Critical Thinking in the 21st Century: Seeing Past Propaganda and Advertisement Techniques

Updated on May 22, 2018
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Trust Us, We're Experts

Have you ever wondered if the television commercial you are watching is somehow lying to you? As you sit there, on your couch, dreaming of Colgate’s sensational new formula for a whiter, brighter smile, you have to wonder what information you are allowing into your feeble, impressionable mind.

Perhaps Colgate does have the perfect formula for a whiter smile, but how then are the teams of scientists for the other campaigns stating they have found the perfect formula for a brighter smile? If everyone's perfected the formula for a brighter smile, it shouldn't matter which brand you buy. However, for some reason, your choice seems extremely important. Will you choose correctly? How can you know?

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Cultivating Doubt

As a child you listen to your parent without a doubt in your mind. You ignorantly believe that everything they say is truth and fact. As a parent you listen to experts and take their word on any topic that you don't know much about.

As our brains develop, as we grow older, we begin to realize that the so-called facts of life are oftentimes biased perspectives or misleading greenwashing perpetuated by lobbyists. Coming to this conclusion, it must seem that any random expert you hear is not always sufficient in their studies and the facts that they conclude. After all, we are only humans and, in that fact, humans make mistakes. Humans try to cover their mistakes, and it is not always safe to trust what others say. All in all do not let fancy terminology and flashy products or persuasions guide the way you think about things; instead try thinking for yourself and coming to your own conclusion.

Think about lawyers, commercial specialists, certain scientists and all other forms of hired help. Some people are paid to lie. Once this is understood, it should be more clear why people should doubt what they are blatantly told and the fact that what you see on television or in scientific articles is not necessarily always true.

Also, there is a distinct line between a healthy doubt and a hurtful doubt. Keeping a firm stand and avoiding the idea of under-analyzing or over-analyzing topics until they are dead is a good way to differentiate these doubts.

Lobbyists, Spin Doctors, and Green Washing Experts

It is refreshing to think that you do not always have to fall into these traps of doubt, deception, and ignorance. There are ways to keep yourself educated and be better able to tell the difference between a hoax or lie, picking out the possible truths of any topic. With that being said, what you believe is, of course, up to you, and the ideas enlisted in this article are my own. My intent is to awaken and shield the general public against any and all who try to manipulate the mind of society.

The concept that there are professionals whose job it is to manipulate the public is oftentimes an unsettling idea. One of the most common companies who try to sell bad products to the public are tobacco companies. As seen in the movie Thank You for Smoking written and directed by Jason Reitman, tobacco companies will do almost anything to sell their products.

“People, what is going on out there? I look down this table, all I see are white flags. Our numbers are down all across the board. Teen smoking, our bread and butter, is falling like a shit from heaven! We don't sell Tic Tacs for Christ's sake. We sell cigarettes. And they're cool and available and “addictive”. The job is almost done for us. (Thank You For Smoking)

This movie reveals the truth that however appealing or cool a smoking advertisement may seem, there are always people behind it who know the truth, and are bypassing such truths so that they can introduce their product into the daily lives of the consumer.

Professionals call this way of getting around the truth "spin." Scientists are constantly getting paid to put their name on faulty articles or commercials to make studies seem more credible. This is similar to lawyers who are paid to always be correct in whatever they say.

This type of spin can some times be dangerous to the consumer. For instance, in the L-Tryptophan incident mentioned in "Chapter 7: Attack of the Killer Potatoes" of Trust Us, We’re Experts, the consumers of the weight loss product suffered dire consequences in that out of the “...5,000 people affected by the disease, 37 died and 1,500 were left permanently disabled...” (177).

When a product is not fully tested, it can still get commercialized and sold if it passes certain regulations. The job of the company is to do anything and everything to get their product sold, which means that the weight is put on the consumer to either believe the advertisements and product labels on what they are being sold, or to further question the product by prying deeper than the surface.

It is just unnerving to think that there are people out there who, like it or not, are paid to persuade the public’s opinion on things, without the public knowing it. Another example would be how a scientist named Edward Scolnick gave the go ahead and the thumbs up for a product called Vioxx, which was an arthritis medicine created by the company Merck. Consumers found that the seemingly helpful drug actually increased the chances of heart attacks and slowly ate away at their stomach lining. The company Merck was sued in 2004; but not before they tried to suppress the opposing scientific research that their product was harmful.

