Working in the World of Propaganda: Early Trailers & Modern Discourses of Social Control

By Frederick Greene

Do trailers deceive an audience?  I think anyone who chooses to be in the advertising world has to just give that up.  You have to understand that you’re working in the world of propaganda.

 –Nancy Goliger, EVP, Marketing & Creative Affairs Paramount Pictures

We can lie like nobody’s business…the trouble is, when we’ve really got something good, nobody believes us.

— Andy Kuehn, Trailer Maker

Propaganda used to name a respectable activity.  When Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, it wasn’t deception he desired but dissemination of doctrine.  To modern ears, however, propaganda is pejorative, a synonym for lies rather than the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of information” in order to capture the public mind “in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea,” as Edward Bernays phrased it in his 1928 classic, Propaganda. 1

By any objective measure, contemporary life is saturated with persuasive speech that relies on a self-interested presentation of information or “opinion expressed for the purpose of influencing actions of individuals or groups,” as defined by mid-century social scientists Alfred and Elizabeth Lee. 2  Whether categorized as advertising, marketing, advocacy, news or entertainment, messages propagated by modern mass-communication technologies that “shape the attitude of many individuals simultaneously” using “calculated emotional appeals and indirect messages” instead of “overt, logical arguments” are ubiquitous. 3  Yet insofar as propaganda attempts to “put something across,” to “do the other fellow’s thinking for him” and to bring about a certain action, while encouraging belief in the recipient that ideas grasped and emotions felt are sui generis and that consequent decisions are freely taken, it poses significant challenges to cherished ideals of choice, agency and self-governance. 4

Of course, movie trailers are propaganda, as are commercials for soap powder and deodorant, political candidates and military recruitment and just about any persuasive argument or proposition you can think of that doesn’t rely on mathematical proof or lab reports to compel belief. But so what?  Or, better yet, how so or in what manner? Lest a technique of communication be confused with its content, it’s essential to distinguish the formal strategy of motion-picture  marketing – of telling, selling and describing – from the substance of its message.

As an historian of movie trailers, I’m interested in their emergence and early development.  At roughly the same time in which modern discourses of social control and suasion (crowd psychology, public opinion, human relations, public relations, market research, scientific polling and modern advertising) are promulgated, codified and applied – discourses in which the potential of the moving image is expressly marked -moving image advertising enters the American zeitgeist as an integral part of the movie-going experience.   In the pages to follow, I look at early trailers in light of their persuasive, non-rational mode of communication and their potential to perform the work of propaganda as described by its foremost American theorists, proponents and practitioners.

In asking how trailers of the emergent age persuade, I acknowledge that the evidence for such a determination is fragmentary.  The primary sources owe their preservation to accident: they are what survived and has been preserved at the UCLA Archive, the largest repository of such specialized materials in the world.  Considered of little importance for much of their existence, trailers were routinely destroyed, recycled, left to rot, over-exploited or rubbished.  After 1922, the record improves, but I am indebted to written accounts in the trades and the research of Vinzenz Hediger for much of what is known about trailers and trailer making in the first decade of their existence.

In 1912, the distributors of the Edison series What Happened to Mary thought to use the trailing, unexposed end of the reel–used to wrap and protect the film–to deliver salient information to an audience that had just consumed an installment.  As Hediger discovered:

The trailer at the end of Episode 8 of the Edison series…read: “The next incident in the series of What Happened to Mary? will be shown a week from now.” Taking the concept one step further, one trailer at the end of an episode of Selig’s 1913 serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, raises the question “Will she escape the Lion’s pit?” thus stressing the episode’s cliffhanger ending. The trailer further read, “See next week’s thrilling episode.” 5

In such proto-trailers, information about the coming attraction, its visual pleasures, stars and production quality is provided implicitly and by reference to the surrounding footage in which the message is embedded.  Ingeniously, economically and effectively (given the rapid and widespread adoption of the approach), an episode is enlisted to promote its successor.

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Figure 1


By 1915, movie marketers had produced a trailer with the discrete form we recognize today.  Though short, simple (and possibly fragmentary), the trailer for The Red Circle uses copy, graphic design, moving images and the face of an acknowledged star (Ruth Roland) to alert the public to this coming attraction.  The static (though wobbly) opening shot is of the key art, an amorphous red circle, circumscribing three separate copy lines.  The distributor, Pathe Exchange has embossed its logo on the red circle, within which audiences are posed a simple question:  “What is the Red Circle?” Next, “Watch for it” sounds the call-to-action, while below that, scheduling information of a general sort is provided: “Coming to this theater soon.”

