Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Uncle Sam and Authority




Perhaps one of the most iconic and recognisable posters of all time, this is “Uncle Sam.” The character of Uncle Sam personifies America.  This advertisement in particular is a recruitment poster for the US wartime efforts.  Short and simple, it still manages to be a powerful advertisement. Arguably, the stern facial expression embodies the severity of the situation, perhaps more than reams of text ever could.   

It uses the authority-agent figure altercast.  Using Uncle Sam in the message utilises an authority figure; essentially the US government.  Uncle Sam wants what is best for Americans and represents the people in power, running the country.  Therefore, a degree of respect is warranted towards such a symbol.  It has been found that obedience to authority is commonplace in society.  For example, Milgram (1974) found that people were willing to give electric shocks (increasing in potency) to other people (in a learning experiment) under orders of the experimenter.  Note: The participants were actually administering fake shocks to confederates, but they were unaware of this deception.  Participants would administer electrical shocks (up to a maximum of 450V)  if the confederate answered incorrectly.  A shocking 65% of participants administered the maximum 450V, obeying the experimenter's instructions.  It was discussed that because the experimenter was wearing a lab coat and was a professor at the prestigious, Ivy-League, Yale University that they were in a position of scientific and academic authority. It was this that led participants to (albeit painfully) heed their experimenter’s orders.  Interestingly, further research by Milgram (1974) found reduced rates of obedience (47%) when the experiment was replicated in a non-university setting (an office in Connecticut), and the experimenter wore normal clothes.

The 1968 Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam also exemplifies obedience to authority.  American soldiers (under orders of their CO) fired upon unarmed Vietnamese civilians (women and children included).  Therefore, authority can induce obedience.  A persuasive message using an authority figure should therefore prove quite effective.  The additional finger pointing in the poster provides a direct order.  Often, this method of persuasion is used in conjunction with an authority figure because, as outlined above, people are more likely to accept an order from a respectable body. 


Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row.

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