A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships. The sociologist Max Weber developed a tripartite classification of authority; the cult of personality holds parallels with what Weber defined as 'charismatic authority'.
A cult of personality is similar to hero worship, except that it is propagated by mass media. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of religious or non-political leaders.
Throughout history, monarchs were almost always held in enormous reverence. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Imperial China (see Mandate of Heaven), ancient Egypt, Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Thailand, and the Roman Empire (see imperial cult) are especially noted for redefining monarchs as god-kings.
The spread of democratic ideas in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of photography, sound recording, film and mass production, as well as public education and techniques used in commercial advertising, enabled political leaders to project a positive image like never before. It was from these circumstances in the 20th century that the best-known personality cults arose. Often these cults are a form of Political religion.
Personality cults were first described in relation to totalitarian regimes that sought to radically alter or transform society according to radical ideas. Often, a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation, and came to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future couldn't occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
Not all dictatorships foster personality cults, and some leaders may actively seek to minimize their own public adulation. For example, in the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Pol Pot's image was rarely seen. On the other hand, in North Korea there exists a very successful cult of personality, which includes actual semi-worship of both the father (Kim Il-sung) and son (Kim Jong-il).