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Figure 2


After the combination key art and title graphic, a large, jeweled ring appears rotating in space, as the camera slowly approaches.  Across the facets of the stone, a circularly matted image of Roland is superimposed as the rotation stops.  Roland smiles and the trailer concludes.

By 1918, trailer making had advanced to the point where a detailed presentation for exhibitors could be undertaken.  For Hands Up! (another Ruth Roland serial) a bifurcated message structures the promo: explicit business arguments for booking the serial, featuring a survey of “marketing helps” available to support the exhibition; and, traditional elements, including excerpted scenes, claims about provenance and the excellence/quality of the production, appear alongside appeals to stars, genre, spectacle and story.  After a review of influential writings about propaganda and the moving image from the period, I return for a closer look at this preview.

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Figure 3


Propaganda in Practice and Theory: Creel, Lippmann, Bernays

In 1917, having obtained congressional approval to involve the US in the European conflict, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee On Public Information (CPI) and appointed journalist George Creel to head it.  Under the able, energetic leadership of Creel, the CPI produced feature-length propaganda films, shorts, slides, posters and cards, and published thousands of articles, op-eds, bulletins, essays and reports in fulfillment of its mandate to support the war effort using every medium at its disposal.

Both Walter Lippmann, a young advisor to Wilson, and Edward Bernays, who worked for the CPI in Latin America, were profoundly influenced by the CPI’s systematic, media-wide campaigns of information, persuasion and perceptual management. Identified by historians and communications scholars as “the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda,” the CPI produced content informed by recent research in individual and crowd-psychology, disseminated through every conceivable media channel (print, radio, film, in-person, graphics, etc.) and methodically distributed in every market, from local to international. 6

Significantly, if baldly, Creel entitled his 1921 memoir of his CPI tenure, How We Advertised America.  Lippmann, already on his way to becoming one of the most influential journalists and public intellectuals of the century, drew on his observation and analysis of the CPI’s work for his learned 1922 monograph, Public Opinion. 7  A few years later, Bernay’s, Propaganda (1928) distilled his war-time CPI experience into an instantly definitive account of the topic.

What George Creel judged “a plain publicity proposition” and “the world’s greatest adventure in advertising,” Lippmann analyzed as the “manufacture of consent” and Bernays heralded as propaganda or “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” 8  But in describing opportunities for creating and managing public opinion(s), each writes insistently and enthusiastically about the medium of film and the deployment of advertising as the apotheosis of interested messaging within a democratic system of government.  Without recapitulating their well-known analyses and conclusions, I want to highlight each man’s obsession with moving pictures and their promotion, publicity and marketing as preview and exemplum of this epochal change in mass communications.

“[A]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner…persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government,” frets Lippmann. 9  Bernays, by comparison, is sanguine: he reckons society consents to this “vast and continuous effort …to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.” The selling of political notions he considers a market approach to governance and a clear improvement on dictatorship, its alternative. 10   Both were reacting to Creel’s work at the CPI, discussed below.

Intended to “mobiliz[e] the mind of the world so far as American participation in the war was concerned,” the CPI began a worldwide campaign in 1917. 11 Rather than traditional censorship, the CPI flooded the channels of distribution with information selected to advance pre-determined objectives. Since the US was “fighting for ideas and ideals,” Creel urged the use of ideas as weapons. 12  But, he insists “we did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.” 13

Confident that a straightforward presentation of facts was all that was required, Creel commissioned pamphlets to “bl[o]w as a great wind against the clouds of confusion and misrepresentation.” 14 Supplementing print, the CPI recruited artists to produce “posters, window-cards, and similar material of pictorial publicity for the use of various government departments and patriotic societies.” 15  More to the point:  “America’s war progress, as well as the meanings and purposes of democracy, were carried to every community in the United States and to every corner of the world,” by the medium of film.  “Pershing’s Crusaders, America’s Answer and Under Four Flags were …feature films by which we drove home America’s resources and determinations.” 16 Accordingly, “wide and intensive publicity and advertising campaigns were conducted.” 17

Because the motion picture “had to be placed on the same plane of importance as the written and spoken word,” 18 Creel arranged for the CPI to become the distributor of Department of War images and battleground footage. 19  Additionally, materials with “as high publicity value” as footage for feature films and the Official War Review were provided to news weeklies at bargain rates. 20

As is well documented elsewhere, CPI propaganda was supplemented by the entertainment industry.  Wielding Trade Board authority and sanction power, Creel mobilized the talents of producers, directors and tradesman and leveraged the celebrity of actors.  “What we wanted to get into foreign countries,” he explains, “were pictures that presented the wholesome life of America.” 21

