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William A. Levinson

Quality Insider

Propaganda, Fascination, and Quality

It takes only 10% of a group to influence the other 90%

Published: Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 12:49

Colonel Paul Linebarger, one of the world’s foremost authorities on psychological warfare, had this to say about propaganda: “Propaganda consists of the planned use of any form of communication designed to affect the minds, emotions, and action of a given group for a specific purpose.”

Although malevolent and dishonest applications of propaganda can and have killed millions of people, many benevolent uses for propaganda also exist. In fact, quality professionals must understand the role of propaganda in organizational performance if they hope to see their efforts bear fruit. Most propaganda is entirely honest, and quality policies are exactly that by definition. After all, a quality policy that does not influence attitudes and actions would be the kind of meaningless slogan against which W. Edwards Deming warned emphatically.

Propaganda and fascination

In her keynote presentation at the 2013 ASQ World Conference, Sally Hogshead drew a connection between “fascination” and propaganda.  Hogshead pointed out that the first nine seconds of a personal introduction are critical; it is during that time that you must fascinate the person to whom you are speaking. Her presentation added that the “fascinated” human brain undergoes visible changes, and also that people will pay up to four times as much for the same item if its packaging or brand name fascinates them.

These concepts have honest and benevolent uses, such as convincing healthcare workers that they must wash their hands between patients to prevent the spread of disease. A Google image search on “hand hygiene” and “posters” is highly informative. These images are entirely honest, although their effectiveness depends on their ability to fascinate the viewer.

Something also can be said about the need to educate consumers so they don’t pay brand-name prices for commodities. A fascinated consumer can, for example, pay $1,000 for a suitcase that does the same job as a $100 suitcase of equal quality and durability. A square deal consists of an exchange of value for value, and not value for a brand name or fancy packaging.

Propaganda that fascinates, and this includes political cartoons and photographs as well as packaging and brand names, relies on the fact that humans are instinctively visual animals. We may even have a built-in instinct to construe any image as the truth, because anything our distant ancestors saw (before humans learned to draw pictures) had to be true. An immediate and visceral reaction to an image (i.e., fascination) is how our ancestors obtained meals—and avoided becoming meals.

Quality professionals can use fascination to get people to buy into quality programs, but fascination is also how dangerous manipulators can start wars or take over entire nations. Suppose, for example, that the U.S. Navy battleship U.S.S. Maine has just blown up in Cuba, and you have about nine seconds in which to convince an ordinary citizen to oppose or support the United States going to war with Spain. Which approach would be more effective: reading an anti-war statement or viewing a pro-war poster?

Here is an example of an anti-war statement: Although the nation is rightfully angry about the destruction of the Maine, and the loss of hundreds of sailors, we must keep in mind the potential consequences of an irresponsible rush to judgment. It is quite likely that forensic investigation by a diving team can determine whether the explosion was due to enemy action such as a mine, or an accident that involved coal dust or deteriorating ammunition.

Figure 1 shows Grant Hamilton’s visceral illustration in an 1898 edition of Judge Magazine.

Figure 1: Grant Hamilton’s pro-war illustration published in Judge Magazine in 1898

In Hamilton’s illustration, note the murdered sailor on the left with “U.S.S. Maine” on his uniform. Hamilton “improved” the murderous Spaniard’s image by transforming him into “The Spanish Brute,” a bestial fanged ape that is shown mutilating fallen U.S. soldiers. It takes perhaps a second for this image to fascinate the casual viewer. It conveys the “incontrovertible fact” (because we construe instinctively any image as true) that Spaniards destroyed the U.S.S. Maine through an act of sabotage during peacetime.

Propagandists during World War I used similar images to depict Germans as pirates and murderers of women and children on the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania. The power of these images to fascinate the casual viewer avoided inconvenient inquiries into the now-proven fact that the Lusitania carried munitions, and was therefore a legitimate target. The United States lost more than 100,000 soldiers, and killed countless Germans with whom it had no legitimate quarrel, because the public was susceptible to this kind of psychological manipulation.

More on Propaganda

The German who, unfortunately, learned the most from Germany’s failure to respond effectively to the Triple Entene’s (Russia, France, and Great Britain) propaganda was Adolf Hitler. He said so explicitly in Mein Kampf, which devotes an entire chapter to propaganda.


People who still wonder how this individual could have taken over one of the most advanced and civilized nations in Europe need look no further than a study by scientists from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The institute reports: “Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.” The word “always” deserves particular emphasis.


If this prospect sounds frightening, Linebarger makes it even worse: “The Communists had shown that an organization calling itself a party, actually a quasi-religious hierarchy with strong internal discipline, definite membership, and active organizational components, could control fifty times its own membership.” He added that said party required youth branches, labor branches, women’s organizations, and so on, under the umbrella of “mass organization.”

