Propaganda Techniques for PK-12 Teachers & Students Illustration



Table of Contents

What is Propaganda, and why do we care?

A "Sound" Example "Hidden" messages - Self Test Your Skills!

Is Propaganda Always Negative?

Reverse Propaganda - Self Test Your Skills!

(Answer section)

Resource Links

What is Propaganda? And why do we care?

definitions of propaganda

Propaganda designers have been putting messages into television commercials, news programs, magazine ads, and other things we read and see for years. These messages have been carefully designed to influence our opinions, emotions, attitudes and behavior. Their purpose is to persuade us to believe in something or to do something that we would not normally believe or do. These messages have been designed to benefit someone, and that someone may not be you!

It's not as easy as you might think to spot hidden messages. Propaganda designers know you are on your guard. To get around your guard, they don't put one message into a piece of propaganda - they put lots of messages into each piece! The more you know about propaganda techniques and how they work, the less likely it is that someone will sneak something by you!

Nothing says that you can't appreciate a good piece of propaganda, and still agree with the messages hidden within it. But, you don't want to be persuaded into doing something you do not wish to do or into believing something that is not true simply because you've been the target of an effective propaganda campaign. That's why it's important to understand what propaganda is and how it works.

Is everything we see and hear propaganda? No, it is not. The word propaganda refers to any technique that attempts to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of a group in order to benefit the sponsor. The techniques of propaganda are used every day, in the military, in the media, in advertising, in politics, and in all sorts of human relationships.

To protect yourself against the techniques of propaganda, three good questions to ask yourself are:

  1. Who does this benefit?
  2. Why did they do that?
  3. According to whom?

Can YOU spot the hidden messages in the examples on this page? It's not as easy as you might think!

A "Sound" Example!

The secret messages in propaganda can be hidden in many ways. Some propaganda is structured using sound.

One of my favorite examples of the use of sound was accomplished by the U.S. Army in December, 1989. At that time, there was a dictator, named Manuel Noriega, who lived in Panama (a country in Central America.) The United States wanted Noriega to surrender to the U.S. Armed Forces. Noriega was a wanted criminal. A US military team had been sent to Panama to bring Noriega back to the United States, to stand trial for drug smuggling. Noriega did not wish to do this. He went into hiding in Panama.

From information the U.S. Army received from their field agents, they knew where Noriega was hiding. They knew he was hiding inside the Nuncia, which is a Catholic retreat, in Panama. They also knew that Noriega hated rock'n roll music. It drove him crazy!

The U.S. Army could have stormed the Nuncia. Instead, using the information they had received from their field agents, the U.S. Army shipped specially designed vans down to Panama. These vans were rigged to play rock'n roll music quite loudly. These vans were positioned right outside the Nuncia, where Noriega was hiding. The sound systems were turned on and left on. Rock'n roll music thundered the Nuncia, 24 hours a day, day after day, unrelentingly. The U.S. Army kept this up until Noriega finally surrendered less than two weeks later.

This is not to imply that rock'n roll music, played loudly around the clock, was the reason Noriega surrendered, but it certainly helped. To you, or to someone else, this technique might have been an emotional booster, but to Noriega, it was a hateful experience! This was a very effective use of the techniques of targeted propaganda using sound.

The sound of the music itself wore him down, but what other messages did this music signal? (Click here for the answer)

Follow-up: In January, 2001, we received a most interesting email about this section of our propaganda site. We found it so interesting, that - with the permission of the author - we posted it here.

Sent: Wednesday, January 24, 2001. The note read:


I'm sorry to inform you that your section on the Psywar operations conducted in Panama is nearly completely wrong. I say this, not as an historian or military buff, but as one of the two soldiers who conducted this particular mission. Lets start from the beginning paragraph.

1) The Nuciatura is in fact a Papal Embassy and enjoys the same international protections accorded any other embassy world-wide. It is not simply a Catholic retreat. Your comment that troops could storm as they saw fit is simply wrong. An invasion of that premises would have been an act of war toward the Holy See.

2) The fact that rock music was used had absolutely nothing to do with Noriega's musical taste or aversion to it. It was simply available.

