"People Are People" was written by Martin Gore, but the dancy, pop feel of the song may be credited to Alan Wilder. Wilder wrote the B-side, "In Your Memory". Each song has an extended remix, the "Different Mix" and the "Slik Mix" respectively (although the "In Your Memory" mix is often incorrectly called the "Slick Mix"). It was one of the first songs recorded for the album when sessions began at the Hansa Mischraum studio in January 1984.
The Clive Richardson-directed "People Are People" video was released in 2 versions. The original video was made for the single version, but an alternate video was made with the "Different Mix". The music video featured footage of various military scenes from the Cold War, mixed with footage of the band aboard the HMS Belfast. The "Different Mix" video appears on Some Great Videos.
Despite "People Are People"'s success, Martin Gore considers it as one of his least favourite songs. He prefers his songs to have subtle metaphors to allow people to find their own meanings to his songs, and feels "People Are People" does not fit that description. It has not been played live since 1988.
A compilation album titled People Are People was released in the US, featuring several songs not previously available. The single itself was released in the USA on 11 July 1984, though it did not reach the Billboard Hot 100 chart until May 1985, and initially was played only on modern rock and college radio. The single would eventually peak at no. 13. In the UK, the single reached number 4, which was at the time the band's highest singles chart position in their homeland. Since then, "Barrel of a Gun" (1997) and "Precious" (2005) have also reached number 4 in the UK.
In West Germany, the song was a no. 1 hit and was used as the theme to West German TV's coverage of the 1984 Olympics, alluding to East Germany's participation in the Soviet-led boycott of the games. It was also used as the theme song of the 1990s BBC Children's factual TV series, It'll Never Work?.
RuPaul's version of the song was recorded in 2004 for the studio album Red Hot. His version, which features Tom Trujillo, was released as a retail single on 26 January 2006 to promote the remix album ReWorked. It peaked at no. 10 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.
Christian techno/alternative band Code of Ethics also remade the single in 2008 on their "Lost in Egypt" disc. German industrial/gothic metal band Atrocity also recorded a cover version of the song for their 2008 covers album Werk 80 II, a collection of 1980s tracks recorded in their style. Memphis rapper Cities Aviv sampled "People are People" on the song "Die Young" from his 2011 album Digital Lows.
In February 2012, "People Are People" was covered by James Whetzel for his "Sarod & Beats Covers" series. The piece was re-imagined with all acoustic hand percussion taking the place of drum machines. Sarod and violin (played by Das Dhoom's Sebastian Lange) play the role of the synthesizers in the original tune.