brains.

But wait, it gets creepier! According tothis recent study, subliminal advertising and more subtle product placement is actually more effective, apparently “because people don’t have time to raise their anti-ad defenses.” Subtlety in advertising has not, traditionally, been the Chinese government’s strong suit, but their propaganda teams must certainly be aware of these results. Conspiracy theorists, begin looking for secret messages on CCTV now.

We’re not, of course, experts by any stretch of the imagination, butStefan Landsberger might be. He’s a longtime collector of Chinese propaganda posters, and a few years ago he shared his thoughts with Pop Cult Mag:

Have propaganda posters been effective in educating the Chinese people? Have they succeeded in bringing about correct behavior and thought? These crucial questions are difficult to answer, if only because–to my knowledge–no serious research has been done yet on the reception and/or effectiveness of the posters.

[…]

Most reports about the reception that posters published since the late 1940s have received stress the accepted line that people prefer the wholesome, modern, and educational contents of the posters, rather than other, more frivolous, or more traditional visual materials. In the early 1950s, in particular, this preference was expressed in reference to the New Year’s pictures (nianhua) the people had access to in the past. These reports, whether from the early days of the PRC or from the mid-1980s, however, offer no assessment of the educational effects the posters may have had.

The numerous conversations I have had with Chinese from all walks of life over the past two decades present a picture that modifies the official interpretation of the effectiveness of posters. Many, if not most, of the people I consulted did not consider the posters to be art or even aesthetically pleasing. People would often remark that “nobody in China was interested in these things,” but this is difficult to believe, for three reasons. First, abundant pictorial evidence exists of dwellings–both urban and rural–in which propaganda posters are prominently displayed. This evidence spans some five decades. Second, many posters I have seen bear a handwritten inscription clearly indicating that these posters have been presented to others to mark a special occasion. Third, many people have offhandedly admitted to me–in a somewhat embarrassed manner–that they have internalized some behavioral aspects of the propaganda posters, most specifically the message presented by model hero Lei Feng.

[…]

[Still,] there is no clear evidence to demonstrate that propaganda posters have been either effective or ineffective in inculcating thought and behavior.

There’s “no clear evidence”, yet the posters remain. One wonders if perhaps the government knows something about them we don’t. Certainly, effort goes into making these things and keeping them posted all over the country. Is it all a wasted effort? Tough to say. Obviously someone thinks it isn’t.

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0 thoughts on “Propaganda Posters: Do They Really Have an Effect?”

  1. I always assumed that the propaganda banners and stuff have more than one purpose/message, and that the explicit message written on the banner (like “make a hygienic neighbourhood”) isn’t necessarily the most important — or most loudly heard — message.

    I’ve been keeping informal tabs on the propaganda banners and posters in our area for two years, just as a fun side-hobby. Here’s one that shows the post-Olympic shift in emphasis.

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  2. Just as in 60’s and 70’s Taiwan and South Korea these propaganda posters have no effect and become hackneyed phrases often twisted by popular humour. Like the exhortations to probity and proclamations of morality rendered in beautiful calligraphy hanging behind the boss’ desk, there is no relation to reality; it’s only for form.

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  3. @ Scott: I find it very hard to swallow that there’s no relation to reality. Even if they’re placed there simply because everyone’s going through the motions, you really mean to suggest that growing up and seeing these messages every day has no effect whatsoever, even subliminally? I find that difficult to believe.

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  4. In my experience in Taiwan during the 70’s and here in Shanghai for the last eight years big-character exhortations to do – whatever – and often followed by the tag 人人有責 (Everyone has the responsibility) has no noticeable effect on the conduct of people or their habits other than satisfy the Chinese penchant for public reminders of probity. You see differently? And when a phrase is mouthed too often people simply tune out. I also remind you of the earnest commercials acted or voiced over by local, big-name stars encouraging the public to act in certain manners; you see any change in public behaviour as a result? Did the public recitation and reminders of Confucian virtues make a more virtuous society in traditional China?

    The dissonance between the moral maxim in calligraphy mounted on the wall and the petty venality of the owner impresses me still whenever I encounter it.

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  5. I don’t see any difference in public behavior, what I’m wondering about is whether or not it affects people’s mindsets. In something I was reading while researching this article (sadly, I forget where now), I read that in fact having ideas about what’s moral and what isn’t has pretty much zero effect on behavior whatsoever, so it’s entirely possible that these ideas have affected people’s thinking but haven’t affected their behavior at all.

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  6. Ah, found it here (via The Useless Tree):

    The assumption behind his [Scorates’s] approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it.

    One problem with this kind of approach to morality, as Michael Gazzaniga writes in his 2008 book, “Human,” is that “it has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.”

    Not saying thinking in general doesn’t affect it, just saying its possible that propaganda could help shape public morality without actually affecting public behavior.

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