Political Persuasion

A college student's perspective on the two crazy worlds of PR and politics

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 (

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”:

Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” Analyzed

This post appeared yesterday in the National Constitution Center’s blog, “Constitution Daily.”

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.

Guest Post in “Constitution Daily”

A few days ago, I was asked to write a post for the National Constitution Center’s blog, Constitution Daily. I decided to analyze one of the greatest and most influential speeches of all time…

Twenty-one years ago today, East German authorities opened their border to West Berlin.  A few years prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, President Reagan made his infamous “Tear Down This Wall” speech.  My blog post analyzes how Reagan’s distinct communication style influenced this pivotal point in history.

I’d appreciate any feedback you may have about my blog post and ways I can improve my own personal blog.  You can read my latest post, “Tear Down This Wall!” here:

For anyone who hasn’t visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, I highly recommend making the trip.  Growing up in central Jersey with family near the Philadelphia area, I enjoy exploring its wonderful exhibits and learning more about America’s rich history.

Superpowers and Superheroes

As I was perusing potential topics for my upcoming communication theory paper, I came across David Crowley’s book, Posters of the Cold War.  I was immediately drawn to the front cover, which features a poster by Polish artist Roman Cieslewicz (depicted above). Side by side stand two nearly identical superheroes.  The only differentiating factor is the logo on their chests (one represents the USA while the other represents the USSR).

“In the iconoclastic political atmosphere of the 1960s, many radicals were highly critical of the USA and the USSR. The superpowers were accused of exercising a destructive influence on the rest of the world and of betraying their own origins in revolutions motivated by high ideals.” – David Crowley

Before reading this book, I thought critically about Cold War propaganda from two major perspectives:

1. The media that were used to criticize Soviet ideology and promote American values.


2. The media that were used to criticize American values and support the Soviet ideology.

I realized I neglected an alternative perspective that is critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union.  There was a widely held belief (as portrayed in Cieslewicz’s 1968 Superman poster) that both superpowers exercised a destructive and disproportional influence over the rest of the world.

Superman, which was featured as the cover design for the Paris-based left-wing art magazine Opus International, essentially mocked the “war of ideals” between the two superpowers.  Cieslewicz ironically portrays the flaws in both nations through the depiction of strong, heroic figures.

It’s Morning Again in America

Thirty years ago yesterday, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States.  Whether you agree or disagree with Reagan’s distinct political ideology, I think it’s important to acknowledge his power as a communicator. Before becoming President, Reagan was an actor.  Reagan refrained from any roles that portrayed him as “the bad guy.”  As President, he took a similar approach–often preaching “wholesome American values” domestically and abroad.

So what does this all mean in the context of political campaign advertising? For one, Reagan was generally able to instill a sense of confidence among the American people.  This was evident in his “It’s Morning Again in America” advertisement.  Not many incumbent Presidents would dare to ask:

“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

The commercial captures the essence of Reagan’s communication style–simple, optimistic and relatable.   The narrator suggests that it was Reagan’s effective policies that contributed to an improved economy and a lower unemployment rate.  He nonchalantly asks why voters would want to return to the policies of the Democrats.  There was an authenticity in the narrator’s voice that many people would argue, mirrored the authenticity in Reagan’s voice. The montage of images further reiterates an America at peace.  People are back to work, inflation has decreased significantly and families are able to buy new homes.

Was it really morning again in America? That question is debatable, but it was evident that many people were content with Reagan’s public policy agenda.  Charisma and a consistent communication style are key to a successful presidency. Reagan wanted people to recognize that with him, the country was “prouder and stronger and better.”

The Stewart/Colbert Effect

It’s the day after the midterm elections, and the Republicans hold the majority in the House (239 seats), while the Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate (51 seats).

In between monitoring the election on Twitter and Google last night, I watched clips from Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Stephen Colbert’s rather ironic “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Both Stewart and Colbert use humor and a twist of controversy to capture the attention of Americans (particularly those in the 18-25 range) nationwide.

From a PR standpoint, I cannot help but admire the brand they created for themselves.  Stewart’s Indecision 2010 campaign, not only pokes fun at politicians, but it satirizes the media’s overused rhetoric as well as the divide among Americans as a whole.

In an article on ABC’s Web site, Media and Society Professor Richard Wald of Columbia University said,

“Where Stewart is different is he places politics squarely at the center of all his comedy, and new forms of communications help him spread his laughs. Stewart’s edge is that he not only has cable TV … but YouTube and Twitter and the Internet, so that he gets to reach an ever wider audience,”

The irony is that Stewart and Colbert find humor in the 24/7 news cycle, and the polarization it has created throughout the country.  Democrats and Republicans are constantly competing on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and various other niche communities on the web.  However, at the same time, it is this new media, especially Youtube, Internet news and blogs, that keep the momentum going for the Stewart/Colbert duo.

“I’ll tweet, I’ll text, I’ll do whatever it takes…”

Lately, I’ve written about the classic campaign advertisements (such as LBJ’s daisy ad and JFK’s catchy jingle) that completely changed the political PR landscape. Today, I will take a look at a modern political ad.  Although I would not consider Senator Chuck Grassley’s ad a typical political advertisement, I think you will find it both interesting and for some…extremely entertaining.

So, what was Senator Grassley trying to say? That he’s just like one of us? Maybe.  Purpose aside, there is no doubt that this 77 year-old Senator from Iowa captured the attention of Americans nationwide.  His YouTube videos typically receive a few hundred views, but his new ad has over 70,000 hits!

Recently, the renowned PR firm Burson-Marsteller released a study that found that Republicans are far more active on Twitter than their Democratic counterparts. In fact, eight of the ten most followed Twitter accounts maintained by members of Congress are held by Republicans, the study says.

Whether you find Senator Chuck Grassley’s ad weird (as The Christian Science Monitor does) or innovative, there is no doubt that both Democrats and Republicans need to recognize the importance of social media.  There are millions of conversations going on each day.  You can do one of two things–ignore it or join it!  President Obama’s campaign team, for example, was successful because they drew on the suggestions and insights of Americans from a variety of different backgrounds.

I am curious to see how different age groups interpret Senator Grassley’s new ad.  Are you convinced?

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