This is an oldie I wrote for the 2007 Superbowl. The main attraction was “Football”, but it applies overall to media-driven modern sports fanaticism in general. At the end is a supplemental post -I thought of the following day- involving “property of” tshirts.
It turns out that sports, or at least they way they’re dramatized and pumped into society, fits right into the elitist mass media indoctrination / propaganda model.
In our society, “Football” is the major force driving that model, however, ironically, another sport named “Football” is the major driving force in most other societies. For many years, even before I ever had any coherent understanding of propaganda, I always felt that US calling “Football” “Football” was like some sort of idiot test.
We’re dealing with a sport that literally stole it’s name from a prior existing sport that involves kicking a ball around the field, and for clarification you violate penalties if you touch the ball with your hands. Perhaps the usage of the word foot is significant as it’s the furthest thing from the brain.
Somehow we took the name from a sport that deserves no name besides football, and we applied that title to a sport where you can’t even advance up the field unless you can catch and/or hold onto the ball. For fairness, they do kick the ball from time to time, in plays that last only seconds and are marginal in nature, but in truth the ball isn’t even specifically designed to be kicked. The idiot test is where they hand us these titles that clearly contradict themselves, and they prove their point when we gobble it up. And you thought TV (mass) society was amusing? On a lighter note, the “Idiot test” could be more as a form of conformity test, but even in that case it can again be argued as in Idiot Test.
This would all be example of propaganda, but I feel this sort of element is more specifically a measure of effectiveness of propaganda in general. This can be observed in other categories of media such as conditioning Christians into being foaming at the mouth rabid hawks who obsess over war even to degrees that parallel, or at least would lead to, the same mentality as people engaged in acts of genocide. Or for the “Liberals”, training them to support abortion while chastising capitol punishment or fur trade, and vice-versa.
Chomsky argues that the role of the mass media (who are controlled by only 5 mega-conglomerates) is to keep us diverted and focused on mindless issues. It’s interesting to take note of that idea, and then analyze the Superbowl phenomenon in that context. It turns out that usually the Superbowl annually draws more ratings than any other possible event. It’s almost safe to assume that nothing in recent years has gained exceptionally higher ratings than perhaps September 11th, which didn’t count in the ratings game.
Chomsky’s argument seems to hold ground considering the annual Superbowl event attracts more attention than any sort of political issue or event whether it be presidential elections, Constitutional Amendments, breaking news of severe violations of liberties and even wars. It seems that as long as we have our Superbowl then everything is alright. I could argue that that sort of fallacious logic is why our current ongoing and increasing national tragedy exists, but I won’t go there today.
“Within crowds, people think they are acting as individuals, but like the other forms of group behavior, they are being shaped by the collective action of others. People in crowds seem to take on a collective identity, and it may even be difficult to distinguish between individual and group behavior. Crowds seem to act as one even though there may be great diversity within them.” –[Andersen & Taylor] “Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society” [College Edition] 
These arguments apply to all of sports (and ultimately all social group settings), though really, “Football” is the poster-child of this phenomenon. Especially in this society, which is dripping with the elements herein, and American “Football” just so happens to be the ultimate example of the imperial propaganda model compared to its opposition.
“But wait! Such subtleties aren’t propaganda”, you argue? That’s the whole idea really, in fact many of it’s most hardcore fans openly prefer the over-competitive nature that it is, or is at least over-dramatized as being. And now the nature of this form of propaganda comes into view.
These are age old crowd / social dynamics and leadership influence that go back at least as far as the Roman Empire. In those days they used to pack over 45,000 Romans in the Colosseum to watch people get brutally murdered. The hit movie The Gladiator depicted these scenes, and the ironic thing is that the scenes were probably accurate, if not watered down while at the same time they creators of the film might have even used the Superbowl annual “Group Think” event as the primary influence in their vision of the ancient crowds.
To add to the imperial nature of our American “Football”, it’s the most militaristic in nature in comparison to the other mainstream sports. Some might argue that the crowds over in Europe, a place where many still to this day rationalize colonialism (imperialism), get into riots over the “Football” games.
It’s true and quite fascinating, from a sociological perspective, the whole “hooligan” social phenomenon. For these arguments I suggest you consider what it’d be like if the 50 “States” were literally 50 different “countries” bound by no (pseudo) federal union. If they were pumping our total cognitive dominating mainstream propaganda model into such an environment there would possibly be some state to state wars by now, in part driven by the intense competitive us vs. them rivalry mentality combined with our militarized society.