Creel didn’t have to twist arms. Studios, the industry lobby and individuals recognized a patriotic duty and an economic opportunity in supporting the effort. 22

Studio executives promised “support for the defense of our country and its interests” offering to “to place the motion picture at your [Wilson’s] service in the most intelligent and useful manner.” The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry pledged “the undivided conscientious and patriotic support of the entire [film] industry in America.” Louis B. Mayer called motion pictures “a powerful tool of “the government and its various propagandas.” Cecil B. DeMille told the Motion Picture War Relief Association that, “[t]he motion picture is the most powerful propaganda…a message …which can’t be changed by any crafty diplomat.”[/ref]  A Motion Picture News editorial from 1917 describes establishment sentiment and resolve: “… every individual at work in this industry wants to do his share,” it opined, pledging that “through slides, film leaders and trailers, posters and newspaper publicity they [would] spread that propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization of the country’s great resources.” 23 (Emphasis mine)

Analyzing political history and reviewing the CPI’s application of theoretical insights to a practical circumstance, Lippmann, in Public Opinion, sought to understand “why the picture inside [their heads] so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside,” what this says about the “traditional democratic theory of public opinion” and how it might be possible to make “unseen facts intelligible to those who make decisions.” 24

From a study of the actions of the French General Staff during WWI, Lippmann concluded that control of information – and visual information especially – was fundamental:  “a group of men, who can prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to suit their purpose.” 25 (As with Bernays and Creel, Lippmann uses figures of visual perception to express understanding, such that to “see” is always, already, a dead metaphor.)

Though critical of CPI suppression of information, Lippmann acknowledged its achievement: “while the war continued it very largely succeeded…in creating … one public opinion all over America.” 26 Typically, however, for most of the population, there are no “channels” connecting the various circles they inhabit that would allow an enlargement of perspective. “For them,” he laments, “the patented accounts of society and the moving pictures of high life have to serve.” 27  While he initially begrudges such a role to film, he soon extols it: “[i]n the whole experience of the race there has been no aid to visualization comparable to the cinema,” for “on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you.” 28

Moreover, since “[w]e cannot be much interested in, or much moved by, the things we do not see,” public affairs are “dull and unappetizing” for most people,  poorly perceived and understood “until somebody, with the makings of an artist, has translated them into a moving picture.” 29 It’s only then, Lippmann concludes, that fact and experience can be transformed by individuals into public opinions or “the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship.” 30  But such pictures must be imbued with our personality. “Until it releases or resists, depresses or enhances, some craving of our own, it remains one of the objects which do not matter.” 31  Logical argument or reasoned analysis will not suffice.  The agglomeration of individual belief into a public opinion requires emotional investment (empathy) and personal involvement (identification).  Movies, more than any other medium, possess this power to move us.

With respect to the formation of Public Opinion, Lippmann describes the processes of association and analogy, symbol and substitution, in evocative terms:

The stimulus… may have been a series of pictures in the mind aroused by printed or spoken words. These pictures fade and are hard to keep steady; their contours and their pulse fluctuate. Gradually the process sets in of knowing what you feel without being entirely certain why you feel it. The fading pictures are displaced by other pictures, and then by names or symbols. But the emotion goes on, capable now of being aroused by the substituted images and names…. 32  (Emphases, mine)

Notably, it’s the press agent, that professional advocate of private interest, who is the master of these processes: “the picture which the publicity man makes… is the one he wishes the public to see. He is censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interests.” 33

But whereas Lippmann is apprehensive about the consequences of propaganda for democratic theory and practice, Edward Bernays is blithe. 34 He approves the fact that “we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” 35 It is these invisible rulers who “sift and high-spot” fact and information and narrow our choices to “practical proportions.” 36

Like Lippmann, Bernays finds inexhaustible reference and example in motion picture entertainment and advertising of the application of and capacity for propaganda.  Indeed, “[v]irtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president.” 37 For Bernays, Creel’s work “opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.” 38  In this group Bernays places “the fifty most popular authors, the presidents of the fifty leading charitable organizations, the twenty leading theatrical or cinema producers, the hundred recognized leaders of fashion, the most popular and influential clergymen in the hundred leading cities.” 39 (Emphases, mine.)

