Polishing Apples: Plain Folks as Propaganda

Dog on porchPlains Folks as a propaganda device shifts the focus from the message to the people who are its target. It’s a subtle form of flattery when someone in a position of prestige meets and greets us as if he’s a long lost friend. By intimating that he’s just like us, he also implies that we’re just like him. He’s plain folks, and we’re famous people.

In identifying with us there’s a subtle exchanged sharing of our supposed common sense and his apparent fame that confers the humility of ordinariness to him, and the honor of regard to us. We’re softened up to receive his message as if it were our own.

From The Institute for Propaganda Analysis:

Propaganda Tricks of the Trade
#5: Plain Folks

Plain Folks is the method by which a speaker attempts to convince his audience that he and his ideas are good because they are “of the people,” the “plain folks.”

Politicians, labor leaders, business men, and even ministers and educators win our confidence by appearing to be people like ourselves-“just plain folks among the neighbors.” In election years especially do candidates show their devotion to little children and the common, homey things of life. They have front porch campaigns. For the benefit of newspapermen, they raid the kitchen cupboard and find there some of the good wife’s apple pie. They go to country picnics; they attend service at the old frame church; they pitch hay and go fishing; they show their belief in home and mother.

In short, these men would win our votes, business, or other support by showing that they’re just as common as the rest of us-“salt of the earth”-and, therefore, wise and good.

Our defense against this device, when used by the undemocratic or the otherwise anti-social, is simply this: We must ask ourselves what the propagandist’s ideas are worth when divorced from his personality. In other words:

What is he trying to cover up with his Plain Folks manner?

What are the facts?

Suspend judgment until we get enough evidence.

[See The ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis].

Politicians clutter up diners and coffee shops when they campaign. There are photo ops with their families and recipes for their favorite foods. They become chameleons attempting to blend in with every group and region. Remember in 2007 when Hillary Clinton attempted a Southern accent in an Alabama church? Such obvious fakery is a patronizing insult, but there are those who are masters at playing our neighbor or ‘feeling our pain’. We are all susceptible when the Plain Folks come calling.

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

Plain Folks. The “plain folks” device is used to win acceptance by presenting someone as being like the persons in the audience. An example would be a politician shown mowing the lawn or taking the family out to dinner.

A General Semantics Interpretation

  • Non-identity. While there may be similarities, the politician and the audience aren’t the same. The politician’s experiences as shown to the audience may not accurately resemble what the politician normally does. The similarities don’t add up to the actual person, but the propagandist wants the audience to react to the similarities without realizing there may be important differences.
  • Non-allness. The things the politician does that fit the “plain folks” description aren’t the whole story. They’re incomplete and the propagandist may not want audience members to learn more about the politician.
  • Self-reflexiveness. What has been said about the politician is someone’s personal, incomplete abstraction of what the politician is like and what he or she does. The propagandist wants the audience to think the “plain folks” abstraction is an objective picture of the politician.
  • Probability principle. The propagandist wants the audience to assume that whatever was so once will always be that way. If at one time the politician did the things shown, they may no longer be representative acts.
  • Symbol-signal reaction. Here the propagandist hopes people will react automatically to similarities between the politician and the audience without thinking, and without looking for evidence regarding how the politician actually behaves.
  • Extensionalization. The propagandist wants the audience to make decisions based on the “plain folks” similarity and not seek non-verbal evidence of the politician’s similarity, and of what he or she is really like.

Who doesn’t want respect for our ideas or recognition for our achievements? We all want to know that our lives are worthwhile and our actions have value. Plain Folks counterfeits honor, for our lives are not really being elevated—the propagandist is polishing the apple of our egos—he is stooping to conquer.

A man who flatters his neighbor
Is spreading a net for his steps.
Proverbs 29:5

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.

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) 9–10.
Dog on porch at Poplar Grove, Rosedale / Port Allen, Louisiana, Corey TaratutaCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


One thought on “Polishing Apples: Plain Folks as Propaganda

  1. When you referenced Hilary Clinton’s fake Southern accent you made me think of another humorous incident, when John Kerry ‘reminisced’ of crawling through the woods on his belly, stalking deer. The actual hunters had plenty of good fun with that. The moral: Get it right, or don’t try!

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