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The Pop Culture Propaganda of Ender’s Game, Pacific Rim, and G.I. Joe
In case you missed it, this past week a series of propaganda-style posters was released in support of the Ender’s Game movie in theaters this fall. Take a look at the two images that follow, and you’ll see that they mimic a classic message of such posters, namely that every citizen should do his or her “part” in some crucial societal/national struggle. The third poster, with its “Never Again!” slogan, is the one that surprises me the most, with its 9/11-esque imagery and an emotionally fraught real-world phrase (a couple of non-Ender‘s images follow it for comparison’s sake).
The interesting, if obvious, thing about these marketing posters is that they seem to rely on the viewer’s familiarity with propaganda. Does that mean that the audience for blockbuster movies these days is sufficiently “media literate” that the basic design elements and themes of propaganda can serve as a cultural touchstone? Maybe. But these posters’ apparently value-free aspect is perhaps what’s most worth exploring with young people. That is, do they in any way intentionally echo or exploit actual historic events and responses to them… or do those who created such works reason that “do your part” and “never again” are just memes as this point, and therefore fair game for appropriation in any context?
Another teaching opportunity concerns the image presented at the top of this post since it of course follows the template of the traditional “recruitment poster.” You might want to start with the basic question of “Are military posters necessarily propaganda?” After all, some might chafe at the assumption that they are, as “propaganda” carries a negative connotation. However, if you define the term as persuasive text (in any medium) in the service of a social or ideological message, then even the garden variety PSA can be viewed as a form of propaganda. After all, the purpose of media literacy education is not to champion a particular political agenda, but rather help students develop the critical thinking skills (and in this case, the visual literacy skills) that can be applied to media messages across the ideological spectrum.
So comparing real-world recruitment posters to the movie marketing versions might be instructive on several levels. There’s certainly no shortage of the former, and these days that’s true of the latter as well. Here, in fact, are some striking promotional visual texts related to the upcoming Pacific Rim. What’s neat about these is that they additionally presuppose some knowledge of retro designs… or, to turn this idea on its head, you can use them to teach such vintage aesthetics to young people who may not be familiar with them.
Finally, as an illustration of the value-free efficacy of such recruitment posters, here are a couple from the recent G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Oh, and in case you were unaware, “Cobra” is the evil organization against which the good guys fight. But that doesn’t stop the posters from looking cool, does it? In media literacy terms, that’s the point: word and image combining powerfully to achieve a response that is largely unconscious and involuntary. And in media literacy education terms, that’s also the point: deconstructing the appeal of such media texts in order to reclaim conscious control of our responses.
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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