In truth propaganda applies to virtually all media. More specifically, it applies to media or stimulus that appeals to irrational emotions, and in purest form it seeks o manipulate through social group related irrational emotions. From there you have 2 different eras worth of propaganda. The French propagandist, Jacques Ellul, in his 1965 manuscript titled “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” summarized the nature of both old and modern propaganda as this:
“We now come to an absolutely decisive fact. Propaganda is very frequently described as a manipulation for the purpose of changing ideas or opinions, of making individuals “believe” some idea or fact, and finally of making them adhere to some doctrineall matters of mind. Or, to put it differently, propaganda is described as dealing with beliefs or ideas. If the individual is a Marxist, it tries to destroy his conviction and turn him into an anti-Marxist, and so on. It calls on all the psychological mechanisms, but appeals to reason as well. It tries to convince, to bring about a decision, to create a firm adherence to some truth. Then, obviously, if the conviction is sufficiently strong, after some soul searching, the individual is ready for action.
This line of reasoning is completely wrong. To view propaganda as still being what it was in 1850 is to cling to an obsolete concept of man and of the means to influence him; it is to condemn oneself to understand nothing about modern propaganda. The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active and mythical belief.”
Ellul’s full manuscript later demonstrates that Modern Propaganda doesn’t actually dismiss the old uses, if anything it exploits them to even more disturbing levels by exploiting individuals psychological weaknesses in all new ways. His argument in that section was mainly emphasizing the significance of “modern” (1965) propaganda.
Edward Bernays, who was instrumental in crafting modern propaganda, stated in his book “Propaganda” :
“This general principle, that men are very largely actuated by motives which they conceal from themselves, is as true of mass as of individual psychology. It is evident that the successful propagandist must understand the true motives and not be content to accept the reasons which men give for what they do.”
Many of the “motives” Bernays spoke of were irrational social behaviors. Bernays spoke more in terms of the differing perspectives of politics and advertising, whereas the other propagandists in this article were more in tune with the political / control dimensions of propaganda. Ellul explains this irrational social context in much deeper dimensions:
“Actually, just because men are in a group, and therefore weakened, receptive, and in a state of psychological regression, they pretend all the more to be “strong individuals.” The mass man is clearly sub- human, and is more unstable, but thinks he is firm in his convictions. If one openly treats the mass as a mass, the individuals who form it will feel themselves belittled and will refuse to participate. If one treats these individuals as children (and they are children because they are in a group), they will not accept their leader’s projections or identify with him. They will withdraw and we will not be able to get anything out of them.”
Never-mind that we observe the players are treated to follow orders like children. (More on what happens when we observe people later)
The sports degree of propaganda actually fulfills Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Minister of Propaganda) 14th and 16-A Principles of Propaganda:
#14: Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.
a. They must evoke desired responses which the audience previously possesses
b. They must be capable of being easily learned
c. They must be utilized again and again, but only in appropriate situations
d. They must be boomerang-proof
#16 Propaganda to the home front must create an optimum anxiety level.
a. Propaganda must reinforce anxiety concerning the consequences of defeat
Chomsky points out that sports function as an indoctrination tool that is “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority”. When viewing sports in this context it’s quite plain as day. I’d like to expand on this and point out that it also indoctrinates us with emotional (irrational) us vs. them mentality, which helps solidify the same behavior and thinking that you find with people who are heavily biased in politics or blind nationalism. In other words, it helps create and maintain the same type of irrational thinking that you also find in the mass delusional political and nationalism spectrums.
To deepen, or perhaps define the extreme degrees of irrational mentality you must look no further than the extreme-competitiveness projected by not only the direct content from the game but the media itself. I’m probably treading on dangerous water here, as many may view this as part of the nature of America itself. However, this is an important perspective considering the ways such a seemingly innocent form of media can affect a person who isn’t considerate of these potentialities.
“Propaganda does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve. It must therefore utilize the most common feelings, the most widespread ideas, the crudest patterns, and in so doing place itself on a very low level with regard to what it wants man to do and to what end. Hate, hunger, and pride make better levers of propaganda than do love or impartiality.” – Ellul
Some quick examples would be the ways these can apply to everyday life such as the ‘compete with your neighbors’ mindset, and other related concepts lie selfishness that has society so divided in this country. Even if people can agree on issues that have significant importance, they still refuse to band together for other ideological reasons. A good example for this is how even the “Skeptics” will agree that the 9/11 Commission Report is seriously flawed and more or less discredited (despite sticking to the overall premise), needing a real independent investigation, however they generally refuse to try to work with the “conspiracy nutters” to get a real investigation.
It’s really just a good example of Sociology’s “Competition Theory“, which identifies that competition between different groups can erupt into conflicts such as wars or riots when groups must compete for limited resources. With something like football there isn’t much to ultimately compete for beyond power through the victory of ones self-identified group, however the repeated (and subjective for those who are unwitting) experience builds and maintains the irrational us vs. them framework that political biases and blind nationalism feed from.
These concepts are all virtually identical to the framework that rationalizes imperialism and fascism as somehow being normal and even natural. In a historical context, it can be argued that there have always been empires. In response, in the modern context, what’s fascinating is that the only existing empires are those of the U.S., with the U.K. being the still existing yet mostly marginalized empire. In any case, regardless of your view on sports in particular, what hyper-competitive sports teach us is this sort of mindset that then bleeds into our other thinking patterns.