As with Lippmann, the public relations counsel, a special pleader and professional propagandist, represents to Bernays the avatar of this socio-political revolution: “[h]e examines the product, the markets, the way in which the public reacts to the product, the attitude of the employees to the public and towards the product, and the cooperation of the distribution agencies.” 40  If the job resembles that of a marketing executive, it’s not by coincidence.  It was the “amusement business,” he notes, that taught industry and commerce how to advertise. Commerce then “adapted and refined these crude advertising methods to the precise ends it sought to obtain.” 41

Inexplicably,  politics – or the marketing of ideas and beliefs – has lagged behind its peers in amusement and commerce.  While politics was the first important department of American life to use propaganda on a large scale, Bernays critiques its delay in retooling to meet the changed conditions of the public mind. 42  Since “Every object which presents pictures or words…can be utilized in one way or another,” political campaigns must be organized and executed with particular attention to media, content and distribution. 43

In a telling anecdote, Bernays affirms the reciprocity I’ve hypothesized between discourses of social control and the marketing of visual entertainment:

I often wonder whether the politicians of the future… will not endeavor to train politicians who are at the same time propagandists. I talked recently with George Olvany. He said that a certain number of Princeton men were joining Tammany Hall. If I were in his place I should have taken some of my brightest young men and set them to work for Broadway theatrical productions or apprenticed them as assistants to professional propagandists before recruiting them to the service of the party. 44

As Bernays knows, argument is hard; appeal is easier. Better to dramatize the issue to attract attention, answer the “spontaneous questions” and address “the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject.” 45  “As the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world,” the American motion picture should be utilized to “standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” 46

While it is indisputable that Creel, Lippmann and Bernays understood the propaganda potential of motion-pictures and their marketing from positions of familiarity, apprehension or avidity, is it also the case that trailers of the 1910’s and 20’s (apart from their features) were aware of or attempting to realize that potential? To see whether and in what ways the era’s preference for entertaining persuasion over physical coercion is discernible in early previews of coming attractions, a closer look is warranted.

The exhibitor’s reel for Hands Up! (1918) 47—one of the oldest promotional treasures in UCLA’s collection—is not strictly a trailer because it is not addressed to ticket buyers but to the theater owners Pathe Exchange wants to exhibit its new 15-part western series.  In industry jargon, it’s called a promo, which is a trailer edited to appeal to buyers and exhibitors.

A scant six years into the trailer era, this promo contains nearly all the elements met with since:  titling; graphic design; copy; excerpted scenes; cast run; production credits; focused marketing appeals; genre cues; story details; and scheduling information.  After a introductory sequence of title cards and key art, a succession of interstitial cards appear specifying characteristics and qualities of the film including its production team, stars, setting, plot points and visual attractions.  Following this trailer-esque section, the promo moves into its business argument, wherein the various advertising “helps” that Pathe provides are enumerated.  Finally it closes with the distributor logo, a visual appeal to Pathe’s reputation.

On its opening title card, featuring a graphic image of a masked rider on a galloping horse carrying a swooning victim,  Hands Up! calls itself “ A Cyclonic Western;” on the next, it refers to itself as “the most ambitious Western ever filmed.”  The first is fine sounding nonsense; the second is hyperbole, though not absurdity.  Pathe includes its brand slogan, “The House of Serials,” on the second card to indicate its mastery of the format.

The next cards introduce us to the writer and producer, shown working together, and to the Supervising Director, George Fitzmaurice, flanked by his production staffers and a camera.  This production is the first serial from the distinguished feature filmmaker. 48

Stars Ruth Roland and George Chesebro are introduced before they appear, talking to and smiling at the camera.  Next, fellow players are described then shown.  First, the Phantom Rider, whose mysterious identity is intended to draw the curious, episode-by-episode.  Then come the villains:  the Gentleman Rancher, an outlaw by night, lurks behind a building and ties a kerchief over his face; next, the Adventuress, a scheming socialite and romantic rival to Roland, appears. Close-ups reveal eyes narrow and calculating.  Finally, the Incan priests, “custodians of treasure” in Pre-Columbian regalia, make their appearance.

A series of genre appeals follows.  “From the start, there is love interest,” captions an embrace between Chesebro and Roland.  Next, “Stunts and thrills galore,” are promised backed by celluloid evidence.  Chesebro and Roland, on horseback, are framed in a medium shot.  Roland darts left and we cut to a rear shot of her riding toward a tree.  She hits a branch and tumbles off.  Chesebro, meanwhile, has started after, first toward the camera, then seen from behind as he approaches, dismounts and, in close-up, cradles the awakening damsel in his “manly hero” arms.  She eyes him suspiciously in an even closer shot.

Without transition beyond a card introducing “The Escape from the Tower,” scenes of Roland imprisoned and imperiled unspool.  The editing is fast (>1 cut per second) and the action is kinetic: Roland shelters in a tower, slamming the door on her swarming pursuers, shown medium and in close-up.  Cut to Roland in the bell tower about to descend a rope.  She falls into the horde below.  Chesebro rides to the tower, guns at the ready, and enters on horseback. Cut to the interior where, framed tightly in a circular mat, he addresses Roland’s captors with a cocked pistol in each hand.

