Is image everything?

It’s time to talk politics…and communication, of course.  After taking a little break from the blogosphere, I am finally back, and ready to revisit the complicated but always interesting intersection of politics and PR.

Today Jon Keller, senior political analyst at WBZ-TV came to speak to my political campaign communication class.  He spoke about the current political climate in Massachusetts as well as the importance of image in politics.

There is a psychological element to the voting process.  We, as voters, are naturally drawn to captivating personalities, appealing visuals and memorable narratives. How does the candidate speak? How does the candidate dress?  Is the candidate defensive? Is the candidate aggressive? Is the candidate someone I could sit down and have a drink with?  I think one of the most interesting topics covered during Jon’s presentation today dealt with the role of body language. Hand gestures, facial expressions, vocal pitch and tone all play a role in the success or failure of a candidate.

Don Khoury is a leading authority on nonverbal communication, and often appears on Mr. Keller’s show, “Keller at Large.”  Khoury was 95% accurate in predicting the election outcomes of 37 U.S. Gubernatorial races, according to a recent press release. His predictions were based entirely on body language analysis during political debates.

Take a look at the video below on the 2010 Florida Gubernatorial race.  Which candidate do you find most appealing?  If you are interested in watching a clip from the debate, click here.

Happy Holidays!

Hello!

I wanted to thank you all for following my blog and sending me such great ideas over the past couple months.  I will be taking a brief break from my blog, and will be back January 2011 with new topics related to propaganda, political communication and the ever-changing world of public relations.  I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season and a happy, healthy New Year.  Feel free to email me any feedback or blog post ideas at arielle.herskovits [at] gmail.com.  Also, be sure to check out the National Constitution Center’s blog, “Constitution Daily” (where I am a guest writer) for some great posts from a variety of bloggers throughout the country. Thank you again for all your support.

All the best,

Arielle

Join, Or Die: America’s first political cartoon

Benjamin Franklin is arguably one of the most fascinating figures in American history.  He was an author, printer, satirist, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, and not to mention, one of the United States’ most prominent Founding Fathers.

Franklin owned and ran the Pennsylvania Gazette, a Philadelphia-based newspaper that featured the “Join, or Die” cartoon on May 9, 1754. His ability to disseminate powerful messages helped reinforce his influence as a communicator. From an early American propaganda perspective, Franklin was revolutionary.  According to an article in BBC, the Pennsylvania Gazette “is widely considered to be the first American publication to illustrate news stories with cartoons and [the ‘Join, or Die’] political cartoon is believed to be the first of its kind in America.”

The cartoon depicts the early American colonies as a snake divided into eight segments.  Toward the head of the snake, “NE” represents New England, followed by “NY” (New York), “NJ” (New Jersey), “P” (Pennsylvania), “M” (Maryland), “V” (Virginia), “NC” (North Carolina) and “SC” (South Carolina).  Even though there were four “New England” colonies, Franklin lumped them into one category to stress the need for colonial unity. At the time, the colonists fiercely debated expanding west of the Appalachian Mountains and fighting the French and their Indian allies.

The snake, a seemingly simple image, has powerful, superstitious connotations.  During Franklin’s era, there was myth that a severed snake would come back to life if the pieces were put together before sunset.  The cartoon, which appeared alongside Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies, symbolically portrays an either/or fallacy: unite or be attacked by French and Indian allies.  In his editorial, Franklin wrote:

“The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common defense and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse….”

Fear, a common theme throughout American propaganda history, ignites natural human emotions and produces a “call to action.” People are generally more likely to respond when they feel their lives are in danger. In 1754, the newspaper served as the primary medium to disseminate news to the public.  Franklin, ahead of his time, understood that in order to convince the colonists, he had to first convince the public. Direct and powerful images, accompanied by clear and descriptive prose has the power to create a conversation among various niche populations.  Franklin, through his “Join, or Die” cartoon, voiced a strong opinion in a subtle, persuasive and intellectual way.


Subliminal Messages in Politics

The other day, my Communication Theory Professor made a presentation about subliminal messages in communication.  Above, you will find a 30 second television advertisement from George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.  Many people argue that his communication team used subliminal messages to subtly attack his opponent, Al Gore.  The ad blames the Clinton/Gore administration for the high cost of elderly prescription drugs.

If you look closely, the word “RATS” is flashed for a split second, before the complete word “bureaucrats” appears.  The word “RATS” is seen alongside images of Vice President Al Gore.  Many people believe that this controversial ad was intentional and meant to be processed by the American people at an unconscious or subliminal level.

According to a BBC New Article, President Bush denied the ad’s subliminal message…

“This kind of practice is not acceptable,” declared Bush. “Conspiracy theories abound in American politics, but I don’t think we need to be subliminal about prescription drugs.”

After my Professor presented this video, he asked if anyone noticed the word “RATS” flash across the screen.  About half the class picked up on the message the first time.  My Professor then replayed the ad, and the class was generally, in shock.  In my opinion, subliminal messages is meant to evoke fear — a popular propaganda technique used throughout history.  In my last post, I analyzed the “Is This Tomorrow?” political pamphlet, which depicted the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” through images of flames and fearful Americans fighting for their lives. This idea can make the American public uneasy.  Many individuals are likely to take action, as a result.

