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.