Roland is suspended over a blazing pit as her tormentors revel. Despite the threatening pyrotechnics, Chesebro prevails.  Roland runs to him, mounts in front and together they ride out.  Cut to an exterior shot of their exit and then to a longer shot of their escape up an adjacent hill.

In the next scene, Roland has been imprisoned in a cell over an archway.  Building a human pyramid from unidentified compatriots, Chesebro climbs the ladder of flesh and helps her descend.  Watching these representative scenes, an attentive exhibitor would derive a good idea of the picaresque story and the “cliff-hanger” hinges between episodes.

Hands Up! turns now from story to setting:  “Here’s a sample of the rugged Western country in which Hands Up! is being filmed,” declares a card.  A long shot, panning upward, reveals a spectacular alpine waterfall.  Next, “lavish sets” and expenditure are promoted.  The “Throne Room of the Incas” and the “Sacrificial Chamber” constitute evidence of both, shown by an exterior to interior dissolve.

Transitioning from product characteristics to marketing considerations, a card from Pathe explains, “What we are doing to help you cash in big profits.” I’ve characterized the visual evidence in parentheses below.

–“A nationwide Billboard campaign on ‘Hands Up!’ has been undertaken by Pathe.  These stands will be posted by Pathe in upward of 500 cities.”  (Key art is shown)

–“Ask Pathe representatives for details of our offer of these magnificent posters absolutely free of charge.”  (Three different posters are displayed)

–“’Hands Up!’ in serial form will run in the Motion Picture Magazine on sale early in August. The October cover features picture [sic] of Ruth Roland. This story will be read by over two million people.” 49 (Roland appears on the cover)

–“Here is a list of the advertising helps we have prepared in order to help you cash in Big Profits with Hands Up!” (1,3 & 6 sheet ad-slicks are specified, as well as lobby photos and key-art/title graphics)

–“Magnificent banners” are promised, printed “in five colors on linen.”

–“Cuts with mats” of Chesebro and portraits of Roland are also available.

Still, Pathe’s strongest argument remains this one:  “Mr. Exhibitor, listen to this.  By running Hands Up! at your theater you will be guaranteeing fifteen weeks of prosperity.  You will be selling seats fifteen weeks in advance.”

If a moviegoer in 1918 had little more than a dime and free time at risk, the prospective exhibitor of Hands Up! is asked to commit significant resources.  Consequently, he required strong, verifiable arguments. Yet, in this proposal, the business claims, while extensive, are unexceptional; it’s the aesthetic ones that are special.  By 1918, exhibitors knew that a good serial was a good booking; they knew which marketing “helps” were valuable and which less so.  What was unknown was the product and whether it would meet expectations. Though an exhibition contract stipulates the terms of the rental and the extent of the marketing support (posters, lobby cards, a magazine tie-in) the quality of the product has to be deduced from excerpted scenes. The trailer is the claim (and evidence) of whether the film is any good.

Does the trailer depict chemistry between the stars? Is the feature well shot and professionally directed? Are the stunts thrilling, the sets extensive and spectacular? Is the scenery interesting?  Is the genre well developed?  For answers, an exhibitor, then as now, depends on the distributor’s (re)presentation, the central feature of which is the trailer. A shrewd exhibitor in 1918 would have learned to consume such representations with a jaundiced eye.

The Hands Up! promo implies that the exhibitor’s benefit is foremost to the distributor, (viz: “what we’re doing to help you make money!”) although no mention of factors that might interfere with full houses and overflowing tills is made. The argument from experience is trotted out as well:  Ms. Roland, Mr. Chesebro, Mr. Fitzmaurice and Pathe are established, bankable collaborators who have lent their reputations to the undertaking.  Roland’s beauty offers an additional source of authority.  Hands Up! must be, by rhetorical logic—if not the analytic variety– not only legitimate but excellent.

For all the innovation in visual storytelling (cinematographic technology and technique, editing, acting, etc.,) in the first decades of the 20th century, films and their animated heralds remain dependent on words to communicate and persuade. To “see” the stars, spectacles and scenes is the constant appeal, but always through the filter of words. 50  Moving images function as proof not proposition, evidence not assertion.  Language explains and interprets meaning.  Their propaganda is significantly rhetorical.