3) There were no vans shipped from the U.S. that were outfitted with loudspeaker equipment. The system used was a Korean War era 250 watt, man-portable loudspeaker system.

4) Music was not played 24 hours a day. It was played sun-up to sundown.

5) The music had no effect on Noriega. The Papal Nuncio Monsignor Sebastian Laboa was the one who suffered the ill effects.

6) The music had no effect on Noriega's surrender. A demonstration of nearly 50,000 Panamanians outside the Nunciatura, and the fact that Nicoli Coucescu had just been killed by his own people frightened Noriega to the point that he feared his people more than the U.S. justice.

7) Air dropped leaflets did in fact have a tremendous success rate in Panama.

8) Lastly, the music played was not meant as audio propaganda. It was a sonic barrier to prevent directional microphone eavesdropping. Sorry to burst your bubble. The mission was really not that glamorous.

After going through the rest of your Psyop page I found it to be quite good, just not entirely correct. I thank you for trying to remember our mission and the sacrifices we made doing it. I felt it necessary to give you the real story. Anyone who tells you differently than I have just done has no idea of which they speak. I should know, I did it.

Manuel R Valenzuela
US Department of State
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
Office of Intelligence and Threat Analysis

Our response to this note:

Dear Sir,
We are thrilled you took your time to write us about your mission. As we tell our students, it's important to question everything you hear, see, and read. This is a marvelous example. Thanks again!
Best, Lin & Don Donn

For our students (written by Mrs. Donn): We have no idea if Manuel R Valenzuela is currently or has ever been associated with the US Department of State. We found his note, however, to be most interesting! As most of you know, before he became a teacher, Mr. Donn spent a career in Military Intelligence as a member of the SSA at NSA (the National Security Agency, or the No-Name Agency, as they like to say in the movies.) The story we reported is the story he heard. That does not mean that Mr. Valenzuela is incorrect. It means - we don't know. Your mission: Is there an Office of Intelligence and Threat Analysis at the US Department of State? Justify your answer. (Tip: Look for memos, notices, and other uses of the web.)

Hidden Messages

Self Test Your Skills!

Propaganda does not rely on pictures or words or sound or scent. Color and design can carry many hidden messages. Remember: The word propaganda refers to any technique that attempts to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of a group, in order to benefit the sponsor. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade.

Can YOU spot the secret messages
in the following examples of psychological warfare literature?
Let's find out!

Propaganda Literature: Desert Storm/Desert Shield 1990/1991

The United States was invited to join with many countries around the world, to help Kuwait in their war with Iraq. Our troops, along with troops from other countries, were stationed in nearby Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War. To help win that war quickly, the U.S. Army created several pieces of outstanding psychological warfare literature. Here are a few examples.

Campaign: Desert Shield, 1990/1991

Source: United States
Author: U.S. Armies Department of Psychological Warfare
Target: Iraqi troops
Distribution: Airdrop propaganda literature
Each piece below was dropped by the many tens of thousands

This image of Saddam Hussein was designed as a wanted poster, on light weight paper, for airdrop distribution. What was its purpose? We'll tell you this one, to start you thinking like a psychological warfare analyst. This piece of propaganda was created to redirect the guilt, if any, felt by Iraqi soldiers, and to encourage them to blame everything bad on Saddam Hussein since he is a criminal. Thus, they might not fight with as much enthusiasm or determination.

The example below is another clever way of blaming everything that happened on Saddam Hussein. It shows the blood splashed flag of Kuwait with Hussein saying, in Arabic, that he didn't know how this happened. What else might this imply? How about: Is he a thoughtless leader? Does he take responsibility for his actions? Does he realize what he's doing to his people, and to other people? Does he care? (Later on, you'll be sent to this section again. Click here to return to where you were.)

This is one of my favorite pieces. This cartoon shows Saddam Hussein cutting off his own head with his sword. This image shows how Iraq would suffer because of Hussein's warlike and thoughtless actions. What else might this imply? (Click here for some secret messages.)

