The Strategy Behind Campaign Imagery

A review of Seeing Is Believing: The Strategy Behind Campaign Imagery and Its Impact on Voters, by Nathaniel Swigger.

Nathaniel Swigger’s dissertation addresses the paucity of research in visual aspects of electoral campaigns and lives primarily in the genre of political analysis but overlaps the area of representation. Swigger uses various methods to evaluate information about the effect of images in political campaigns. Campaign consultants work to connect voters and candidates, understanding image as an important part of emotional appeal. Swigger lays out a multi-pronged research process and argues that voters see images as information.

Using the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, surveys position people on a liberal-conservative scale. Images are investigated to determine effect on voter perceptions of candidates, create identity with constituents, identify candidate’s support for a group, and as vehicle to send ideological messages. Swigger transfers persuasion research from commercial to political realms. The effects of verbal (explicit) and visual (impressionistic) messages are investigated. Swigger delineates 10 visually recognizable demographic and occupational groups and uses three hypotheses. The hypotheses are defined in Chapter 2 as “Identity Hypothesis”: Voters react favorably when they see “themselves” pictured, a dominant core of strategies; “Group Support Hypothesis”: Voters interpret representation of group as candidate favoring that group; and “Ideology Hypothesis”: Groups perceived to hold an ideology are likely to cause viewers to see the candidate as holding the same ideology. Visual messages are less likely to be critically filtered than verbal, and less likely to require responses by opponents.

Working from the membership database of the American Association of Political Consultants, Swigger tracked down various genres of consultants and emailed surveys to them. Those who partook represented both parties and various scales of elections, saw each campaign as unique, ads as influential (noted by Swigger as self-serving), and favored visuals. Swigger addresses what images try to accomplish, what consultants think about effect of images on voters, and how images fit with verbal message and strategy. Consultants acknowledge importance of images but do not agree on use. Swigger notes dichotomy between consultants and researchers, and delineates the relationship and role of verbal/visual content.

Analyzing campaign data from early 2000 campaigns (Campaign Media Analysis Group and a cross-section of candidates), Swigger investigates campaign strategy, how images are used, and how intra-districts images reflect district demographics. The issues talked about in ads and the kinds of people pictured were carefully coded in the study, along with visual, verbal, and combined messages. Although both parties used similar pictorial content, differences appeared. Verbal content was found to be more partisan, suggesting difference in strategies surrounding image versus verbal usage. Ideology turns out not to be significant in image use, but varies by party. A model was developed to assess deviation from normal voting patterns. District ideology affects the impact of imagery more than demographics. Although some unexpected results emerged, candidates match images to their districts (even when not advantageous) and use images to attract particular identity groups. Results suggest that candidates consider policy messages their images send. This is generally not done and hurts campaigns.

Chapter 5 examines election returns supporting district ideology. All candidates looked at are white males. Looking at survey/campaign data at the individual level, surveys were tailored to initial demographic groups (borrowing from National Annenberg Election Study). A candidate is assumed to be more favorable when their image matches the individual. Measuring ad exposure (Ridout et. al) and viewing habits, Swigger grouped respondents by level of ad exposure. Picturing members of a group is no guarantee of support and individual responses vary from the aggregate. Swigger distinguishes between effects of picturing and talking (prone to conflict). Images increase support when a group is already favorable and damage when a group is not. Strategists must consider political views in relation to image responses. Swigger acknowledges limits of data and one election as basis, but thinks results are generalizable. Indirect evidence indicates that substantive inferences are made from imagery. Swigger concludes importance of self-imagery, but not its exclusivity.

Controlled experiments isolate visual from verbal to infer image influence on voters, perceptions of candidates and ideologies, and how perceptions influence overall evaluations. Swigger created ads relying on audio/video archives, using people-free scenes, and the candidate alone. Ads with demographic categories replace people-free scenes. Category-relevant audio is group-specific. (Swigger relied on Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project.) Subjects were shown experimental and biographical ads. Picturing a group delivers generic messages of support, avoiding conflict. Known partisanship limits rating of ideology. Images of self-identification alone did not increase “affection” for candidate, but political predispositions did. Visuals can do what verbals can’t. Visuals do not elicit the strong negatives that verbals can. Acknowledging the unreality of test conditions, Swigger concludes in Chapter 6 that images are substantive.

The project was to show how voters use visual information to assess candidates. Conclusions are supported in each chapter through various (often statistical) research methods. Swigger challenges the assumption by political consultants that images serve as self-identification. Questions arise regarding how the visual and verbal should work together. Images in ads must match district ideology to be effective. Focus of this work has been on people pictured in ads with candidate appearance generally controlled.

Swigger notes strong precedents for examining verbal information in campaigns (Sulkin; Geer, Kaplan, Park, and Ridout) and its effects on voters (Huckfeldt et al; Hutchings et al; Druckman, Jacobs, and Ostermeier; Kam; Lau and Redlawsk; Sides and Karch; Valentino, Hutchings, and Williams). This project works to remedy the paucity of visual information analysis in campaign advertising and the affective and substantive work done by visuals. It represents an atypical, but increasingly important, approach to developing a thorough analysis of how campaigns, verbal and visual, affect voters by examining the under-theorized category of visuals in campaigns.

Leslie Becker
Professor of Graphic Design and Visual Studies
California College of the Arts

Primary Sources

Journal of Politics
American Journal of Political Science
Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project
Campaign Media Analysis Group
National Annenberg Election Study

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2009. 257 pp. Primary Advisor: James Kuklinski.


Image: Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign poster.

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