The point being brought up is that Merck too used the art of spin to fool the consumer, “One email, authored by Edward Scolnick, chief of research for Merck, says that cardiovascular risks, '...are clearly there.' Additional emails contribute to the evidence that points to a fairly straightforward case of consumer deception” (Wall Street Journal).

Balancing Trust and Doubt

The fact that spin is portrayed everywhere should not alter you from the way you live your life, and there is certainly no need to look over your shoulder every two seconds. Experts are not out to get you as a single person. They are set on influencing the mass consumer. Your job is to make sure you do not fall into their trap.

Brian McLaren & Tony Campolo state in their book Adventures in Missing the Point: How The Culture-Controlled Church Neutered The Gospel that, “Doubt is not always bad. In fact, sometimes doubt is absolutely essential. Doubt is like pain: it tells us that something nearby us or within us is dangerous. It calls for attention and action” (220). Although this is geared toward religion and faith, the words seem quite true. Having a constant fear that you are being lied to is not always a good thing, but when kept in the back of your mind to always be listening and questioning it could be the basis of a good discussion.

The idea of good doubt is that you seek success and wish to get down to the fact and rock bottom of the truth. You know the answer is out there, and hopefully it will be revealed when the right questions are asked. Sometimes the answers are blatant and obvious, staring you in the face. On the other hand, unhealthy doubt could easily lead to stress, worry, and an inability to discriminate against all that is shared with you. Do not trust everything, but keep searching for the truth because, “He who knows nothing, doubts nothing” (Spanish proverb) and if you doubt nothing, then there is really no reason to be reading this article.

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Active Minds Develop Critical Thinking

In Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's book, Trust Us, We’re Experts, it states that, “Most propaganda is designed to influence people who are not very active or informed about the topic on hand” (311). So, the easy easy way to avoid garbage from entering your mind would be to stay educated. Read as much as you can, suppressed or hidden reports, and articles not mentioned in mainstream news sources. By reading random information, you might find something to spark your imagination which in turn could cause a snowball affect and open a whole new world of knowledge.

Keeping educated is the key to deciphering what is true and what is false. By reading all that has been written about a new product, you will not be as easily sucked into propaganda or advertisement meant to trick you. Ask the important questions: who or what created the advertisement and how is this influencing the consumer’s mind?

If you work your brain, it is like working out your muscles and instead of growing brittle with age, you can prolong the usefulness and power of important faculties for critical thought. As you get older, it should be part of your daily routine to further your reading, enhance your learning, and keep your brain healthy by constantly questioning all information made available.

Try and avoid faulty information, keep learning, and keep reading. The next time a new product or scientific fact comes your way, you will be better suited to pick apart the “fact,” and differentiate between what you are willing to believe or and what you consider useless, third-party commercialism.

Question Everything

Question everything, even this article! The sources used in this article could easily be a clever rouse to spin ideas into your precious, easily-influenced mind. However, rest assured that all ideas in this article are not meant to trick you. My goal was to write informatively, creating the idea that healthy doubt should be applied in all instances.

Doubting all that is seen and heard is preposterous and would certainly make one go insane, but one should apply critical thinking to all information they are presented with. All scientists, doctors, authors and major company representatives are humans just like you and me. The only difference between us and them is the fact that they are trying to sell you something, if only an idea. Sometimes they share the truth for the benefit of all of humanity. Other times, there are people in the world looking for an easy dollar and willing to do anything to get it.

It is certainly up to you in which morals, truths and facts you wish to believe, but do yourself a favor and think it over first. Remember, the world was once viewed as once flat, and you could simply walk off the side of it. That was once a fact. People are still promoting ideas such as this. The question is, will you believe them?

Propaganda and Advertisement Techniques Used on Consumers

Works Cited

Works Cited

Adams, Mike. "Merck Caught in Scandal to Bury Vioxx Heart Attack Risks, Intimidate Scientists and Keep Pushing Dangerous Drugs; Vioxx Lawsuits Now Forming." NewsTarget. 06 Nov. 2006. 06 Mar. 2007

McKenzie, Jaimie. "Good Doubt and Bad Doubt." The Question Mark. 2006. 06 Mar. 2007.

McLaren, Brian, and Tony Compolo. "Healthy Doubt." XA Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. 02 Dec. 2004. Stanford University. 06 Mar. 2007.

Rampton, Sheldont, and John Stauber. Trust Us, We'Re Experts. 1st Trade Paperback 2002 ed. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2000. 177 & 311.

Reitman, Jason Reitman. "Memorable Quotes for Thank You for Smoking." IMBD. 2005. 07 Mar. 2007.

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