All posts by Danielle Echeverria

RBA Topic – Propaganda’s Affect on Media: What does it mean to be an American?

In my RBA, I want to research the extent to which government issued propaganda influences various forms of media, particularly commercial advertising and news. I specifically want to look at how these media, intentionally or not, echoed the sentiments expressed in propaganda and thus perpetuated them. By drawing comparisons with Cold War propaganda and media, I want to analyze how modern-day, post 9/11 media reflects government ideals, and ultimately how that shapes our definition of what it means to be an American.

Here is my mind map:



Propaganda Everywhere

During the Cold War, propaganda and advertisements were used heavily to create the “American identity”: that of a nuclear family reaping the benefits of a capitalist economy and living a quaint suburban lifestyle. Whether we realize it or not, we are continuously influenced by these types of media, and often use them to define our country’s values.

Because of the Cold War’s ideological nature, America’s success against the Soviet Union depended heavily on being a unified country, with all citizens believing in a consistent set of ideals: those of democracy and capitalism being superior. Therefore, it was imperative that the government somehow ensure that all citizens would subscribe to these ideals, which they set out to do by creating an “us versus them” narrative through various methods of propaganda. In Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War, Belmonte notes that government propaganda was meant “to provide cogent illustrations of efforts to define American national identity.” She goes on to analyze a number of government issued materials that accomplished this task. Furthermore, Spring asserts in Advertising in the Age of Persuasion that “market research, targeted advertising, and commercial media would lead every nation to voluntarily adopt American leadership and a free enterprise consumer economy.” These and many other scholars agree that both information given out by the government as well as consumer advertisements were essential in perpetuating the perfect American society as it was known during the Cold War, and how this society was not only different from, but greater than the Soviet way of life. After 9/11, the same “us versus them” dialogue created by this Cold War propaganda resurfaced, this time being American versus the terrorists. In my research, I want to analyze the post 9/11 media and advertising that we see today and how they speak to this dialogue. What should be considered propaganda, or what is simply advertising? Is any modern advertising truly unentangled with propaganda?

Science Fiction as Political Commentary

Cold War and containment rhetoric had an immense impact on popular culture. Not only did the ideology of the time inadvertently permeate different types of media, but those in media also actively chose to comment on many of the controversial issues facing the country. Science fiction, a widely consumed form of entertainment, was the one of types of popular media that could easily inquire the government’s motives and rightfulness without being placed under heavy scrutiny or rejection.

Star Trek, a 1960s television series set in the 23rd century about a space mission to discover new civilizations across the universe, used allegory as a tool to comment on the United States’ foreign policy and role during the Cold War. For example, in the episode “Errand of Mercy,” Captain Kirk and Doctor Spock, representing the Federation, find themselves attempting to save what seems to be the hopeless world of Organia from invasion by the evil Klingons and their dictator. The Organians refuse Kirk and Spock’s help on the grounds that they do not condone violence. To Kirk and Spock, the pacifist, calm, and less than technologically advanced Organians appear to be nothing but simpletons who do not know how to protect themselves. However, when Kirk and Spock finally do confront the Klingons, despite the Organians’ wishes that they do nothing, the Organians use their advanced mind power to prevent the two sides from actually fighting. Thus, both the Federation and the Klingons are outpowered by the Organians, whom neither party had previously respected. As Sarantakes points out, this means that “Federation representatives were to avoid interfering in the natural development of less developed societies, generally interpreted as those lacking the technology to travel in space. This principle was anti-colonial in nature and an acknowledgment of the limits to power, even American power.” At a time when Americans were decided whether or not intervening with democracy in countries that had no such concept, this episode was especially powerful. It encouraged people to think that even though small, third-world countries seemed unintelligent to both communists and Americans, perhaps they did not actually need to subscribe to either form of government.

Star Trek is not the only science fiction piece to comment on issues facing America. In the book Brave New World,  Aldous Huxley criticizes the rapidly rising consumerism culture in the United States by presenting an alternate world (the same method employed by the writers of Star Trek) where drugs, sex, and pleasure run amuck at the cost of developing real, personal relationships and experiencing real feelings.

