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Posters and Election Propaganda

A blog dedicated to the examination of communications in election campaigns, with a focus on posters

Posted by Steven Seidman at 6:00PM   |  3 comments
Cover of Baum's Book (1900) & Republican Party Poster, Showing McKinley on a Gold Coin (1896)

In 1964, Henry Littlefield (a high school teacher in Mount Vernon, New York) published an article in the American Quarterly, which called L. Frank Baum's children's book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (published in 1900), a political parable of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, which focused on the election of 1896.

It was suggested by Littlefield that these Baum characters represented the following people and groups:

  • The Wicked Witch of the East = Eastern industrialists and bankers, who "dehumanized a simple laborer so that the faster and better he worked the more quickly he became a kind of machine," according to Littlefield.
  • The Munchkins = the citizens--most of whom were oppressed
  • The Scarecrow = the western farmers
  • The Tin Woodman = the downtrodden eastern workers
  • The Cowardly Lion = William Jennings Bryan
  • The Wizard = "any President from Grant to McKinley....  [H]e symbolizes the American criterion for leadership--he is able to be everything to everybody," wrote Littlefield.
  • The Yellow Brick Road = the gold standard
  • Dorothy's silver shoes = the Democratic/Populist demand for silver coinage
  • The Emerald City = Washington, D.C.
  • Dorothy = Everyman

Other writers have added to, or challenged, Littlefield's interpretations (see David Parker's article). One, for example, noted that Dorothy's dog, Toto, represented the Prohibitionist teetotalers and that Oz was an abbreviation for "ounce." The silver advocates in 1896 had called for a 16-to-1-ounce ratio of silver to gold. Another thought Dorothy symbolized Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Populist speaker, who was thought to have told Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell." Yet another thought that the book had much to do with imperialism in Asia, with The Wicked Witch of the East being President Grover Cleveland, The Wicked Witch of the West, William McKinley, and The Wizard, the latter's campaign manager, Mark Hanna. And another scholar wrote that The Wicked Witch of the West was Populism itself.

Many still think, however, that the work was mainly about the political battle between silver and gold advocates, after the Great Depression of 1893 in the United States: "Baum, a reform-minded Democrat who supported William Jennings Bryan's pro-silver candidacy, wrote the book as a parable of the Populists, an allegory of their failed efforts to reform the nation in 1896." wrote Parker about this theory.

The 1896 election campaign was one of the most exciting in U.S. history. In 1896, with farm foreclosures, and labor unemployment and discord growing alarmingly, the silver advocates took over the Democratic Party, gaining its nomination for Bryan, a dynamic congressman from Nebraska. His “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention in July of that year compared the cause of free silver to that of the Crusades and the American Revolution, with the political fight “in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity.” During the campaign, zealous meetings were convened to discuss the silver issue. Broadsides announced these and called for “those who believe that in silver lies the remedy for the present financial stagnation” to support the cause. Democratic posters featured silver coins near portraits of Bryan. Bryan barnstormed the country campaigning for himself, and he gave about six hundred speeches to approximately five million people, while his Republican opponent, McKinley, stayed on the front porch of his home and spoke to people in groups selected by Hanna.


Posted by Steven Seidman at 2:08PM   |  1 comment
Silk Campaign Flag Banner for Harrison (1840) (Heritage Auctions, Inc.)

The Whig Party's campaign in the United States in 1840 for William Henry Harrison can be called the first great political marketing campaign that mythologized a candidate. The campaign, called "The Log Cabin Campaign," targeted the so-called "common man"—previously a main source of support for Andrew Jackson (and his successor, Martin Van Buren) and the Democrats.

The Whigs in 1840 introduced three ideas to election campaigns: one was to use a potent symbol—the log cabin (often combined with soldiers and a jug of hard cider)—for candidate Harrison, typically depicted as a rough-and-ready farmer and military hero; another was the creation of silk flag banners, which frequently added a portrait of Harrison and the phrases “Old Tip” and “The Hero of Tippecanoe” (a battle during the War of 1812) to the American flag; the party also introduced effective slogans into politics, with "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," which referred to the Whig's ticket, headed by Harrison, with John Tyler as his running mate.

