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Posters and Election Propaganda

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

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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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