Life & Culture

The biggest sins of spin

How our failure to understand propaganda is handing power to extremists.


When it comes to political spin, the Israelis have a lot to learn from the Palestinians.

This is the view of marketing expert Jonathan Gabay, who has spent 30 years in advertising and whose new book, Soul Traders, looks at the impact of propaganda on popular culture.

The trouble with Israel’s approach, he says, is that it has not mastered the crucial art of putting across a simple, emotive message. By sending out images of bloodied bomb victims and wailing children to the world’s media, “the Palestinians give a very strong message in a powerful way that gets into the news. Israel gives the complex view. For the intelligentsia it’s great, but who the hell has got the time?”

Gabay uses his marketing work with an Indian charity for homeless people as an example. “If I wrote a headline: ‘Please give money to save 100,000 people from dying,’ I would get in quite a few people,” he explains. “But if I wrote a headline saying: ‘You could save this one child from dying,’ I would get more people. People can’t deal with anything too complex. The Palestinians are very good at this.”

Gabay, who runs the website and is a member of Kenton’s Neveh Shalom synagogue, has written 13 books on spin during a career working for top advertising firms such as Saatchi & Saatchi. His latest publication analyses spin through history, covering everything from marketing cigarettes to how the Nazis persuaded Germans to support their anti-Jewish policies.

He insists the first propagandist was the Egyptian Pharaoh, as revealed in the biblical book of Exodus. “He found a group of people — the Jews — and demeaned them slowly but surely until the whole of Egypt followed his powerful ruling that we’re going to chuck these people out,” he says.

He points out that the British National Party used similar campaigning methods to the Nazi to win seats in the recent European elections.

“Just as with today’s BNP, the Nazi party put forward a message of caring for the people, and concern for the nation, neatly packaged in an easily adoptable cause appealing to both the working- and middle-classes. Their cause was strengthened by playing on fears relating to a heaving populace and lack of jobs for the ‘indigenous population’.

“Many voters in the Euro election were persuaded that the BNP ‘cares’ while the other, ‘fat-cat’ parties had forsaken the needs of the ordinary person for the rewards of office. This in turn gave rise to a campaign lamenting the loss of the nation’s ‘great’ past, irrespective of how great in reality that past was. Such carefully managed campaigns seek to show that ordinary people led by extraordinarily brave leaders with the guts to stand up against the broken norm can once again restore the nation’s self-respect — which was line used by the Nazis.”

Examples of classic spin were most recently seen in the way MPs tried to justify their expenses claims — the constant repetition that they had not broken the rules, and that the system, not their conduct, was at fault.

But Gabay says that it would have been better if the MPs had simply owned up. “The greatest thing to do from a ethical point of view — if you know you have made a mistake — is to admit it,” he says.

“And from a spin point of view, that is also the best response. Otherwise any journalist with half a brain would make that mistake spin out as bigger and bigger than it actually was.

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