Analyzing Structure and Purpose of Propaganda



You will learn how to:

  • Analyze the structure of complex primary texts including political cartoons, speeches, and propaganda posters

What is Propaganda?

Merriam Webster defines propaganda as:

“the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”

A variety of sources can act as propaganda. Texts like newspaper articles or editorials, letters or petitions, and essays can all be forms of this extremely persuasive speech. Propaganda can be visual or auditory as well. Cartoons, posters, songs, speeches, radio, television broadcasts, and even graffiti can be forms of propaganda.

Structure Defined

Structure is the overall format or organization of the source. As you analyze a source, its organization can help you better understand the information presented to you.

Each type of propaganda will have a distinct structure. For example, the way an author organizes information in a political cartoon will be much different than a propaganda poster or a speech.

Purpose Defined

Purpose is the reason a source was created. Historical texts typically have one of three purposes:

  • to inform
  • to persuade
  • to entertain

The purpose of propaganda can be tricky. On the surface it may look like the purpose is to inform or to entertain, but a closer examination of the item will reveal its true goal: to persuade.

Cartoons as Primary Sources

Political cartoons are an important type of historical document that show social or political thoughts from a specific point in time.

To examine these cartoons, look at both the images and the words. The images and the words are the structure of the cartoon; together they reveal the message and purpose.

Analyzing Cartoons

Usually, political cartoons are usually a combination of text and images.

When analyzing images, look for:

  • characters and figures…who or what do they represent or symbolize?
  • exaggerated features
  • what the characters or figures are doing

When analyzing the text, look for:

  • titles or captions
  • labels
  • dialogue or thoughts
  • any visible play on words or puns

For additional information about analyzing a cartoon, look at the Cartoon Analysis Guide from the Library of Congress.

Political Cartoon Example

View Paul Revere’s Four coffins of men killed in the Boston Massacre. Examine the images, the use of symbols, and the surrounding words to see the message the cartoon conveys.

For additional help analyzing the structure and purpose, use the ​Cartoon Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives as a guide.

Political Cartoon Analysis

Listen to the sound clip below:

Paul Revere’s Four coffins of men killed in the Boston Massacre includes:

  • section of newspaper column
  • illustration of four coffins with a skull and crossbones
  • the initials of those killed on the coffins – Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks

Source: LOC Bibliographic Information page

Speeches as Primary Sources

Speeches are an important historical source, both in their spoken and written forms.

Speeches are meant to be delivered verbally to an audience, so their structure should be very clear and easy to follow.

Speeches usually follow a dramatic arc that includes an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and the dénouement, or resolution. The audience goes on this ride with the speaker.

The Purpose of Speeches

The purpose of a speech can be to inform and persuade. Speeches use rhetorical language in a number of ways to convince the audience not only to follow along, but to also accept the argument presented.

To see definitions and examples of rhetorical devices, look at ​Rhetorical Figures in Sound from American Rhetoric.

Speeches as Propaganda

Speeches are often personal and make an emotional appeal to persuade the audience to believe or do something. Because speeches are oral, the original audience will not have a text with citations to follow along with during the delivery of the speech.

As a result, propaganda speeches can gloss over any weaknesses in the argument by making emotional appeals to the unsuspecting audience, who may or may not realize a lack of logical reasoning.

For additional information, read ​Propaganda Techniques from PBS.

Speech Example

Listen to the sound clip below:In 1774, four years after the Boston Massacre, John Hancock delivered a speech at the annual commemoration of the event. Hancock was already known in the community for his support of the Patriot cause.

Read the fourth paragraph of the speech ​Boston Massacre Oration from America’s Homepage. This, and the paragraph that follows, are the climax of his speech.

As you read, note the terms Hancock uses to describe the British soldiers and judges involved in the shooting and trial, as well as the description of the four men who died. Consider Hancock’s use of rhetorical devices, descriptive language, and emotional appeal.


Posters, also called broadsides, were another popular form of communication in Colonial America.

The Massachusetts Historical Society explains, “Broadsides are single sheets printed on one side that served as public announcements or advertisements…bringing news of current events to the public quickly and often disappearing just as quickly.”

The structure of these posters is like that of a cartoon – broadsides are visual, use images and words to convey ideas, and compress a few ideas into a limited amount of space.

The purpose of these posters could be informationalpersuasive, or a combination of the two.

How Propaganda Posters Work

Posters served as propaganda tools in the past, especially during World War I and World War II. The United States Government issued propaganda posters to encourage citizens to take action by enlisting, buying war bonds, or working in factories. One of the most iconic posters is J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” featuring Rosie the Riveter. Click here to examine the poster’s details.

We Can Do It

Propaganda posters often appeal to emotion over logic. They do this by using popular images of home or nation, vibrant colors, and large fonts to convey simple, direct commands or statements.

Older broadsides often contain more writing, in smaller font, partially because these posters were encountered up close.

Propaganda Poster Example

Paul Revere created what may be the most famous poster (broadside) of the American Revolution: “The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.”

Click here to examine that poster. Examine both the words and the scene on the poster. Consider Revere’s message and his use of historical accuracy.

For help examining the poster, use the ​Poster Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives

Propaganda Poster Analysis 1

Because Revere’s Boston Massacre Posteris so famous, it has been analyzed by many historians.

Read the poster analysis in the article ​Boston Massacre Engraving by Paul Revere from the Paul Revere Heritage Project. Reread the title of the poster and the poem that appears below the scene.

Consider whether or not you think this broadside is propaganda.

Propaganda Poster Analysis 2

Revere’s Boston Massacre Poster fits the criteria for propaganda. The images are graphic and create an emotional response. The title, labels, and poem make a persuasive case, along with the images, that the British were at fault when they shot and killed harmless colonists.

The facts of the Boston Massacre are more complex than the poster depicts…oversimplification is a characteristic of propaganda.

This poster influenced American opinion. Ultimately this helped to create public support for the American Revolution.


You learned:

  • To analyzed the structure of complex primary sources to uncover central ideas about the American Revolution.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?