Visual campaigns bypass brains, go straight to gut

Michael Olesker

October 14, 1990|By Michael Olesker

Mark Crispin Miller and Linda Benn should make everybody fear for the future of the English language.

Their problem is this: How do you tell people about the decline of language when nobody's paying attention to words anymore? It's like trying to open a safe, but the combination's locked inside the safe.

At the Johns Hopkins University, the two news media critics have started something called the Forum for the Study of Campaign Propaganda. The idea is: Know your enemy. The enemy is any politician running campaign commercials that dance around the truth by toying with our emotions.

Where does language fit in? It doesn't. Not anymore, not in post-literate America. Words can be scrutinized, and scrutiny can get so messy. Best to keep words to a minimum. But visual effects? Now there's a language that speaks for itself.

This is where Miller and Benn come in. They think it's time we start scrutinizing the visual effects, which have moved from a kind of subtext to the overriding message in political ads.

At Hopkins' Levering Hall the other day, at the first in a series of public seminars that could have been titled "The Manipulation of the American Electorate," Miller showed a commercial for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson's campaign for governor of California.

Every scene shows Wilson in the center of people looking at him with rapt attention. It's not quite Nancy Reagan-type adoration, but it's clear Wilson's the strong, central authority figure here.

While this is going on, there are written words flashed across the screen dealing with Wilson's political positions. The words, Miller and Benn contend, mean nothing. They give the commercial the look of substance, with everything included except actual substance.

"The written stuff doesn't matter," Miller declared. "It might as well be the Beatles saying backward, 'Paul is dead.' "

Imagery is the new language. Emotion is all. In a hectic world, nobody reads actual campaign literature any longer. Our attention spans have shrunk to the size of 30-second commercials, and our language is no longer verbal.

"Campaign ads," said Miller, who's written extensively about the cultural effects of TV, "don't work in a rational way. They go past the brain to the solar plexus, or the groin, or any organ you want to mention. They use images that work beyond the reach of reason."

Take the last presidential campaign commercials for George Bush. Miller called them "the Citizen Kane of political advertising." In one spot, Bush is standing on a back porch, surrounded by his Hispanic daughter-in-law and her children.

They are bracketed by the porch's large pillars. The pillars are white. Bush's offspring are in blue. Bush is in red. Do we need to put this into words? In Bush's only line, he declares, "I'll be answering to my grandchildren, not just to history."

"Purity and patriotism," says Benn, who teaches Media Studies at Hopkins. "Pillars on either side, and Bush is the pillar in the middle. It's warm as an AT&T ad, 'Reach out and touch.' Very stable, very strong. There's nothing of substance in it, but there's the myth of unity" -- Bush, the very essence of white American gentry, embracing his very own minority offspring.

It's an endearing vision of the melting pot that conveniently overlooks the lumps minorities were taking in the Reagan-Bush years, while Reagan and Bush were looking the other way.

But there was a flip side to the Bush ads: those that attacked Michael Dukakis. Take the one on Willie Horton, with the revolving door taking prisoners in and then letting them right back out.

Ever notice something funny about those spots? Miller and Benn have. The inmates going in just happen to be white. Those coming out just happen to be black.

"A level of consciousness," declared Miller, "that's really quite primal."

Or the Bush Boston harbor ads: They were terrific at showing the filth in the water and the decay on the piers. But they said nothing about the Reagan-Bush environmental policies that cut funds that might have cleaned up U.S. cities.

It's not that the Republicans are the only bad guys. But, as Miller and Benn see it, their advertising people are simply a lot brighter in how they have gone about exploiting people.

Plus, said Benn, "The Republicans have an advantage. The myth they sell is more suitable to television than the myth the Democrats sell. The Republicans sell wholesomeness, completeness, neatness, whiteness -- racial whiteness, but also innocence.

"The Democrats are cursed with the myth of diversity, of a mix of races, of the immigrant experience. It seems fragmented; it makes us uneasy."

It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with those characteristics, Benn said. It's just that they don't sell as well on television as the Republican myths.

"All these ads," said Miller, "work on suppressing issues that should be discussed. And the more we rely on these appeals, the more the democratic process is threatened."

Both parties do it. The Republicans just happen to be doing it more effectively on a national scale lately. Maybe they understand the new language better. It's the language of non-language. It's replacing information with emotion. It's beautiful to see, if only you can see through it.

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