Political Persuasion

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



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.

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.

“We stand today on the edge of a new frontier”

Today, I decided to take a look at what inspired me to create this blog–clever campaign advertisements that revolutionized the way we look at PR and politics. There is no denying that JFK completely changed the way Americans view the modern President.  He was an expert at cultivating an image for himself, and gaining the trust of Americans nationwide.

The charismatic Senator from Massachusetts proved to Americans that we were ready for a”new frontier”–one that incorporates intelligence, sophistication and renewed faith in the Presidency.  JFK (with the help of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy) became a fashion icon.  Legend has it that JFK even ended the tradition of men wearing formal hats in the United States.

When you look at the advertisement above, you cannot help but remember the Kennedy name.  As the catchy jingle comes to an end, you are left with an image of JFK and his family.   This image paved the way for future presidential candidates, and showed that Americans DO care about a candidate’s personal life. When President Obama decided to run for office, I remember hearing as much about his family as I did about his public policy agenda.

There are so many factors, especially now with a 24/7 news cycle, that go into creating a successful political campaign.  JFK’s interactions with the media and innovative ad campaign helped us realize the complexity of politics and public opinion.

Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism

When I was a press intern on the Hill, I was asked to direct VIP tours of the US Capitol building. I had certain tricks to remember my route.  I knew that in order to exit the Rotunda, I would have to find the bronze statue of President Reagan.  With each day, I became more curious about this man behind the statue.  What motivated Reagan’s unique ideology? How was he able to captivate audiences throughout the nation?  One of my former Professors recommended that I read Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism by Robert Dallek.  I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in politics, psychology and the compelling story behind the Reagan administration.

Okay, so here are some points I found interesting:

Reagan, Dallek argues, is a “contradiction in terms—a hero of the consumer culture preaching the Protestant ethic.”  Throughout the book, Dallek references Reagan’s father whose “uncontrolled behavior placed an exaggerated premium on self-mastery in the former president’s own life and in the life of the nation.” Dallek examines the psychological impetus behind the “Reagan ideology,” and argues that the administration relied heavily on symbols rather than on reality.

Reagan feared the prospect of being the “bad guy,” and when he was an actor, he often took roles that preached morality and wholesome American values. Reagan was also claustrophobic. At the age of three, he crawled underneath a train to reach an ice wagon on the other side of the train tracks.  His mother picked him up and “larruped” him, Dallek describes.  A few years later, Reagan was riding in an old Ford touring car that had tipped over mid-trip.  He was nearly smothered, but was saved and did not suffer any serious injuries.  To Reagan, it was better to be the rescuer than the rescued.  These events transformed into symbolic manifestations that guided much of Reagan’s conservative anti-communist ideology.  He perceived the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”—an atheist and immoral state where the people were entirely dependent on the government.  Regan believed it was his duty to “rescue” these oppressed Soviet people and instill moral “American values.”

It’s interesting how one’s personal past can affect an entire political ideology.  Each politician has a story–a different path with unique motivations.  I often find myself drawing parallels between President Obama and President Reagan.  Both lacked stable father figures.  Both promoted change and instilled a sense of confidence among the American people.  Both are portrayed as heroic figures, with the difficult task of saving the nation.  I think sometimes we forget that these Presidents are not statues–they are people too, with their own stories, struggles and opinions.

The Power of Daisy

With midterm elections just around the corner, I thought it be fitting to take a look at one of the most influential campaign advertisements of all time–the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson daisy ad. The ad was designed to attack Barry Goldwater’s comments about nuclear weapons in Vietnam.  Was it effective? Many would argue, yes.  There’s no denying, however, that it was shocking and it completely revolutionized political campaign advertisements.

Often times, we are confronted with a GIANT either/or fallacy: if you don’t support “Candidate X,” then the entire world will fall apart.  LBJ’s ad may have used an either/or fallacy, but I don’t think it was merely an attack ad–it was a social commentary.  It presented a vital issue in a rather artistic way, while provoking conversation.  LBJ’s press team did not have the luxury (or some would argue, curse) of new media.  There was no way to stir up conversations on twitter or through blogging.  Facebook and sophisticated campaign Web sites did not exist. It was this ad–this single piece of persuasion that created a dialogue among Americans.

So I wonder…do political campaign ads have the same effect on us today?

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