Apart from their informational and promotional value, inter-titles were required to cover gaps and effect transitions in an era when quality outtakes were in short supply and the negative was too precious to use.  Moreover, editing was as yet an emergent mode of visual communication, mastered by a limited number of crafts-persons.  Rhetoric, by comparison, had 2500 years of precept familiar to armies of skilled practitioners.  It was cheaper and easier to deploy.

Even in such sophisticated silent trailers as Beau Sabreur (1927), The Great Gatsby (1926), The Garden of Allah (1927), Ben Hur (1925) 51 and A Thief in Paradise (1925), showing is framed by telling. 52 Though these previews deliver spectacle, action, genre cues and character typing to draw audiences, proffering sensual and narrative pleasures rather than reflective or analytical ones, copy mediates the terms of engagement and carries the burden of persuasion.

The trailer for Gatsby, for example, which first emphasizes the best selling novel and theater-packing play that inspired the film (the band-wagon approach), ultimately chides:  “There’s no need to talk about this picture; just look at these sample scenes.”  We see Jazz Age revelers around the pool and on Gatsby’s staircase, before cutting to a confrontation in the salon between Gatsby and Tom.  Ballyhoo, wealth and romantic conflict are the film’s authorized marketing content, not literary merit and cultural insight.    “Come and see it all and enjoy the entertainment thrill of your life,” the cards continue.  “The Great Gatsby is Great!”

Unlike Bernays’ conception of political propaganda, with its opposing claims, film advertising is rarely contradicted, unless by the consumer’s experience. Trailers assert, illustrate, advocate and solicit, but rarely dispute.  Instead, competition for viewers is won by betters appeals and stronger visual evidence, subject to the rule that audiences resent being misled and that if the trailer is the first word, the final word is “word of mouth,” and the worst word that of a deceived ticket buyer.

In this light, the propaganda of early trailers seems benign or inconsequential. The change of attitude solicited by the commercial message is from neutrality or indifference to intent and curiosity. Then as now, trailers connect the qualities of the film with the presumed interests and belief system of the viewer, rather than persuading her to adopt another.  Where trailers for the silent era make ideological claims it is in the most unexceptional way:  normative representations of sanctioned events, characters and dynamics and invisibility of unauthorized ones.  They reify prejudice and stereotype more actively than they deceive or misrepresent.

But as persuasive, non-rational texts, they persistently draw from the rhetorician’s handbook and propagandist’s toolkit: ad nauseum repetition; appeals to authority, fear, prejudice, patriotism, beautiful people and the common man. They exploit the either/or fallacy and trade in cognitive dissonance, disinformation and diktat, etc. 53 As the format most indebted to editing, they manipulate image, graphic design, chronology, pattern and rhythm in the production of pleasures independent from if ultimately referential to their features.

Yet, by the same gesture with which they involve and compel, trailer form and content foreground and denaturalize their propagandistic work.  While there may be no more appealing kind of film than a movie trailer, as a communication, it is believed only “just so,” as Kuehn’s epigrammatic complaint about incredulous viewers indicates.  Whereas documentary footage – for Creel, the choicest instrument of the propagandist – asserts a version of reality that typically naturalizes its construction, its narrative and its point of view, trailers self-consciously advertise their dissimulation, point of view and recontextualization. Fans, adepts and connoisseurs recognize and evaluate the tricks they know them to play. 54

What this awareness reveals is the ambivalent role of trailers within the arsenal of propagandistic speech.  For while trailers—then as now–are eagerly anticipated, consumed and enjoyed, their formal and formulaic self-referentiality (seen in taglines and inter-titles, discontinuous editing and graphic design) effects a constant interruption of visual seduction: they denaturalize themselves with marketing meta-content, creating distance from and resistance in the viewer who is thereby reminded of their casual if interested relationship to mimetic representation.  While trailers use visual means to produce somatic and haptic reactions in viewers (as Enrica Picarelli has described elsewhere), 55 their manifest work is always already bracketed, received under stipulation and filtered through a skein of skepticism.  No one has ever been in confusion about their status as persuasive speech.

The “lies” that movie trailers tell are rarely about facts or figures; rather they are lies of omission and misrepresentation.  The trailer maker (like the publicist, novelist or director) is a story-teller, hired to tell a story about another story, not to argue a point of fact about it.  Audiences learn not to believe the claims of the trailer maker at face value, but they do retain, upon review of the visual and verbal evidence, the capacity to judge whether the film will entertain them.  This has been true since the first serial interrupted its own story to advertise its continuation on another reel.