Nobody can dare regard himself as too intelligent to be taken in by dishonest propaganda. In a selection from “Mr. Ford’s Page” in The Dearborn Independent, Henry Ford defined “psychological crime” as “the crime of bringing men to act from the highest and sincerest motives of self-sacrifice, and then using that high spirit for the lowest purposes.” This was roughly at about the same time that Ford read, believed, and then republished as The International Jew, the copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that he received from the Tsarist propagandist Boris Brasol.

I will personally admit to believing as a teenager, per Richard E. Lauterbach’s These Are the Russians (Harper & Brothers, 1945), that the Finns were Nazi sympathizers who boiled the heads of Russian prisoners as trophies, and that Germany perpetrated the Katyn massacre of Polish prisoners, an atrocity of which the Soviets were later proven guilty themselves. It was politically incorrect to point out in 1945 that Russia had attacked Finland first, and had also colluded with Germany to invade Poland.

I believe that a basic understanding of psychological warfare, and especially the role of images in conjunction with the modern human’s attention span, should be a mandatory element of high-school civics coursework. This will at least partially immunize citizens against manipulators who misuse the psychological sciences for self-serving or even monstrous goals. The same psychological sciences, however, have very constructive and honorable uses.

Propaganda includes management commitment and leadership by example

Any communication whose purpose is to influence attitudes and behavior is propaganda by definition, and the behavior of the leader is a form of communication. Management communication is, in fact, an element of ISO 9001:2008.

In Ford Ideals (Dearborn Publishing Co., 1922), Ford wrote about this: “The best propaganda you can ever have is the reputation of being square, humane and thoughtful of others all the time. There are some things you can never tell men, nor persuade them of by speech or literature. But if the things are there, the men will know it—you may be sure of that.”

Leadership behavior, as opposed to slogans, is what brings about organizational change and buy-in. Michael George wrote about a CEO who brought in W. Edwards Demings for a two-day session to teach total quality management (TQM) to his executives. He introduced Deming to the executives, reiterated the need for them to learn everything Deming could teach them, and then... he walked out the door. Even Deming’s reputation wasn’t sufficient to keep their attention. This underscores the fact that the dramaturgy of the leader is a form of propaganda, and the CEO’s failure to lead by example contradicted everything he told his executives.

It’s worthwhile to compare his behavior to that of the Russian field marshal Aleksandr V. Suvorov, who never lost a battle, as depicted by Lord Byron in Don Juan:

Glory began to dawn with due sublimity, 
While Souvaroff, determined to obtain it, 
Was teaching his recruits to use the bayonet. 

It is an actual fact, that he, commander 
In chief, in proper person deign’d to drill 
The awkward squad, and could afford to squander 
His time, a corporal’s duty to fulfil: 

Byron, like most contemporary members of the gentry, dismissed the routine instruction of troops as a waste of a general’s time. What we actually have here is, however, Suvorov’s success secret in plain view. Suvorov’s personal participation as a drillmaster told every Russian officer and noncommissioned officer unequivocally that “training is the most important thing we do here.” If drill leadership was not below the dignity of the general, it was certainly not below that of any colonel or major. The bottom line was, therefore, that frequent training happened throughout the organization for which Suvorov was responsible.

The products of this intensive training included infantry that could march and maneuver far more rapidly than that of other countries, and soldiers who welcomed the opportunity to hit through their enemies with cold steel. The result was that Suvorov won 63 battles and lost none, and that Russian casualties were almost universally light in comparison to those of the enemy. A closer examination of Suvorov’s army shows that Russian enlisted soldiers were actually empowered to use judgment and initiative on the battlefield, and this kind of empowerment comes only from extensive training along with a clear understanding of the organization’s mission.

The most successful practitioners of lean manufacturing have similarly led by personal example. Henry Ford spent so much time on the shop floor, and so little in his office, that unpaid bills piled up along with checks to deposit. (He had, fortunately, a good accountant to take care of these distractions for him.) This is known as gemba leadership, with gemba being the value-adding workplace as opposed to a corner office. Taiichi Ohno practiced it as well. Ford and Ohno were both lean experts, but even if they didn’t know what to do about a specific problem, their mere presence on the shop floor told every employee unequivocally, “Your jobs are important enough for the CEO to take a personal interest.”

Leadership behavior is indeed propaganda, and this kind of honest, sincere, and constructive propaganda gets results.


About The Author

William A. Levinson’s picture

William A. Levinson

William A. Levinson, P.E., FASQ, CQE, CMQOE, is the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems P.C. and the author of the book The Expanded and Annotated My Life and Work: Henry Ford’s Universal Code for World-Class Success (Productivity Press, 2013).


Propaganda's many facets

As everything, Propaganda can be good or bad, in the moral or ethical sense; in the practical sense only the gap between expectations and results measure its effectiveness. I'm not a propaganda-fan, I'm more an awareness-fan because propaganda makes people stupid, it stops their thinking, analyzing processes. We live of propaganda, we don't live of feeling or reason anymore: I don't care about the quantity ratio, but I do care for the overall effect.