Media critics establish forum to examine campaign ads

October 12, 1990|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

A 1988 television advertisement shows George Bush standing proudly with his Hispanic daughter-in-law and grandchildren, a valentine to the future community of America's various populations. The spot also adds the image of paternal strength to a gold-dappled moment fresh from the movies.

Another Bush/Quayle campaign ad shows overcast skies, rotting wharves and filth in Boston Harbor. Jerky camera action implies instability and disintegration. A voice announces that Michael Dukakis promises to do for America what he did for Massachusetts.

In the world of political advertising, television images now speak more eloquently than facts.

"For the most part, campaign advertising does not work in a rational way, it works in a visual, visceral way," says media critic and author Mark Crispin Miller. "Political advertising is just like most product advertising, however it is much more influential, has a much greater effect, and deals with concerns of far greater moment than the selling of a soap or deodorant."

Miller is an associate professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He and media analyst Linda Benn, who also teaches at Hopkins, have established The Forum for the Study of Campaign Propaganda at the Homewood campus. Their first hour-long public program, held this week, examined several Bush/Quayle campaign ads and current ads by former Congressman Pete Wilson, who is running for governor of California against Diane Feinstein, and Harvey Gantt, who is running for the Senate against Jesse Helms of North Carolina. The next public forum is scheduled Nov. 1.

These programs intend to make television viewers aware of subtle visual tricks with which political advertisers capture support.

Drawing from his studies of television commercials, Miller believes viewers tend to crave images of traditional homogeneity, neatness and "completeness" more than they appreciate visions of America's new, multi-racial diversity.

"Because of their constituency, the Democrats are cursed -- and I'm using the vision of TV advertising when I say cursed -- with the myth of diversity . . . They can't as easily fashion a visual spectacle of completely clean incorporation the way the Republicans can."

Miller says "positive" ads such as the ones of Bush posed with his family are more potent than negative advertising.

"Most negative ads are visually very uninteresting. Slander ads tend to be the same all over the country and, I would argue, tend not to be that effective."

Author of "Boxed In: The Culture of TV" and editor of "Seeing Through The Movies," Miller writes essays analyzing popular culture for dozens of journals and magazines such as The Atlantic and The New Republic. He is also working on a book about advertising.

"Political advertisers are obliged to move their product 20 points up in the polls whereas product advertisers are content with one point. The best political advertisers have to use the art of propaganda in a really effective way. It seems crucially important that people begin to pay attention to the images."

He reminded his audience that television advertisers create images specifically for distracted viewers.

"The small print on the [political] ads could be in another language, because people don't read it. And it doesn't matter what the voice in the ad is saying -- it could be the Beatles singing backwards 'Paul is dead.' What people notice is just the visual pattern. These ads are made to be taken in through your peripheral vision."

Mentioning a recent study about television news viewing, Miller said that the greatest television news buffs are "strikingly ill-informed about what is going on."

"They would know George Bush doesn't like broccoli, but they won't know who Colin Powell [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] is. This tendency of TV to defeat one's attention is precisely what makes images like these ads successful."

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