This interesting piece of propaganda is a type of psychological warfare. This piece was dumped over areas of the front that were scheduled to be carpet bombed. It informs, in Arabic, that this area is scheduled to be bombed. In order to survive, the soldiers need to run away. It is not known how effective these were since reliable figures for desertion in the Iraqi army have not yet been established. What else might this imply? If you guessed this, you're right!

This next example is a very nice piece of work. It has been reduced in size for the web. It was designed in the same shape and size as Iraqi money. It looked like Iraqi money to encourage people to pick it up and to easily disguise it when carried. On the back, it is headed and ended with the phrase "Safe Conduct Pass" in both English and Arabic, along with a quick description, in Arabic, of the caring and generous treatment an Iraqi soldier would receive if he deserted or surrendered. These were dropped later in the bombing. Many Iraqi soldiers carried this piece when they did surrender, so some effect must have occurred.


Here are two examples.

This one backfired.

Topic: Hussein "showed" U.S. POW's on Baghdad television. It was obvious from the appearance of our POW's that they had been beaten. They also appeared drugged. (Our POW's were released after the war and came home safely.)

Purpose: (by Hussein): To encourage U.S. citizens to protest against the war. He expected our reaction to be one of fear.

Result: This did not instill fear in Americans. It made us angry, and bolstered American support for this war. This shows how propaganda can backfire if you don't understand your audience.

This was more successful.

Topic: One of the many highly publicized incidents during this war was the U.S. bombing of what Saddam Hussein announced was an infant milk factory. Did the U.S. bomb a milk factory? Our intelligence agents reported that this was a chemical warfare factory. The Iraqi government insisted it was a milk factory. To prove their point, they escorted the CNN news team to the site of this bombing. The CNN team was not allowed inside the building as it was severely damaged. However, hanging on the outside of the bombed building was a big sign (huge sign, undamaged) that said MILK FACTORY. Oddly, this sign was not written in Arabic. It was written in English!

Purpose: (by Hussein): This clever piece of propaganda by Hussein was designed to encourage English speaking people to protest the war, or, at the very least, to feel guilty (and thus less likely to fight) or to blame the United States for needless acts of aggression. What else might this imply? How about: Does the United States take responsibility for her actions? Do we realize what we're doing to people? Do we care? (Does this sound familiar?)

Result: Our eyes are used to reading things in the English language. Some Americans, who watched the CNN broadcast, might overlook the fact that this sign was posted on a building in Iraq, and might react with their hearts and not their heads. Certainly, this sign might have been specially posted so that the cameras could easily identify the bombed building as a "Milk Factory" to English speaking viewers. But, because the sign was written in English, instead of Arabic, it clearly shows it was a staged effect. However it got there, this sign, this staged piece of propaganda, personalized the war via the association of babies, of innocents. Thus, for many Americans, it was an effective piece of propaganda whether one believed the infant milk factory story or not.


People often think of propaganda as something negative, as in a con or a lie. But propaganda really doesn't have anything to do with negative or positive. It's a technique. The word propaganda refers to any technique that attempts to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes or behavior of a group in order to benefit the sponsor.

In a war, when you use propaganda to encourage your own side, this technique is often called reverse propaganda or reverse psychological warfare. If propaganda is negative, then "reverse propaganda" must be positive, right? Nah. No matter what you call it, it's still propaganda, and its purpose is unchanged. The purpose of propaganda is to persuade (in order to benefit the sponsor.)

Here are two examples of "reverse" psychological warfare. Can you spot the secret messages hidden in these pieces of propaganda? Let's see!


Campaign: Desert Storm/Desert Shield 1990
Source: United States
Author: U.S. Armies Department of Psychological Warfare
Target: U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia and their families at home
Distribution: Freely distributed to U.S. troops

We're going to tell you about this one.
The next one, you have to figure out.

This very clever piece of reverse psychological warfare was a postcard, created by the U.S. Army, and freely distributed to U.S. troops. This postcard had three main purposes.

Message/Purpose #1: It was created to encourage soldiers to write. Soldiers who write and receive mail are happier.