Some of the Whig rallies, with banners unfurled, drew an estimated 100,000 people, perhaps attracted by the seemingly endless supplies of hard cider. It mattered little to most partisans that the “common man” image concocted for Harrison was false. The log cabin was used to represent Harrison’s “poor” and “humble” background. His background was neither; rather, he was born in a mansion on a Virginia plantation and lived in a fancy house in Indiana when nominated for the presidency. Regardless of the truth, the imagery and the hard cider that was distributed at the gigantic rallies undoubtedly excited voters and boosted the Harrison campaign. This is evident in the voter turnout that increased from 54 percent in 1836 to 77 percent in 1840; the Harrison-Tyler ticket won by a 6 percent margin in the popular vote and claimed 80 percent of the electoral votes. The Democrats were thrown out of power—after holding it for a dozen years—and the Whigs gained their first president.

The log-cabin imagery, along with emphasis on Harrison’s military leadership, was accompanied by pageantry. The Whigs borrowed most of the Democratic Party’s past publicity ideas and took them to new heights. They published their own newspapers (one of which became the New York Herald Tribune); wrote campaign songs; organized rallies and parades; printed broadsides and banners; and produced goods such as hairbrushes adorned with portraits of Harrison, ceramic dishes with his “modest” farm on them, “Tippecanoe Shaving Soap or Log-Cabin Emollient,” and, above all, miniature log cabins. One observer counted one thousand banners in a Baltimore parade for Harrison.

At present, Heritage Auctions, Inc. has a rare silk campaign flag banner from the 1840 campaign up for auction. Most of these flags, as Heritage's Web site points out, "feature merely a campaign slogan or a central portrait of the candidate," but this banner shows the candidate in front of a log cabin, with a barrel of hard cider being tapped alongside it. Heritage estimates that this campaign banner will sell for between $20,000 and $25,000.

Sources: Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Robert Gray Gunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky Press, 1957); Keith Melder, Hail to the Candidate: Presidential Campaigns from Banners to Broadcasts (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1992); Peter F. Nardulli, Jon K. Dalager, and Donald E. Greco, “Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections: An Historical View and Some Speculation,” PS: Political Science and Politics 29 (1996): 480-490.


Posted by Steven Seidman at 5:20PM   |  Add a comment
Cameron walking through Chadlington, near his Oxfordshire home, with his wife and children (December 27, 2007). Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

It is surprising that televised debates—which began in the United States in 1960—just arrived in the United Kingdom this year! After all, British prime ministers have responded to questions posed by the opposition in parliament for hundreds of years, sometimes with outrageous results.

The recent debates among the leaders of the three main British political parties, according to Sarah Lyall (writing in The New York Times) "were meant to provide a corrective to that, replacing the histrionics with gravity and purpose. But their main effect, it seems, has been not to get people thinking about issues so much as to accelerate a different trend entirely—the move to an American-style obsession with personality politics."

In other words, the emphasis is more on image over issues. Many observers of British political campaigns believe that candidates' appearance, charm, likability, eloquence, seeming sincerity, and even family members have become much more important in the U.K.—even though the country is facing grave economic issues. According to MORI pollster Robert Worcester, "[i]mage makes up about 60 percent of the determinants for the floating voter and 40 percent is about issues." [quoted in Reuters]

In the U.S., it is usually critical for a candidate to present him or herself as being in touch with the common person, and that is increasingly the case in the U.K. as well. As Lyall points out, even though Nick Clegg (the Liberal Democrats' leader) and David Cameron (leader of the Conservative Party) come from "posh" or "privileged backgrounds," they were often presented as "down-to-earth" blokes. For example, Cameron is depicted as a man who rides to work on a bicycle, washes the dishes, and spends time with his wife and children.

Image management in politics has taken place in the U.K. for quite awhile, even if it has picked up in the last few decades. Posters distributed during World War II featured the Winston Churchill with planes and tanks in the background. Television spots in the late 1960s showed Conservative leader Edward Heath in a pub and at a football game to try to “humanize” him. By the early 1990s, under Tony Blair’s leadership, the “Americanization” (i.e., more emphasis on personality and image, simplification of problems to a few emphasized issues, targeting of voters, and negative and/or emotional messages) of Labour Party campaigns had begun in earnest, manifest in the inclusion, on posters, of numerous photographs of Blair, who had a winning personality and was quite photogenic.

The recent debates may have made election campaigns in the U.K. even more of "a charisma contest," as Simon Schama wrote in The New Yorker, with the image of Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour suffering, since he "still managed to exude a gloomy fatalism," while Cameron was "eager to berate bankers for their wicked bonuses," and Clegg was "fresh of face and forthright and fluent in his opinions, look[ing] straight into the camera."


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