In 1974, the FCC said that subliminal advertising was not in the public’s best interest.  Although there is no definitive understanding on how the brain processes subliminal messages, I still find this ad a bit disturbing.  The brain’s “unconscious state” is an extremely difficult concept to grasp.  Many researchers including Bill Cook of the Advertising Research Foundation say that subliminal advertising is part of the popular science agenda like “astrology and alien abduction.” Although it has not been proven whether subliminal messages affect the way we think, advertisers may insist on using this technique.

Cold War Propaganda and Comics

Above is a political pamphlet published in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild Education Society of St. Paul, Minnesota. At just ten cents a copy, this pamphlet features a full-color comic and advice on how to “fight communism with ten commandments of citizenship.”  Approximately four million copies were printed and distributed to church groups throughout the country (http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/is-this-tomorrow.html).

I cannot help but wonder how this political pamphlet would be perceived today.  I remember having a discussion in one of my classes last year about how many Americans are desensitized to the media.  It takes a lot to convince us, and sometimes, we do not take threats seriously, until it actually happens.

The period from 1947-1953 marks the beginning of the Cold War–from the Truman Doctrine to the Korean War.  I find this pamphlet interesting because it appealed to a niche market — churchgoers.  The pamphlet, like many YouTube videos and online forums went viral, in a sense, and created a stir among Americans nationwide.

How Bill Clinton and Vietnam Changed the Web

Ten years ago tomorrow, President Bill Clinton became the first US head of state to visit Vietnam since the war’s end in 1975.  Shortly before his visit, he said, “In our national memory Vietnam was a war, but Vietnam is also a country.”  Despite Clinton’s high approval ratings, public opinion surrounding the visit, both in the US and Vietnam, was mixed.

Clinton, who is known for his pragmatism and diplomatic approach to communication, articulated his intention to further the process of reconciliation between the US and Vietnam.  He honored those American soldiers who fought during the war and raised the issue of human rights.  Pete Peterson, America’s ambassador to Vietnam at the time, described the trip as a “huge success.”  According to an article in BBC News , one eyewitness even described Clinton’s visit as a “festival…everyone was applauding him and trying to get his autograph.”

Media consumption and its impact on public opinion have changed significantly since 2000; however, this year marked a shift toward what we now describe as “social media.” Clinton’s visit to Vietnam created a conversation in emerging new media outlets. According to BBC News, “Internet chat-rooms devoted to Vietnam issues are filled with messages from veterans and others who want to see the message of reconciliation carried by somebody other than a man who went to such great lengths to avoid being drafted to Vietnam.”

Both positive and negative feedback circulated throughout the web—proving that the one-way communication found in traditional media outlets (i.e. television, radio and print publications) were slowly dwindling.  The American public was able to openly debate in interactive forums on the World Wide Web.  This event just ten years ago, created a thirst for conversation.  Although many journalists infused subjective commentary into their newscast, it was the words directly from fellow Americans that helped shape public opinion.

This post is also featured in the National Constitution Center’s blog “Constitution Daily”: http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/ncc/featured/how-bill-clinton-and-vietnam-changed-the-web/

Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” Analyzed

This post appeared yesterday in the National Constitution Center’s blog, “Constitution Daily.” http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/ncc/featured/reagans-tear-down-this-wall-analyzed/

Twenty-one years ago today, East German authorities opened their border to West Berlin. The Berlin Wall served as the symbolic divide between democracy and communism during the Cold War. For 28 years, East and West Germans were prohibited from communicating with one another. The collapse of the Berlin Wall led to Germany’s emotional reunification, and reversed, as Winston Churchill described—”the iron curtain.”

As a student of public relations and history, I am fascinated by the media’s perception of certain events and its impact on public opinion. For many, Reagan’s infamous “Tear Down this Wall” speech a few years earlier on June 12, 1987, represented a new era—a profound turning point in history with the power to unite a world once divided.

In my opinion, simplicity is often the most effective characteristic of a well-crafted speech. In his speech, Reagan said:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Reagan also alludes to Kennedy’s renowned “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin) speech on June 26, 1963, when he said,

“…President Kennedy spoke at the City Hall those 24 years ago, freedom was encircled, Berlin was under siege. And today, despite all the pressures upon this city, Berlin stands secure in its liberty. And freedom itself is transforming the globe.”

Although Kennedy and Reagan were of different political parties, both emphasized the importance of freedom and liberty. Both had simple, authoritative and optimistic communication styles. They instilled a sense of confidence among the American people and established a firm stance on democratic values domestically and abroad.

Surprisingly, Reagan’s “Tear Down this Wall” speech did not receive extensive media coverage initially. Several opinion columnists criticized Reagan for being too naïve and idealistic. According to an article in USA Today, the speech itself did not impress East Germany’s hardline communist rulers either. Former Politburo member Guenter Schabow said on Deutschlandfunk (a German national news radio station) that “we were of the opinion that it was an absurd demonstration by a cold warrior — but also a provocation that fundamentally weighed on Gorbachev’s willingness to reform.”

When Reagan’s powerful words became a reality, the media began praising his bold stance on human rights and a firm U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes I wonder how Reagan’s speech would have been perceived if new media was part of the equation. In 1987, the traditional media outlets of television, radio and newspapers controlled the messages that were disseminated to the public. Today, everyone is a journalist—the web is filled with millions of conversations, opinions and comments. With YouTube, blogs and Twitter, people all over the world can share information and create communities.

In spite of the changing dynamics of public opinion and the influx of new communication technologies, we cannot deny the power of words. Reagan’s speech defined a generation, and even though his speech was not covered as extensively at first, his words will be used as inspiration for years to come.