Sugar Coating: Testimonial as Propaganda

Pills, heart shapedWhen pharmacists themselves used to make pills for customers, not only were honey and molasses two of the binding agents  mixed with powdered medicine, but pills were sometimes coated with powder made from a sugar syrup to disguise any bad flavor. That’s a lot of sweetening to get the medicine down!

The word testimonial is derived from a Latin word meaning witness. We’ve all relied on word of mouth recommendations when we want to find someone we can trust to do good work for a fair price. When looking for a job we use letters from former employers or from someone in a trusted position such as a pastor to vouch for our integrity. But when Testimonial is a propaganda device, the purpose is to have someone bear false witness to sway listeners and readers into thinking the presented image is reality—sweetening a lie to make it easy to swallow.

Propaganda Tricks of the Trade
#4: Testimonial

Testimonial consists in having some respected or hated person say that a given idea or program or product or person is good or bad.

“The Times said … ,” “John L. Lewis said … ,” “Herbert Hoover said … ,” “The President said …,” “My doctor said … ,” or “Our minister said … .” Some of these Testimonials may merely give greater emphasis to a legitimate and accurate idea, a fair use of the device others, how- ever, may represent the sugar-coating of a distortion, a falsehood, a misunderstood notion, an anti-social suggestion. The rest of such sentences may, of course, have given the impression that “So-and-so, a bad man, advocates such-and-such an idea, and therefore the idea is bad,” or that “So-and-so, a good man, advocates such-and-such an idea, and therefore the idea is good.”

In short, Testimonial is the fourth device used by skillful and dangerous propagandists to convince us of an idea before we become critical and examine the evidence in the case. It is also the fourth device-in our list of seven-used by fair propagandists to interest us in a useful idea so that we will examine the evidence and may eventually accept the proposal.

To beat bad propagandists at their game or to prove to ourselves that the propagandas we like are really as good as they sound to us, we will all do well to ask ourselves the following questions regarding each Testimonial we hear:

Who or what is quoted in the Testimonial?

Why should we regard this person (or organization or publication or whatnot) as having expert knowledge or trustworthy information or reliable opinion on the subject in question?

Above all, what does the idea amount to on its own merits, without the benefit of the Testimonial?

There are three ways in which the Testimonial Device may be utilized unfairly. These three ways are:

1. The use of untrustworthy sources.

2. The distortion of facts or opinions contained in and attributed to trustworthy sources.

3. The alleged quotation of facts or opinions from a reputable source that do not come from that source.

[See The ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis].

Ronald Reagan was known for using a Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” As much respect as I have for him, a wiser variation would be, “Verify, then trust.” A Testimonial is only as good as the person who gives it, but even a person we trust may be deceived or have overlooked some facts. Integrity and wisdom are both needed to be able to give a truthful testimony. Look for information and verify a statement for yourself.

When a presidential candidate rolls into a state he works to get high-profile people who live there to vouch for him. In some instances they do so because it’s to their own advantage, not because they genuinely believe what they say. Testimonials never replace scrutinizing a politician’s record. An enthusiastic endorsement may serve simply as a smokescreen.

Charles A. Fleming evaluates Testimonial: (See Propaganda Shell Games a.k.a. Finding Unicorns for further explanation of General Semantics and these six principles).

Testimonial. Testimonials by persons who are credible to the audience help propagandists promote their causes. Similarly, counter-testimonials can help destroy what the propagandist is against. As an example, positive statements from users of a particular product would tend to influence purchase of the product.

A General Semantics Interpretation

  • Non-identity. The propagandist wants the audience to respond favorably to the testimonials without realizing that the experiences of those giving the testimonials aren’t the same as those the audience may have. No two experiences are exactly the same.
  • Non-allness. The testimonials aren’t all that can be said about the subject. There’s more information needed to make intelligent decisions, but the propagandist hopes the audience won’t seek information beyond the testimonials.
  • Self-reflexiveness. Each testimonial is one person’s personal, incomplete abstraction of experience with the product. But the propagandist wants the audience to respond to the testimonials without realizing their abstract nature.
  • Probability principle. The propagandist would like the audience to think things never change. If at one time the testimonials were accurate representations of experiences with the product, they may not be now.
  • Symbol-signal reaction. The propagandist wants an automatic, unthinking response to the testimonials as if they were sufficient evidence of product qualities and are all that is needed to make a sound decision.
  • Extensionalization. The propagandist wants the audience to make decisions based on the testimonials themselves — on words alone – not on non-verbal evidence.

Watch for sugar-coated lies manufactured to manipulate or poison minds.

He who speaks truth tells what is right,
But a false witness, deceit.
Proverbs 12:17

Here again are the IPA’s concluding words on propaganda.

Our seven ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis and our seven Propaganda Devices are offered…as workable means for aiding Americans to preserve their freedom of choice and with it their other freedoms embodied so largely in the expression… freedom of speech and assembly, of the press, and of religion. In closing, then, let us merely sum up the spirit of our seven ABC’s and seven devices in the following statements:

Don’t be stampeded.

Beware of your own prejudices.

Suspend your judgment until more sides of the issue are presented.

Analyze them.

Joseph P. Remington, Horatio C. Wood, et al., eds. The Dispensatory of the United States of America (1918) at Henriette’s Herbal Homepage, via Wikipedia.
Online Etymology Dictionary, via Wikipedia.
The Fine Art Of Propaganda; A Study of Father Coughlin’s Speeches” by The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Edited by Alfred McClung Lee & Elizabeth Briant Lee, and published in 1939 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York via Phil Taylor’s Web Site, The Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.
Charles A. Fleming, “Understanding Propaganda From a General Semantics Perspective,” Et cetera, (Spring 1995) 8.


One thought on “Sugar Coating: Testimonial as Propaganda

  1. The use of testimonials in advertising investment advisers and brokerage services is greatly restricted, for all these reasons. They’re so easily abused, and they tell you so little. And so much is at stake!

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