As these two examples show, science fiction is a powerful tool in political commentary because of its ability to present the audience with an alternate universe that serves as a reflection of what their world might actually be.

Cities Under Attack: The Cold War Fear of Urbanization

When people think of the Cold War, the image at the forefront of their minds is often the nuclear bomb. That is because this time period was defined by the possession of nuclear power, along with the fear that America might be attacked. People were deeply worried that America’s large and bustling cities would be the first victims, as Farish notes in “Disaster and decentralization: American cities and the Cold War.”  He states that “a city was, as Bernard Brodie put it, ‘a made-to- order target, and the degree of urbanization of a country furnishes a rough index of its relative vulnerability to the atomic bomb.’” This quote speaks to the rest of Farish’s study, in which he observes cities, with their concentrated populations and hubs of activity, were particularly susceptible to nuclear attack because hitting a city would cause maximum damage. This, then, is part of the reason so many people sought refuge in the suburbs; the quiet inconspicuousness of suburban life made one far less likely to be attacked.

Farish also describes the sensationalization of the bombing of Hiroshima and how that might take place in the United States in the media: the city is booming in one moment, completely demolished in the next. The ruin described in these accounts came to fruition in a sense when the attacks of 9/11 sent New York City, a symbol of capitalism and economic success in America, into a state of devastation and disarray. Though New York was not destroyed by nuclear power, its situation as a highly populated city meant that thousands of lives were either lost or grievously affected, and severe damage occurred due to the assault.

After 9/11 and into today, the media often focuses on the imagery of the Twin Towers falling in discussion of the disaster. Having visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum this summer, I can confirm that these images stir up deep fear and distress, even for those who did not personally witness the event. These disturbing images reignite the Cold War fear of the urban lifestyle; I even found myself thinking that living in my small, suburban hometown of Bakersfield, California, makes me less of a target than someone in an immense, well-known urban city like New York. The recurrence of these images lends itself to the kind of dramatization of further demolition of other large, urban areas that was seen during the Cold War. People are once again imagining the suburbs as an escape from the vulnerability of the city.

What Does “American” Really Mean?

In Lugo’s book, Containing (Un)American Bodies, Lugo makes many connections between how Americans defined themselves and others during the Cold War and again following the 9/11 attacks. One point that I fund very interesting is that Lugo states: “If the ‘American people’ knew that marriage should not be ‘messed with,’ then lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and even straight folks in support of same-sex marriage were placed outside the category ‘American.’ […] Consequently, to be in favor of same-sex marriage and to be opposed to war in Iraq held their exclusion from the category “American” in common” (Lugo 18). In this way, the word “American” is used not so much to define a people as it is to exclude a people. In Cold War rhetoric, “American” became a very exclusive term, saved for those who lived perfect lives with their nuclear families, trusted and supported to government in every way, and subscribed to capitalist ideals, rather than just those who lived in America. Thus, to fall outside of any of these constraints made a person un-American. In this way, “American” is not simply a description of heritage, but a weapon used against those who did not conform to a certain identity.

Containment Culture in “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s”

After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Americans began to cope by reverting to Cold War rhetoric and ideals. These ideals were reintegrated into American culture, public policy, and popular media, and they are still visible today.

Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” is about seeking comfort and refuge from the world in a family home. In the song, McGraw describes a small town home with a nice lawn, a mother and a father, and dinner for everyone. Its message is that when the world around us seems out of control, a familiar, picturesque household with lots of space and a loving family is the perfect escape.

While this song wasn’t directly born out of the Cold War or 9/11 eras, I find that it speaks very accurately to the reemergence of family values during these times and captures the contented lifestyle that many Americans began to grasp for. People were not necessarily actively seeking to reinstitute traditional nuclear families and gender roles, but they were seeking something safe, stable, and familiar when everything they thought they knew was crumbling around them.

In my opinion, this song is quite beautiful and soothing; as I picture myself in this setting, I feel at peace. So, while the emphasis on family values did by default result in the exclusion of any deviance, it also provided the healing and comfortable space that Americans desperately needed in the face of threat (real or perceived) and disaster.