How can you tell advertising from propaganda?

Images in history and politics

Dr. Elmar Elling

To person

Dr. Elmar Elling, born 1952, linguist and media scientist, works as a freelance author and editor as well as a language teacher.

Manipulation and propaganda are closely related. Manipulated images repeatedly cause a sensation, most recently during the Lebanon war, when a press photographer turned Beirut into an inferno. Insights from Elmar Elling.

Conceptual explanation

The word manipulation in its broad meaning means something like "change of something". In its narrow meaning it means "influencing", usually "influencing someone" or "influencing someone by changing something" - with which the term manipulation comes very close to that of propaganda. Although used here and there in a positive sense, manipulation is usually associated with a negative evaluation. The word got this feature from the French, from where it was adopted by the German language in the 18th century: manipuler means to influence someone or something for one's own benefit.

Most of the time, such selfish actions have disadvantages for others, and because hardly anyone would accept them with a seeing eye, the manipulator camouflages his actual intentions or otherwise ensures that they remain undetected. Because of the ambiguity it creates, manipulating comes close to "tricking", "lying", "deceiving" and other actions that only succeed if their intention remains hidden. - You can announce a story with the words "I want to tell you something ...". But if you start a manipulation with the sentence "I want to manipulate you ...", the thing will usually not work.


Change without manipulation

In September 2006, the SPIEGEL called for an "image manipulation competition" to provide a forum for all those who have dedicated themselves to electronic image processing. Of course, it was not about manipulation in the narrower sense, since the intentions of those involved were completely open. Examples of what it was about back then can be found everywhere these days, especially on the Internet. Well-known manipulations also count here, such as the encounter between John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Forrest Gump in the film of the same name. Viewed in a context-free manner, this scene would perhaps be suitable to influence someone in their assumptions about Kennedy. In the actual context of the feature film, however, hardly anyone will see this scene as a historical document. The same applies, for example, to a fake scene in which Schröder and Merkel embrace. The examples make it clear that the context has a decisive influence on whether manipulation is allowed or whether something is viewed as manipulation. In principle, images can be manipulated, and this is even standard in advertising. (homepage.mac.com) There are also sensitive areas in which authentic images are required, for example in the press.

The relation to reality

There are images that have no direct reference to external reality and images, so-called images, that do just that. If a picture of the former type is changed, a painting by Jackson Pollock, for example, this can have many consequences, but hardly for views of objects in the external world. If, on the other hand, an image of the second type is changed, e.g. a press photo, views of the relevant facts can very well be influenced. Every image lets us recognize something, and recognizability sets a limit to manipulation. Dali used the fame of the Mona Lisa to merge her facial features with his, well before morphing, warping and other computer techniques, so that both people can be recognized. If he had made such a merging with completely unknown faces, the effect would be completely different: Ignoring the two original images, one would only see some face. - This is exactly how all those viewers perceive Dali's above self-portrait who neither know Dali's face nor that of the Mona Lisa: They only see a strange-looking woman. - The example shows how much the success of a manipulation also depends on the knowledge of the recipient.

Truth and knowledge

Manipulated image of the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin
The picture on the right shows a burning building - a person who is not in need can hardly see anything else. Anyone who notices the Star of David on the dome recognizes a burning synagogue. Anyone who knows how to classify the image of a burning synagogue historically will be reminded of the Reichspogromnacht on 9/10 November 1938 think. And against this background, the photo doesn't just show a concrete synagogue; it becomes a kind of symbol for the many synagogues that were set on fire at the time. Anyone who also has local knowledge will recognize the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin in the photo and know - assuming the necessary historical knowledge - that this synagogue did not burn at the time.

Once again it becomes clear that the possibility of influencing viewers with manipulated images depends not least on their knowledge. At least in the given case, what is not necessary is unmanipulable. And anyone who knows the depicted synagogue and its history can see through a possible intent to manipulate and is thus also protected from manipulation. When in 1998 a German newspaper wanted to use this photo to remind people that the synagogues had burned fifty years earlier, it certainly did not want to manipulate anyone. The question is whether she was able to tell the truth despite the manipulated photo. Since it was not claimed that the photo showed the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse or any other, most probably understood it as a symbol - and in this understanding the message of the picture is "true". Many of those who were able to identify the house of God should have understood the picture in a similar way. However, the truth is being done a disservice if you think of this photo in the hands of neo-Nazi historians. The example makes it clear: Even the relationship between manipulation and truth is not as simple as one might think at first.