Some may not see the significance of these arguments as being very legitimate, however, one needs to only look at basic neuro-physiology to see ‘conventional’ scientific proof. I state conventional because most of this article is social science (Sociology), which not many are used to seeing the Sociological Perspective, otherwise, the world would be a far different and near rational place. Anyways, the science that I speak of in this case comes in the form of “Mirror Neurons“, which are specialized brain cells that ‘record’ witnessed actions as if you yourself are doing it. (i.e. monkey see monkey do; you yawn I yawn)
The only possible way for you to not be in a subjective state while watching (anything really) is to be objected to it, or in the more rare case understand it completely in these contexts. This applies in varying degrees, but it can be more or less determined on your degree of cohesion to 1: the media, and 2: the content. The content (of anything) is expanded in this light by A: if you like it (it activates your brains rewards centers), and B: if it applies to you in a social group context. If it’s a social group “exciting” concept or issue or symbol then this is the dead ringer in developing irrational Bias complexes.
Expanding on raw neuroscience, we develop our thinking patterns in the same way that we develop our physical skills such as playing “football”. As Chomsky points out, “it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in sports” (neurally possessing) “exotic information” “about arcane issues”. The people he was referring to (‘commoner’ callers to sports radio talk shows) seemed to express a sort of genius in sports from his observations. This goes to show the intellectual potential in virtually every human being, and at the same time the general model for human learning and thinking pattern development.
The more you watch (insert media=propaganda here) the more it physically embeds into the physical structures in your brain, and thus influence your thinking. As a side note, the use of symbols and such throughout our environment acts to “excite” these physical structures throughout our day. Why do you think the Nazi’s had their symbol (this also applies to any flag) virtually everywhere? In fairness, if you oppose the content and/or medium of the media you stand to oppose it. Despite this optimism, too much exposure to any view can still succumb to even opposed ‘neural stimulus’ as shown by children of alcoholics or any other undesirable behavior that often tend to grow up openly denouncing such deviant behavior but later adopt it themselves.
Perhaps if said children somehow were trained in neuroscience, psychology and sociology they could perhaps have far superior resistance to these overt and covert psychological forces? In other words don’t be too paranoid about watching sports whatsoever. It actually adds a whole new dimension of observation understanding these rules while watching the crowds on the TV.
“Propaganda must not only attach itself to what already exists in the individual, but also express the fundamental currents of the society it seeks to influence. Propaganda must be familiar with collective sociological presuppositions, spontaneous myths, and broad ideologies. By this we do not mean political currents or temporary opinions that will change in a few months, but the fundamental psycho-sociological bases on which a whole society rests, the presuppositions and myths not just of individuals or of particular groups but those shared by all individuals in a society, including men of opposite political inclinations and class loyalties.” – Ellul
The fascinating thing with the Superbowl is it annually creates a Fad (the entire nation embraces these teams as their own hometown heros) that reaches Craze proportions. Focusing on the crowds and festivities (manifested projection of medium) related to the Superbowl, rather than the content itself, is the ultimate example of sociology (Collective Behavior) in action. This “Collective Preoccupation” completely follows the Fad phase model.
First, you have the Latent Period being the entire playoffs up to kickoff. Next comes the Breakout Period being kickoff. Finally, you have the Decline Period, which is often passing out drunk after many hour sof keg beer and liquor. If your team lost, or you lost that drunken round of wrestling (that you started) there’s a higher probability of fighting with your girlfriend on the way home from the party. In any case, you’re “Superbowl mindset’ will be constantly “excited” constantly during the latent period. If you happen to have a ‘strong’ Superbowl Mindset, it scientifically neuters your ability to think for yourself during such periods of excitation, especially without this wisdom.
“To be effective, propaganda must constantly short- circuit all thought and decision. It must operate on the individual at the level of the unconscious. He must not know that he is being shaped by outside forces (this is one of the conditions for the success of propaganda), but some central core in him must be reached in order to release the mechanism in the unconscious which will provide the appropriate — and expected — action.” -Ellul
As Andersen & Taylor point out: “People involved in crazes tend to be highly focused on the craze behavior. They may seem fanatical, devoted to the craze above all else.” You will see plenty of this today, perhaps in yourself.
Another key topic in the Collective Behavior scope of Sociology is “Scapegoating“, which Anderson and Taylor define as “when a group collectively identifies another group as a threat to the perceived social order and incorrectly blames the the other group for problems they may have caused.” You’ll probably witness this behavior when (crazed) fans of the team that loses nitpicks some discrepancy against the opposing team (after losing money).
Shall I go on?
We Own You!
This seemed like a good followup to yesterdays sports / Superbowl – Propaganda expose. Property means ownership. Obey. I think the images speak for themselves:
Give us your mind!