The strange ethics of propaganda

YouTube is becoming all tough and militant (terroristic?) about the use of Ad-blockers. If I open a copy of YouTube in a fresh window now, in the time it has taken me to type these two sentences, twenty five ads have been blocked by Firefox. No, twenty six, as I did the full stop. If I actually open a video, pretty soon some threatening message will now flash up tell me it’s evil not to watch them all.

Now, perhaps it is depriving them of revenue if people block their ads, at least in theory. In practice, I have a longstanding habit of not buying anything I have actually seen advertised. I don’t read periodicals or newspapers, any programmes I watch on TV are either BBC offerings, or are recorded and watched later so we can skip the ads. In fact, I lead an almost advertising-free life nowadays. I don’t even think there are any hoardings along the routes I usually use to live my life. And do you know what? Life is just fine without them, since I choose brands of beer, guitar strings or lawn-mowers by research or experience.

Furthermore, the ironic thing is that nearly everything I choose to watch on YouTube has been de-monetised by them on the grounds that the videos breach undefined community guidelines. To be more exact, as we discovered from the Twitter files if not from gut-feeling, videos are censored if they go against the particular ideological slant of the management, or of the politicians and Intelligence operatives who bribe or threaten them.

In other words, as YouTube withholds advertising revenues from the “creators” whose work I want to watch, or not infrequently bans them altogether, or shadow-bans them failing that, or down-plays the number of views failing that, they are making ever-more steps to ensure that I do watch the propaganda of advertisers not constrained by any such controls. Though I don’t doubt there is some ideological screening of anyone wishing to place ads on the medium in the first place. Have you ever seen an ad for a Christian cake-maker or a Bible translation on YouTube?

It is important to realise that PR, including advertising, and political propaganda, share exactly the same roots in the work of pioneers in psychological manipulation like Edward Bernays. Bernays took tobacco industry money, back in the early twentieth century, to persuade women that cigarette smoking was an empowering thing for feminism. It was one of the most lethal advertising campaigns in history, though now arguably rivaled by the MRNA jab campaigns across the world. But in 1928 he also wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in
democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is
the true ruling power of our country.

Lenin’s Russia took a leaf out of this book, as later did Goebbels, and partly in response to that, Western societies rapidly became propaganda cultures. By the 1950s, Operation Mockingbird in the US was deliberately feeding lies to its own population to counter Soviet propaganda, making it impossible even to know whether the claim that Soviet sources were propaganda was itself a lie.

Despite the political backlash against Mockingbird, it has become the template for everything we see in our “democratic” (though only in Bernays’s sense) society today. 77th Brigade and Spy-B inform the people through a willing or cajoled press, all the actual Russian sources were cut off from our free countries at the start of last year, and it is unclear to what extent the overlap between government and commerce controls what actually goes ends up in those ads on YouTube.

The speaker Tony Campolo used to get his kids to say, when they watched advertising on TV, “Who are you trying to kid?” Whether it worked I’m not sure, because from the start propaganda is about far more than offering a message to accept or reject. Bernays may have been paid to advertise particular cigarette brands, but it was not Lucky Strike that caused lung cancer and related evils to kill so many women, but the “liberating” sociological message behind the sponsor: “Cool women smoke.”

I realised this as a teenager, at a time when detergent advertising was particularly banal and condescending. I realised that few women would be persuaded that the comparison of Jean’s Daz whites with Pam’s dull Brand X greys in Pam’s kitchen reflected truth. Especially when Persil, Omo, Surf, and Rinso adverts were saying exactly the same thing. But I reckoned that all the watchers would take note of how modern Pam’s kitchen was compared to theirs, and either pressure their husbands to upgrade, or scrimp and save their own menial earnings (full-time jobs being the increasing reality contrasted with chatting with your neighbours in the kitchen).

It’s hard to say if washing machine manufacturers had a hand in funding detergent commercials, knowing it would increase their own sales – but it may be telling that they all used to include a free box of Bluinite Tide or whatever in each new machine. There was after all no technical reason for them to recommend one brand over another. All modern advertsing promotes lifestyle more than product.

Likewise, it’s not easy to know just how the subliminal sociological messaging gets into adverts nowadays. Take the gross over-representation of ethnic minorities in British advertising. Three or four percent of the nation’s population is black, but few TV ads have much less than a 50:50 split between black and white casting, unless the percentage of both is reduced by middle-eastern origin actors. Is this simply to capture markets amongst the minorities? Is it because advertisers all live in London, where the ethnic mix is abnormal? Or does ideological commitment to “diversity” within the P.R. agencies, or gentle hinting from government nudge units or a politicised OFCOM, mean that the phenomenon has sociological, rather than commercial, intent?

Whatever the truth is, it is not that a majority of families in England are racially mixed. Yet even simply watching the ads uncritically and ignoring the overt message whilst saying “Who are they trying to kid?”, between the pap programming, will have a subtle effect on one’s perception of the world. If it were not so, then media platforms like YouTube would have little motivation to force us to watch their ads rather than just the videos we select.

After all, advertising is ostensibly about offering us a choice. We see adverts for McCoys crisps and Walkers Crisps, and are free to decide which to buy based on their relative merits (and not at all because Gary Lineker is a TV personality paid a lot to promote one of them). But if I know I don’t want to buy crisps, for health or any other reason, then why should I have to watch either advert? Either the intention is to manipulate me into ignoring my considered dietary judgement, or into liking Gary Lineker, who just happens also to be an outspoken proponent of progressive ideas?

1 Corinthians 15:33 offers us an obvious truth: “Bad company corrupts good character.” In the electronic age the TV became the wicked uncle in the corner, and of course social media has taken that idea to the extreme: it is intended to be the company we keep, as we are sweeping our phone screen rather than talking to our actual families or the people we bump into because we’re distracted.

Like all technology, that can be a good thing: I have made good friends through this blog and through other online communities, but those are choices of the company I keep. The opportunity to hear, or even “meet,” people I’d never get a chance to meet in real life can be an uplifting thing. But the dangers of such online communities are now well-known, whether that the fostering of gender dysphoria among young autistic girls, the radicalising of Muslims though propaganda videos, or sowing seeds of doubt in the benignity of governments through scientific disinformation… well, the Online Safety Bill should sort all that out, under the threat of dire penalties.

Let me put it plainly – I don’t like keeping the company of advertisers, because I do not trust their integrity, and I do not trust their moral character. So whilst I’m able to, i will block them out of my life. And if that doesn’t please YouTube, I will abandon that platform, and they certainly won’t be able to sell me anything then.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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1 Response to The strange ethics of propaganda

  1. Robert Byers says:

    the law is in our nations we gave free speech as free men. In these early days of the internet etc those in power over the means of production in the the internet are censoring as done in human history. We all agree with censorship but rub up against each other about what is or is not to be censored. So who is the boss? the people in the english countries,m first america, settled the people are the boss.Well God is. He censors lying, blasphemy, cursing, this and that. yet he gives us free speecxh to speck important or any truth about anything. Then being free men we can speak about anything except what is from precenent forbidden. Porn was forbidden but now is not. Who says? The people.
    Youtube is oppressive as I experience. so the people must assert they obey our freedom of thought and speech laws. This is the community. A nation.
    By the way i think the fear of smoking is dumb and think it should be legal to adverstise .I hate adds and avoid them.

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