As stories about stories, trailers are doubly removed from reasoned argument, logical debate or scientific inquiry and assessment.  Indeed, much of the “fun” of watching movie trailers is the act of critical assessment, the skeptical reading of these film texts for their latent rather than manifest content.  It’s why trailers are ideally suited to media education: they make visible the constructed and functional quality of film narrative by foregrounding editing decisions and marketing objectives.  Watch a trailer once to be stunned and speechless.  Watch it twice and the seams show.  Watch it ten times to dissipate the magic but anatomize the craft.

Critics of propaganda note that for it to achieve its objectives, recipients should be shielded from detail, context and evidence and directed toward emotionally satisfying generalities and familiar symbols.  Yet, for 100, trailer audiences have been invited to do the opposite, such that the critical work of “reading” them has become as natural an activity as film viewing.  Courtesy of inter-titles, audiences instantly recognized what trailers were, understanding simultaneously the need to interpret their claims critically.  Rather than satisfying generalities and familiar symbols, trailers delivered a dense bolus of content to be processed and appraised, concatenations of formulae and convention that have enriched our cultural inheritance, without, until recently, being objects of systematic analysis.

Whereas propaganda film repelled 1920’s audiences—insulted by its transparent advocacy, weak arguments, aesthetic failures and production quality—trailers became their delight and pleasure.  Film marketers became more and more skilled at achieving emotional identification and investment, arguing without logic and persuading without fact.  Their meticulously edited films– exquisite tools of ideological indoctrination and political suasion—colonized the culture from within the Trojan Horse of entertainment.

From the moment we learned to present, persuade and promote using the awesome power of the moving image, we have found ourselves susceptible to the social, political and economic management techniques of public relations and the shaping of public opinion by private interests.  But susceptibility is not inevitability: we may be entertained by images, stories, characters and claims we in no way admire, approve or accept.

Are trailers nefarious?  No more than the films they herald or the ideas they position.  Are they a place to work out complications, resolve contradictions, and boldly manipulate information, reference and emotion? Indubitably.  They may work mischief as well as good.  At the very least, they tend to reify the ideas, characters and themes of the films they promote, whatever their content, value or morality.

But for all their subordination to commercial imperatives, they are also revelatory.  As Kernan points out, “trailers are where Hollywood displays its contradictions right at the point where its promotional message is most direct.” 56 Because they inevitably, insistently and self-consciously draw attention to their functional status, their formulae of construction and their interpellation of the viewer, they invite interaction and examination. The consumer understands the game and only to a degree believes in what is said and shown. Indeed, the ability to “read” the trailer, to find the tell in the trailer that tells you whether it’s any good or not, is how you show yourself a fan.


Frederick Greene, Ph.D. (English Literature, UCSB, 1997) is a visiting assistant professor within UCLA’s Department of Film, Theater and Television, where he teaches a graduate seminar on movie marketing.  Writer, researcher and co-producer of Coming Attractions: A History of the Movie Trailer, (the first documentary feature on the history and practice of audio-visual movie advertising), Greene is a copywriter serving the entertainment industry. He has lectured on trailers and the history of movie marketing at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, NYU and Pasadena’s Arts Center.   He blogs at



Alvarez, Max. World Socialist Web Site, “Cinema as an imperialist weapon: Hollywood and World War I.” Last modified 5 August 2010. Accessed 5 November 2012.

Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: Liveright, 1928.

Carey, Alex. Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Herman. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Coming Attractions: The History of the Movie Trailer. Directed by Mike Shapiro. 2006. Los Angeles, CA: The Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation, 2006. DVD.

Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920.

Delwiche, Aaron. First World, “First World A Multimedia History of World War I.” Last modified 2009. Accessed November 10, 2012.

Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1922.

Greene, Frederick. “Learning From Propaganda: Helpful Hints for Connecting with Audiences.” Movie Trailers 101 (blog), September 21, 2011, accessed 15 January 2013.

Hediger, V. (2003) Self-promoting Story Events, Serial narrative, Promotional Discourse and the Invention of the Movie Trailer. in Antonini, A. (ed.). Ilfilm e i suoi multipli. Udine University: Forum.

Jenkins, Henry.  Convergence Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Johnston, Keith. Coming Soon: Film Trailers & the Selling of Hollywood Technology. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.

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Kernan, Lisa. Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

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Picarelli, Enrica. “Sensory Regimes in TV Marketing: Boardwalk Empire’s Chromatic Enhancement and Digital Aesthetics.” Transformations no. 22 (2012), accessed May 5, 2012.

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Frames # 3 Promotional Materials 05-07-2013. This article © Frederick Greene. This article has been blind peer-reviewed.


