The people need a hero. The war is not going well, and the troops are running out of food, ammo and steam. The propaganda department is about to fall on its collective sword when in walks a vision: a square-jawed, broad-shouldered, clear-eyed, clean-limbed HERO...to deliver the mail. A hero who is the personification of everything good, true and pure of the nation, who you can follow into battle and inspire you to fight and die for a cause. Immediately, he is snatched up, given a shave, a haircut, a heroic backstory and put on display. His story might even be true, but that's less important to the Powers That Be than his effect on morale. And even if it is true, it will exaggerate out of proportion, misinterpreting small-scale motives for grand ideology.
Inevitably, our Made Hero will grow into his legend, and eventually even exceed it. On the other hand, if the hero was truly a hero, he will at times express reluctance about his image being used against his intentions and actions, feel guilty about how his actions divert attention from The Real Heroes and likewise struggle to repress those parts of his life and past that would otherwise fracture the myth. However, the image of the hero takes a life on its own and too many people and organizations are invested in that propaganda for a little matter of personal feelings to get in the way.
Propaganda Hero often arises deliberately, but sometimes it can come up spontaneously with no real grand plan or scheme. It is rooted in both folklore and cultural tradition as well as the engine of political machines, or simply the logic of commercialization and sales. Everybody wants something to believe in, and usually they turn to leaders in Church and State, but when those leaders cannot, for various reasons, suffice as sufficiently inspirational, they or their court scribes have to create something out of nothing, or the people have to resort to their own mythmaking prowess to seek guidance when Church and State authorities are mum.
Related to Famed In-Story, Shrouded in Myth, Historical Hero Upgrade, Propaganda Machine, Captain Patriotic, and Engineered Heroics. See also Cult of Personality, where the leaders of state are made into heroes or gods, either by themselves or their party after the leader's death, and Fake Ultimate Hero, where everything about the character turns out to be a lie.
- One Piece:
- The Shichibukai/Seven Warlords of the Sea are pirates sanctioned by the (generally opposed to piracy) World Government. This is to maintain the appearance of a balance of power with the strongest pirates, to show that pirates still fall under the control of the government, and emergency allies in case of war. The Warlords get immunity for most acts of piracy for their compliance, as well as fame.
- In the Fishman Island arc, Jinbe points to Luffy that, due to the Fantastic Racism between fishmen and humans, if Luffy wants to beat the Big Bad Hody, he has to come out of it as a "hero" for Fishman Island (as Hody is pretty much terrorizing the populace) or it'll be seen as just more cruelty of humans towards fishmen.
- The comic book miniseries The American Way is about a government-sponsored superhero team; the government also sponsors the supervillain team which the superhero team fights. It's all propaganda.
- The Boys: The superheroes are all created by a serum that is dispensed by a Mega Corp. that desperately wants to turn said superheroes into human weapons so they can get all the money and power that comes from being a part of US defense spending. Having failed to do that so far, they settle for peddling lame, Silver Age style stories that people eat up and make them imagine the heroes are saving the world on a daily basis. Of particular note is the Captain America Captain Ersatz, who is a Dirty Coward whose WWII heroism was faked and pure propaganda (which is incredibly meta, considering Captain America also appears in this list).
- Captain America was created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon to be an actual propaganda superhero. In a more nuanced example of this trope, this did not originate as state propaganda, since America had not yet entered the war against Nazi Germany at the time that the comic first came up, and Kirby and Simon intended their creation to be a "premature anti-fascist". Of course, when war was declared, Captain America was poised for success as a ready-made propaganda creation right out of the gate.
- Marshal Law is another Deconstruction where superpowered beings like "The Public Spirit" are not only total frauds, but absolutely indifferent to the fact that many individuals lost their life and limb fighting in the wars they inspired them to fight.
- Strikeforce: Morituri has in-universe propaganda comics about the characters, which are played sometimes for comedy and sometimes grim irony.
- Watchmen has government-sanctioned heroes like Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. The former is a Physical God with Blue and Orange Morality who is essentially a living nuclear weapon living off government funds, while the latter is a Sociopathic Hero and rapist war criminal whose actions are enabled by the government so long as he delivers results and projects American strength.
- In DC Comics Bombshells, Supergirl and Stargirl are intended to be this for the Soviets. When they get used as weapons against their own people they defect to the US. As members of the Bombshells, they're offered stars and stripes uniforms, but refuse them, saying they don't want to be anyone's propaganda tool.
- Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky was intended by him to be an anti-fascist propaganda piece, with the Prince of Novgorod's resistance to the Teutonic Knights being likened to a Soviet v Nazi encounter.note
- Captain America: The First Avenger: Cap's set up as the poster boy for the American troops, mostly to sell war bonds. Ironically, the men actually on the front line have no respect for a leotard-wearing shill who has never seen combat. That changes once he actually gets to put his boots on the ground.
- Enemy at the Gates: Vassily's backstory and natural talent are eagerly exploited by the Russian war department, who are desperate for a way to boost morale.
- Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers deals with the iconography of the famous flag raising photograph in Iwo-Jima and how the participants of that photograph deal with becoming larger-than-life heroes especially when they deal with Survivor's Guilt and post-traumatic stress.
- John Ford dealt with two examples:
- Most of Fort Apache shows Colonel Owen Thursday as an unsympathetic martinet and deeply unpopular with his regiment who he leads into a futile cavalry charge that gets himself and his men killed. In the film's epilogue, he's glorified into a hero under whose memory the regiment will continue to fight Native Americans.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) was a pacifist Internal Reformist politician who wanted to bring progress to a small town in the west, but he gets elected out of the notoriety of having shot the outlaw Liberty Valance who was killed by John Wayne's Tom Doniphon. In the end, when he tries to tell the truth to the local newspaper, they insist on destroying it, because a great deal of progress came out of that myth, and nobody wants to deal with pesky things like facts.
- The Red Baron: shows both von Richthofen's ground-breaking tactics... and the calculated manner in which his reputation was built by the German propaganda.
- Spoofed with the propaganda-cartoon hero "Johnny Rehab", the friendly face of ethnic cleansing.
- Commander Cash. Bringing the credit crisis to a super-fight near you!
- The Running Man: The gladiators who chase down the criminals have their own wrester-style personas. It's inverted with Ben Richards, who is falsely accused of murder and slandered.
- Triumph of the Will was intended by Leni Reifenstahl to make Adolf Hitler into one, orchestrating a Nuremberg Rally (deliberately staged by Reifenstahl for the film) with Hitler getting an epic entrance to show how godlike and powerful he is.
- Oz: The Great and Powerful: The Good Witch thinks of the main character this way when she tells Oscar to save the land from the Wicked Witches, as the people are longing for the legendary "Oz" so much that even just an image of Oz will suffice to liven up their spirit.
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky has Ivan Karamazov narrate the Nested Story of the Grand Inquisitor where an Inquisitor in Spain remarks to a Jesus returned to earth that he has become the Propaganda Hero for the Church and that they will use his image to propagate whatever actions they deem correct or necessary for their organization, even if they have to recrucify Jesus to do it.
- Ciaphas Cain: Cain's reputation is at least in part built on this (as well as on his extremely impressive — if accidental — actual heroism).
- The Hunger Games: Katniss' formidable fighting skill is entirely overshadowed by the sympathy she draws from the populace. Both sides try to exaggerate and embellish her reputation — inventing star-crossed romances and so forth — and both meet with mixed results due to her bitter, taciturn, rebellious, survivalist-but-self-sacrificing nature...which is why the people truly love her.
- Cassius Mass, The Fire Count, is an Ace Pilot who has racked up an astonishing 400 kills during the war against the Commonwealth in Space Opera series Lucifer's Star. Only later does he find out that much of this is due to High Command sending his group against soft targets with the best equipment to raise morale. Even so, his Archangel squadron quits itself astonishingly well in the last battle of the war. It still leaves Cassius as the Sole Survivor.
- In Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, Hero was this before the story began, as the human leaders cast him as the human savior against demons. Reconstructed after allying with the Demon Queen to Save Both Worlds, as he is increasingly aware of his status as a Propaganda Hero. He also begins to take control of his own propaganda in the guise of Dark Knight, Demon Queen's loyal and fearsome servant.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four: Winston Smith invents the heroic "Comrade Ogilvy" out of whole cloth as part of his job at the Ministry of Truth.
- The Aeneid by Virgil was state propaganda promoted by Augustus to link the emerging Roman Empire with the antiquity of Homer, and likewise displace Remus and Romulus with Aeneas as the new founder of Rome.note Aeneas likewise embodies virtues more amenable to Roman piety and values, being stoic, determined, and obedient to family and gods, differing from the Homeric attitude to Greek heroes (capricious/violent/inconsistent).
