5 Government Propaganda Campaigns That Backfired Tremendously

5 Government Propaganda Campaigns That Backfired Tremendously

When we tell you interesting facts, we do with the most honorable of goals — we want you entertained, so you click more articles. When other people launch their own information campaigns, however, they do so in the name of advocacy. And advocacy can be a well-meaning thing, or a very evil thing. 

If the government’s the one behind this advocacy campaigns, we call that propaganda. And government propaganda has a habit of falling flat on its face. 

The Made in the U.K. Label Advertised/Shamed British Products

Products have labels on them telling you the country where they were made. It really is a strange practice. It’s not a safety warning; these aren’t instructions for proper use. It’s an item of information you might not necessarily care about at all. Even if you do care about it, it receives outsize importance — does it need to be right on the product, instead of printed on the box or manual? And does the label even mean anything in a globalized world, where a product “made” in one country was made from parts from different countries, out of materials from different countries still?

For a while, various random companies used the label for various random reasons, but the labels became formalized with Britain’s Merchandise Marks Act of 1887. The act said that British products were to be labeled “Made in U.K.,” while other products sold in Britain had be stamped with their own countries of origin. Mainly, the Crown wanted German products to be labeled “Made in Germany.” German manufacturing was competing with Britain, so this way, all good British citizens would know to seek out British products instead of cheap German stuff. 

Made in Germany tin

Alf van Beem/Wiki Commons

You needed a top-quality rusty tin to store your Liquorice All Sorts.

However, it turned out that when buyers saw “Made in Germany” labels, they took that to mean “buy a different product than this, and it will cost more.” That was a reason to buy the labeled item, not to reject it. It helped that German products, while costing less, weren’t really lower in quality and in time even got a reputation as being higher in quality. What traitors these 19th-century Britons were, simply buying products that suited them instead of considering each purchase as a way to test their patriotism. 

Soy Cuba, the Pro-Capitalism Anti-Capitalism Movie

In 1964, the Soviet Union and Cuba collaborated to make a film called I Am Cuba, a film that wise snobs praise today. Forget the story — they admire the expertise that went into making it. Watch, for example, this one-shot of a funeral, in which an apparently handheld camera ascends and goes through a building then over the streets, thanks to a network of cables and pulleys:

Much like with Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation, the wise film snobs are praising the filming techniques, not the message. I Am Cuba was designed as communist propaganda. It consists of a series of vignettes, the first of which shows a casino in Havana run by rich Americans and contrasts it with the poverty that everyone else in town experiences. Audiences in neither Cuba nor the USSR were big fans of the film, and they didn’t seem to take the anti-capitalism message to heart. A lot of viewers looked at the capitalist casinos and bars and said, “Huh. Why does this look so awesome?”

Even today, showing inequality is a great way to get some poor people in capitalist countries to demand communism. But for people already living under communism, in which everyone’s poor, saying “some people under capitalism live great lives” doesn’t make for a very attractive pro-communist pitch. 

Superman Educated Kids About (Seeking) Landmines

The next Superman movie, due in 2025, is going to be called Superman: Legacy. It has no known connection to the comic book Superman: Deadly Legacy, which was unveiled by First Lady Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1996. The comic got a White House ceremony because it was a collaboration between Warner Bros., the United States and the United Nations. It was a special one-off designed to teach kids in Bosnia to avoid landmines. 

At the time, Bosnia had around three million landmines strewn around from the recent war. The United Nations was already trying to warn small children to stay clear of these mines using the creative medium of coloring books, and this new comic targeted kids too cool for playing with crayons. In it, Superman grabs a couple boys who were about to loot a minefield, informing them that mines are dangerous actually, even the ones that look like sweet souvenirs. 

Superman: Deadly Legacy


It also came in different languages, where characters possibly weren’t named Mike and Joey.

The comic book certainly sounded like a fine idea, and for all we know, it may even have saved some kids from playing in minefields. Unfortunately, it also convinced some kids to specifically seek out minefields. They read the comic and went into minefields in hopes of being rescued — by Superman.

This tale of unintended consequences sounds too perfect to be true, as though taken from some business seminar where the motivational speaker is just spewing bullshit for the sake of making a point. However, our assessment of Deadly Legacy’s effects comes from the Department of Defense’s own Defense Science Board, in a report on the effectiveness of their “managed information dissemination.” It’s a deadpan post-mortem that includes some commentary we’d never have thought of, such as, “It also highlights the likely desire of a company like DC Comic Books to seek immunity from liability for this Government-sponsored product.”

The Well-Meaning Korean Anti-Suicide Campaign

One bridge in Seoul, called Mapo Bridge, was a worryingly popular spot among jumpers. More than 10 people leaped off to their deaths every year. So in 2013, the government decided it was time for some signage to sway desperate people. “Have you been eating all right?” read one sign (a single good meal can put you in a good mood). “Let’s walk together,” read another (taking the voice of a friend accompanying the would-be jumper). Lights also turned on, responding to pedestrians, acknowledging them. 

Mapo bridge


“The wind is really nice,” says this sign, all sinister implications totally accidental.

In the year following this campaign, more than six times as many people as normal jumped off the bridge and died. It seems that these references to suicide put the idea into the heads of some people who’d otherwise just have gone on their way. 

The city now abandoned the idea of messaging and moved on to a more reliable solution: sticking nets under the bridge. Incidentally, the campaign was cosponsored by a life insurance company, who have their own reasons for wanting to keep people alive. 

The Nazi Campaign to Recruit Native Americans

According to Joseph Goebbels, a top German influencer, the tribes in America would likely side with the Nazis rather than the Allies during World War II. Reason one: Surely they resented the United States, for taking away their Lebensraum. Reason two: Some Natives, such as the Pima people, already used swastikas of a sort to represent the four winds, so they should consider Nazis natural friends. 

In Native American culture, particularly among the Pima people of Arizona, the swastika is a symbol of the four winds

Philaletheians/Wiki Commons

That’s not a joke. Goebbels really bought this logic.

The Nazis sent in provocateurs to infiltrate tribes, telling them Germany had declared the Natives to be honorary Aryans, so they should join forces. This did not work at all. The Iroquois, Sioux and Chippewa officially declared war on the Axis. They enlisted to join the U.S. military at a rate higher than the overall American population, and when many were rejected for not speaking English, they learned English specifically so they could fight. 

They were no great fans of Hitler, dubbing him “he who smells his mustache.” It seems like the Nazi agitators convinced them to fight against the Nazis, not for the Nazis. You hear about the dangers of pro-Nazi arguments, but when a lot of people hear such arguments, they think, “Those are stupid arguments. Sounds like the Nazis are wrong about everything.” 

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