  1. Edward Bernays, Propaganda, (New York:  Liveright, 1928), 8-9.
  2. Alfred McLung Lee, and Elizabeth Bryant Lee, The Fine Art of Propaganda, (New York:  Harcourt Brace, 1939), 126.
  3. Aaron Delwiche, “Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War,” First World, last modified August 22, 2009, accessed November 10, 2012,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Vinzenz Hediger, “Self-Promoting Story Events. Serial Narrative, Promotional Discourse and the Invention of the Movie Trailer,” In: Anna Antonini, ed., Il cinema e i suoi molteplici. Udine: Forum 2003,  295-305.
  6. Delwiche, “Of Fraud and Force,” 2009.
  7. Harry C. McPherson, Jr. Review of Walter Lippmann and the American Century, by Ronald Steel, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1980.
  8. Creel, How We Advertised America, by George Creel, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920), 3; Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, (New York: Macmillan, 1922), ch. xv; Bernays, “Propaganda,” 8-9.
  9. Lippmann, “Public Opinion,” ch. xv.
  10. Bernays, “Propaganda,” 36.
  11. Newton Baker, “Foreward,” How We Advertised America, by George Creel, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920), xiii.
  12. Baker, “Foreword,” xv.
  13. Creel, “America,” 3-4.
  14. Ibid.,  5.
  15. Ibid., 6.
  16. Ibid., 8.
  17. Ibid., 121.
  18. Ibid., 116.
  19. Ibid., 118.
  20. Ibid., 123.
  21. Ibid., 280.
  22. Max Alvarez, “Cinema as an imperialist weapon: Hollywood and World War I,” World Socialist Web, modified 5 August 2010, accessed 5 November 2012,
  23. Delwiche, “Of Fraud & Force,” 2009.
  24. Lippmann, “Public Opinion,” ch. i.
  25. “Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible… For while people who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they shall look, and at what.  Ibid., ch. ii. (Emphasis, mine.)
  26. Ibid., ch. iii.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., ch. vi.
  29. Ibid., ch. xi.
  30. Ibid., ch. i.
  31. Ibid., ch. xi.
  32. Ibid., ch. xiii.
  33. Ibid., ch. xxiii.
  34. Bernays renamed his pseudo-science Public Relations.  “New activities call for new nomenclature. The propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and in interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of ‘public relations counsel.’” Bernays, “Propaganda,” 36.
  35. Ibid., 8-9.
  36. Ibid., 10.
  37. Ibid., 24.
  38. Ibid., 26.
  39. Ibid., 32.
  40. Ibid., 38.
  41. Bernays, “Propaganda,  89.  “The business man and advertising man must not discard entirely the methods of Barnum.” (ibid.,  83).
  42. [1] Ibid., 92.
  43. Ibid., 102.
  44. Ibid., 104.
  45. Ibid., 106.
  46. Ibid., 155-7.
  47. All references are to UCLA Archive materials.   “Promotional Film,” Hands Up! directed by James Horne, (Los Angeles,  Astra Film Corp., 1918). Preserved by UCLA on More treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931, vol. 3. (VHS) 7 mins.
  48. James Horne is credited on the title card, but George Fitzmaurice is a stronger marketing argument.
  49. “The marketing of serials relied on the telling of the same story several times over in different media.” Vinzenz Hediger, “Self-Promoting Story Events,”  295-6.  Henry Jenkins would call this transmedia.
  50. This insight derives from Lisa Kernan’s rhetorical analysis of trailers of the golden age.  Lisa Kernan, Coming Attractions:  Reading American Movie Trailers, (Austin: University of Texas Press: 2004), Ch. 1.
  51. Ben Hur is the only one you can see outside an archive.…/Ben-Hur-Original-Trailer-.html
  52. Ben Hur is the only one you can see outside an archive.…/Ben-Hur-Original-Trailer-.html
  53. Frederick Greene, “Learning From Propaganda: Helpful Hints for Connecting with Audiences,” Movie Trailers 101 (blog), September 21, 2011,
  54. As Lippmann acknowledges: “The military censorship is the simplest form of barrier, but by no means the most important, because it is known to exist, and is therefore in certain measure agreed to and discounted.”  [Emphasis, mine.] Lippmann, “Public Opinion,” ch. ii.
  55. See, for example Enrica Picarelli, “Between Allegory and Seduction: Perceptual Modulation in Battlestar Galactica, “Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, 1, no. 22 (2012), (accessed 3 June 2012); and Enrica Picarelli, “Sensory Regimes in TV Marketing: Boardwalk Empire’s Chromatic Enhancement and Digital Aesthetics,” Transformations, no. 22 (2012), (accessed 5 May 2012).
  56. Kernan, Coming Attractions, 9.