The Use and Abuse of Visual Persuasion

Virginia Postrel accurately summarizes the charges brought by critics against the use of visual persuasion in politics. Images, the iconoclasts maintain, are irrational. They leave no place for argument or evidence, but instead appeal to visceral fears and prejudices through the use of stereotypes. Recall the infamous “Daisy” ad produced by Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign: the image of an innocent young girl plucking a flower was succeeded by that of a nuclear blast. “Daisy” made its point with LBJ-like aggressiveness, but it outraged the purists.  It was aired only once.

“Persuasive images are dangerous,” Postrel asserts, correctly. We are hard-wired to confuse them with truth, and to respond emotionally. Often, we are not aware that we are being manipulated. I once witnessed an experiment in “neuromarketing,” in which a young woman’s brain activity was monitored while she watched a series of images. At times, the emotional centers of her brain would light up like a fireworks display – but when we asked about this reaction, she stoutly denied having experienced strong feelings.

The greatest danger, however, is ignorance. We have come to understand the persuasive power of images. One would think that it would be part of our education as citizens of a democracy to attain visual literacy: to master the elements of the rhetoric of images. In fact, our schooling strives entirely in the opposite direction. We are a people of the Word. From the moment we learn to read and write, we are rewarded or criticized according to how cunningly we craft school papers and essays, post-graduate dissertations, reports and memorandums at the office, speeches and presentations at conferences, studies for professional journals, policy statements on behalf of government, State of the Union addresses to the electorate. 

We have been trained in textual rhetoric. We can easily discern attempts to manipulate us verbally. The image falls beneath notice – intellectually, beneath contempt. As a result, our messages are often contradictory: the Word makes its argument, which the Image will refute.

Government seems particularly prone to this malady.  Take, for example, Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech aimed at Arab and Muslim audiences.  Seeking to break with the policies of his predecessor, President Obama used the speech to mark a “new beginning,” based on a relationship of “mutual respect” and a “sustained effort… to find common ground” between the United States and the Muslim world. That was the text. What the world saw was an enormous and ornate auditorium – the Major Events Hall of Cairo University – where a powerful man, the president of the United States, stood above and apart on the stage, behind a lectern emblazoned with the shield of his office, surrounded by a splash of red curtains, flower arrangements, and elegantly draped flags. Barack Obama looked like what he was: a mighty ruler. The audience applauded on cue from far away. Visually, there was no common ground. The new beginning proposed by the president’s words was buried under the distancing icons of power.

Yet, as I have suggested, all human ideals must be embodied in imagery to achieve a living presence. That was as true of the medieval church and the Renaissance hero as it is of our American ideals like freedom and equality. There is nothing shoddy or manipulative in wishing to infuse our values with visible life, nothing shameful in educating ourselves against image-wielding tricksters who want our money or our votes. And sometimes, as a country, we have gotten it right: the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is a temple to the moving image and words of a man who made others free. Typically, however, the pictures we see of America come from Hollywood, whose practitioners are enormously skilled but uninterested in ideals or values. (Ronald Reagan, a rare Hollywood product with deeply held views, was by a long stretch our most brilliantly visual president: his speeches tended to be reinforced by potent symbolic settings, and his “Morning in America” campaign ad was probably the most effective deployment of persuasive images in modern American politics.) 

Visual literacy isn’t rocket science, but it does require systematic observation and a critical mind. Techniques are used to achieve desired effects. Herky-jerky cell phone camera video feels more authentic than slick advertisements, for example. Lighting, color, camera angle – these seemingly professional concerns can inspire comfort or unease, fear or anger. Specific content is selected: in essence, ripped out of its context. The famous photo of the South Vietnamese chief of police executing a helpless Viet Cong prisoner, an anti-war icon, omitted the massacre of civilians perpetrated by the communist guerillas. (This is also an example of the ambivalence of the image, and of its tendency to generate unintended consequences. Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, considered the police chief “a hero.”) Techniques and content must be shaped toward some persuasive theme. As wielded by political actors, these themes have been remarkably limited in number: victimization, demonization, resistance and struggle, leader glorification or denigration are common examples.

It is important to consider the intended audience: images one group finds ridiculous can be powerfully persuasive to another. Talking heads C-SPAN-style appeal to few viewers under 60. Rap and hip hop are the natural background music of rebellious young people from New York City to Palestine. Literacy entails understanding who is a target of visual influence, no less than how that influence has been contrived.

Progress has been made. In an effort I was fortunate enough to participate in, the U.S. government, working with private sector experts, designed a methodology to “decode” persuasive geopolitical images and video. But application has been spotty. If, as Postrel insists, images are dangerous, there should be no debate about devising ways to observe and measure their impact. Yet discussion of this subject has been restricted to a few perceptive corners of the public sphere. So long as our elites in government, media, and education remain a devout people of the Word, the goal of achieving visual literacy will encounter resistance and worse: neglect.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Virginia Postrel argues that it’s a mistake to excise visual appeals from politics. The truth is out there, and yes, we must ultimately rely on empirical work to find it. But to persuade may after all take more than facts and figures. To fight the undeniable glamour of bad public policies, good public policies must respond with a glamour of their own.

Response Essays

  • In the realm of visual persuasion, Grant McCracken distinguishes luxury from glamour. The former, he finds, is the tool of political power: Luxury is obedient to, and intimately connected with, the state. The state’s messages are its own, more or less. Glamour, though, can come from oppositional groups as well as from the center. Quite often, the state’s attempts at glamour backfire, particularly when it misjudges the public mood, or when its messages reach the wrong audience.

  • Autumn Whitefield-Madrano looks at the attractiveness of political officeholders. She connects it to scientific research showing that composite faces, made up of the average of many different people, tend to be rated more attractive than most real-world individuals. She suggests that many people seem to look for a similar kind of average when they choose their representatives. And it shows: Politicians tend strongly to be just kind of nice-looking — neither unattractive nor stunningly beautiful. Is this any way to choose a nation’s leaders?

  • Martin Gurri suggests that the world’s elites have lately lost control over the visual. Anyone can publish images today, and it’s changing the world. Images legitimize, because they help to tell stories, and no social order can sustain itself without stories that justify its existence to the people. But when the people themselves can circulate competing images, they can also circulate some very effective competing stories. It’s not a coincidence, then, that trust in government is at a low ebb around the world today.

    Warning: This essay contains images of graphic violence.