Message/Purpose #2: It was designed to instill confidence and a warlike spirit to people who see them. The use of a circle around a map implies global effort and containment. This emblem or logo-like design also images global power and world leadership.

Message/Purpose #3: It was worded to provide a touch of humor to lighten the mood of those sending and receiving these postcards. What messages do you think are hidden in this card that might support the phrase"Summer Tour 1990"? (Click here for the answer)

Campaign: Desert Storm/Desert Shield 1990
Source: Kuwait
Author: Kuwaiti Ministry of Information
Target: English speaking troops in Saudi Arabia
Distribution: Freely distributed to the troops

This piece of propaganda is extremely well done. It was produced by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information. This postcard was freely distributed to all English speaking troops in Saudi Arabia, including U.S. military personnel. It is bordered with the flags of the many countries who supported Kuwait during this conflict, and is a great example of reverse psychological warfare.

This particular postcard has been though a lot. It has also been reduced in size, to save loading time, as have all the examples in this section. We've typed the poem in the box on the right, next to the card, so that you can read it more easily. This is the same poem (if you could read it) that is printed on the card itself.

Dear Courageous Soldier:
On August 2nd as everyone Knows,
Our former brothers became our foes.
They invaded our land at night as we slept,
Over our borders by the thousands they crept.
In helicopters and trucks and in tanks they came,
The evil warriors of Saddam Hussein.
But then YOU came and brought hope to us all,
That Kuwait would be free and Saddam would fall.
We'd like to thank you for your courageous stand,
To expel the Iraqis and free our land.
You're in our hearts
this Valentine's Day,
And you're in our prayers
EVERY day.
The Kuwaiti People

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT: Do you think this striking border display of national flags (of the many countries who supported Kuwait in this conflict) was designed for a purpose other than color? What do you think about the contents of the poem? Do you think it's important to emphasis that our troops are there for some other purpose than protecting our oil supplies? How about the use of the words heroes, Valentine's Day, or our name for this conflict, Desert Storm? Why do you think they used a picture of a jet flying overhead? Why do you think they used a dark sky at the top of the card, compared to the bright clear sky over a Kuwaiti mosque in the picture in the bottom left hand corner? How about the shape drawn around the poem? Is this the shape of the country of Kuwait? (Is it a coincidence that the country of Kuwait is shaped like our Liberty Bell, or has the country outline been altered slightly?) The more you look, the more you see! Some of what you see may not have been intended by the propaganda designer, but it still affects you!

What is important to remember is that propaganda is designed to affect group behavior to benefit a sponsor. The group, in this example, are soldiers helping Kuwait. The sponsor in this example is Kuwait. The benefit to Kuwait is freedom. The overall goal is to encourage (to persuade) continued help to gain and maintain that freedom.

Your job is to identify three messages you see hidden in the design of this postcard and what you think the purpose of each of those messages might be.

Message/Purpose #1. _______________________________________________


Message/Purpose #2. _______________________________________________


Message/Purpose #3. _______________________________________________


Overall Goal
The overall goal is to encourage continued help to fight Iraq.

BONUS QUESTION: Choose the best answer.

Propaganda is designed to _____.
lie ridicule win con persuade

BONUS QUESTION: Choose the best answer.

The messages in propaganda can be hidden in _______.
pictures words sound color design just about anything

BONUS QUESTION: Choose the best answer.

What is the best definition of propaganda?

  1. A technique used to persuade you to do something that you would not normally do.

  2. A way to make you do something that you don't want to do

  3. A method to get something you want

  4. A technique used to influence the behavior or emotions of a group in order to benefit someone.

BONUS QUESTION: Go here to check your answer.

Keep your eyes and ears open and question everything.
Three good questions to ask yourself are:

Hidden Messages! Answer Section

Hidden Messages (Rock'n Roll Music, around the clock): How about: We know you're there. Take your time. No rush. We'll wait. You might as well give up and come out because we are not going to go away. Click here to return to where you were.

