Propaganda is a term that can be misused to refer solely to the communication techniques of an individual's or organization's opponents. More objectively, propaganda is any form of communication that intentionally attempts to distort the nature of an issue to represent a single point of view. Seen from a different perspective, almost any form of communication can be classified as propaganda by someone.
Modern Examples of Propaganda
The first arena of communication that comes to mind when the word propaganda is mentioned is politics. In electoral politics, particularly during election campaigns, candidates and parties put enormous effort into portraying themselves as the purveyors of truth and their opponents as inept and misguided at best, and as deceivers and propagandists at worst. An infamous example of such propaganda was the conflation of presidential candidate Michael Dukakis with rapist and murderer Willie Horton during the 1988 U.S. presidential race. The campaign rhetoric of Dukakis' opponent George H. W. Bush used Dukakis' support of a prisoner furlough program to portray Dukakis as "soft on crime."
The nominal purpose of advertising is to inform the public about products and services that are available to them. In reality, advertising is a vast and complex multi-billion-dollar industry that uses sophisticated methods of propaganda to motivate consumption. When an advertisement portrays only one aspect of an issue, the lines between advertising and propaganda begin to blur. For example, the automobile industry uses advertising to equate expensive cars with power and freedom, while the fashion industry encourages women to pursue public acceptance through physical beauty. One of the most egregious propagandists is the tobacco industry, which was banned from access to television advertising in 1969, but continues to portray young, healthy attractive people smoking cigarettes in magazines.
Governments have a stake in keeping their populations healthy, and frequently mount educational campaigns to change public behavior. The propaganda involved in these efforts generally pursues social goals that most people would agree are positive, such as reduced smoking and obesity, healthy eating and exercise. More controversial government publicity campaigns include the "War on Drugs," in which advertisements make controversial claims about the impact of drugs. Both pro-health and anti-drug advertisements embody numerous techniques of propaganda, including the condensation of complex subjects into simple, emotionally powerful messages.
Nation states require the cooperation and support of a wide range of their citizens in order to continue functioning. This support is maintained through the use of propagandistic messages that portray one nation as inarguably superior to others. This propaganda can be tremendously blatant, as in the case of World War II representations of the enemy by both Axis and Allied powers. These representations frequently played on racist stereotypes and xenophobia. Nationalist propaganda is usually more subtle than this, encouraging populations to identify with their own countries more than others.