- On the flip side, Pharsalia by Lucan made Cato into a propaganda hero with Caesar being made into a villain. Lucan was a critic of Emperor Nero (who claimed descent from Caesar and Augustus) and eventually fell victim to his policies. Its glorification of Cato as an embodiment of Roman virtue and defiance against encroaching reforms by ambitious usurpers is no less generous to Cato than Virgil was to Augustus.
- The word Propaganda originates from a Catholic Church group called Committee for Propagating the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), whose main function was to spread the faith in non-Catholic nations. Later historians argue that Patron Saint, pious Kings, Popes, and devout nuns have at various times become heroes for propaganda use by the Church, and one of the techniques used by the Church in modern times includes distributing comics showing famous saints and likewise using many saint iconography interchangeably with Jesus.
- The use of propaganda for modern use comes from The French Revolution.
- An example of this is the conversio][n of the Ste. Genevieve into the Pantheon, a hall of fame mausoleum where the Great Thinkers, Philosophers, and Politicians could be interred. Both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were interred there.
- The painter Jacques-Louis David played a major role creating paintings on classical themes, such as Lucius Brutus and the Horatii, that linked contemporary Republican sentiment with their classical predecessors. His most famous work, "The Death of Marat", made a martyr of Jean-Paul Marat and made Marat into a Christ-like figure of veneration. Indeed, after Marat's death, the First French Republic promoted a cult of Marat, where busts of Marat replaced those of Jesus Christ in many parts of France and he became a secular saint.note
- Maximilien Robespierre was rather fixated with finding the Ideal Hero for the French Revolution. His reputation of humility precluded him from actively promoting a Cult of Personality, but he settled on Viola and Bara, two Child Soldiers who illegally joined the armies by lying about their ages and ended up KIA. David, Robespierre's friend, worked on paintings showing Bara's death and Robespierre intended to inter the bodies of both children into the Pantheon, noting that the French Republic alone could boast having "12 year old heroes".note
- Napoleon Bonaparte, former Jacobin that he was, engaged Jacques-Louis David and other painters to propagate for a new cause and hero...himself, creating an authentic pre-20th Century Cult of Personality in the process.
- Soviet Union:
- This is what happened to Aleksei Stakhanov in Stalin's USSR. After winning a coal extracting competition, he was presented as an insanely productive miner, to serve as an example to other workers, with the purpose of making them work beyond their production quotas and show the world how performant the "New Man" was. He made a comfortable career for the regime thanks to that. Of course, decades later, his alleged exploits were proven greatly exaggerated, but a city is still named after him. In some countries like France, someone who works beyond reason is called a "stakhanovist".
- The Soviets later elevated cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as a hero for the Soviet Union, and in his case, he remains someone who really did something to merit his elevation and was genuinely popular among the people. Other attempts to elevate Soviet heroes include athletes and war heroes (such as Vassily mentioned above, but he was merely one of many).
- Perhaps the most notorious case is Ahmadiyya Jabrayilov. His legend includes heroically fighting in the Red Army, getting captured after being surrounded, vastly outnumbered and rendered unconscious, fleeing from a German concentration camp by hooking up with a local girl and Buried Alive, fighting just as heroically in the French Resistance, with daring raids and taking part in liberating a few key cities towards the end of the war, and becoming a personal friend of Charles de Gaulle who specifically wanted to meet him during his later visit to the USSR. There are monuments and museums of him in Azerbaijan and France, complete with photos, medals and memorabilia... Then the Russian Wikipedia's article about him is deleted after the editors find out that likely nothing of what is known about him is true.
- John Henry, the famous "steel drivin' man" of song and story. From what little is known, he really did win his famous duel against the steam drill, a truly herculean feat that required him to swing a 12 pound sledgehammer in each hand. While it's probably not true he then "laid down his hammer and died" afterwards, the steam drill was able to repeat the feet the next day and John Henry was not. Over the years, various people have re-purposed an event that was probably staged to settle a bet into everything from the story of a generically American folk hero to a specifically African-American folk hero to a heroic labor action. As for the real John Henry, his name appears in the pension records of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, and and the Norfolk and Western Railroad later named a powerful experimental locomotive after him.
- Rosie the Riveter, the fictional embodiment of America's homefront war effort in World War II.