Hidden Messages (Cartoon of Hussein) This one is devious. Did you notice the use of the English words "oops" and "THUD"? Arabic has words that mean the same thing, so why the use of English? Are we laughing at Hussein? Certainly we don't expect the Iraqi soldiers to laugh with us, but ... have you ever had someone tell you something rotten about a person you deeply honored and respected? It probably made you mad, so mad that you kept thinking about it. Later on, if this person you looked up to, did something that upset you, what might come to mind?

This cartoon uses the propaganda technique of name-calling through pictures. It implies that Hussein is a showboat, a fool. He's such an idiot that he cut off his own head. This is your leader. Do you really think he has any idea of what he is doing? There's more! Look at the use the shadows around Hussein's feet. This is not one moment in time; this cartoon implies that he has been a fool more than once. Look at the body shape, especially the arms. Does he have any muscle? What is Hussein wearing? Is he wearing anything? Stripped down, take a look at the real Hussein. What is important to him - his rank or his people?

This piece of propaganda is loaded! Yet, it is deceptively simple in appearance, as if its only purpose is to make you laugh. That is possibly why they used "oops" and "THUD". Remember, we air dropped this piece in huge numbers over Iraqi troops. If an Iraqi soldier found one of these pieces on the ground and picked it up, it would probably make him angry. He might think that this was something we first distributed to ourselves, to have a good laugh. He might show it to another soldier, to share his anger. In the process, he would be helping to distribute this incredibly well done piece of carefully designed propaganda. In fact, we did not first distribute this piece to ourselves, but you can see why an Iraqi soldier might think that we did.

These are only some of the secret messages hidden in this piece. Here is another: Try putting your arms and hands in the same position that Hussein's arms and hands are positioned in any one of these three cartoon images of Hussein. How does it make you feel?

With all the messages packed into each piece, you can see why a good propaganda campaign might work. Spooky, isn't it?

Go back and take another look.
Or, click here to move to the next piece.


Hidden Messages (Carpet bomb) If you guessed - We don't want to hurt you. We're nice guys - you're right! But the real purpose of this piece was to encourage Iraqi soldiers to run away.

Click here to move on to the next piece.

Hidden Messages (Summer Tour 1990). How about: the sea, the sand, the red, white & blue banner colors in the lettering? This was also designed to appeal to the musical interest of young U.S. troops. Bands have "Summer Tours". Propaganda does not rely on pictures or words or sound. Color and design can carry many hidden messages.

Go back and take another look.
Or, click here to move to the next piece.

Answers to bonus questions:

(1) Propaganda is designed to persuade.

(2) The secret messages in propaganda can be hidden in just about anything, including body movement and facial gestures!

(3) 4

(4) Keep your eyes and ears open and question everything. Three good questions to ask yourself are:

  • Who does this benefit?

  • Why did they do that?

  • According to whom?

Return to the index at the top of the page.

Definitions of Propaganda

At OneLook Dictionaries, we found many definitions for the word propaganda, definitions used by the military, by the medical profession, in politics, fables, and more. We encourage you to check these out yourself. We think you'll find them interesting. In the meantime, here's what we found at OneLook Dictionaries:

Political Dictionary, Fast Times, Inc.: "propaganda: a Latin word that was first used by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, when he established the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, a commission designed to spread the Catholic faith worldwide. Since then propaganda has taken on a much broader meaning, and refers to any technique, whether in writing, speech, music, film or other means, that attempts to influence mass public opinion..."

Propaganda Lessons & Links
For Teachers

Lesson Plan for Social Studies/History
6th-12th grades
Time Frame: 1 day (computer lab, 55 minutes)
This lesson
was structured for use in computer lab and/or for easy transition to classroom use by downloading the examples on this page. These are examples of real propaganda.

This lesson was designed for grades 6-12, and is a one class period lesson plan (55 minutes) co-created by Mr. and Mrs. Donn to preface a unit on the use of propaganda techniques in advertising, media, politics and warfare.

Feel free to use it in your classroom. We hope you find it useful.

Many Lesson Plans - Recognizing Propaganda (for teachers & students)

Related links: The Persian Gulf War
International Conflict (Propaganda, Activity 4)
Persian Gulf War Link (Washington Post)

Presentations - Propaganda

Presentations - Persian Gulf War

Free Clip Art