How Image is Used as a Tool to Shape Public Opinion

Presidential image has certainly changed over the last 200 years, and so has the way in which presidents craft their image and political messages.

The type of image created is dependent on two important elements: first, the composition of the voting public and, second the media of the day.

Throughout history, advances in technology and media has changed the way candidates choose to craft their image.

Newspapers

Before the invention of the Penny Press in the 1830s, newspapers were usually owned by political parties who had no obligation to print the truth. The very first two-party election in 1796 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson used the newspapers to push their political agendas.

Photography

When newspapers started printing photographs on a regular basis, the public began to see more into the lives of presidential candidates. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt used this medium to his advantage and was photographed regularly. One particular hunting trip inspired a national phenomenon and gave Roosevelt a popular image boost. While hunting, the president’s aides cornered an old, injured bear for him to kill. Roosevelt felt compassion for the bear and refused to shoot it. This was picked up by newspapers and soon we had the Teddy Bear.

Radio

Radio allowed candidates to speak to Americans right in their own homes and brought more personality to the candidates. Franklin Delano Roosevelt expertly used this technology and broadcasted approximately 1,000 press conferences and “fireside chats” over his twelve years in office. These were used to reassure the nation during the Great Depression and later through World War II.

Television

With the television, political advertisements became the primary means of communicating with voters and allowed candidates to debate in front of a greater audience. The Great Debates of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon showed how effective television is in crafting an image.

For the debate, Kennedy was coached on how to act on television, wore an impeccable dark suit and make-up. Nixon had just been sick, was pale and underweight. He was not coached on how to act on television and was often sweating during the debates. Voters who listened to the debate on the radio believed that Nixon had won, while voters watching on television thought Kennedy won. The debate had such a perceived impact on the election, that it would be 16 years before the next televised presidential debate.

Internet

The election of 2000 was the first time the internet played a significant role in a presidential election. By that year, more than 160 million people were online and all candidates had official websites that allowed them to target specific groups of voters. The internet also sped up the messages candidates could deliver to the voters and aided in fundraising.

The internet also had another major impact on political campaigns; more than any other medium, it gave a voice to the public. The internet gave individuals the ability to start a political movement and reach other like-minded individuals around the world with just a few clicks on a keyboard.

Social Media

President Obama was the first candidate to strategically use social media in his campaign. In the 2008 election, President Obama’s team reached out to voters through Twitter, Facebook, podcasts and text messaging. The election of 2016 has further magnified the importance of social media in elections. Candidates are spread across multiple platforms to reach as many niche groups as possible, Twitter has become a place for candidates to further debate, and the voting public is more engaged than ever before.

As citizens, you are bombarded with media messages every day and it is important to consistently evaluate these messages and discern image from the issues. The political image-making process is extensive and involves a number of people in different career fields including stylists, graphic designers, digital media artists, and social media strategists.

FIDM educates its students to become professionals in these fields and it is not just politicians who are concerned with their public image. It is also celebrities, public figures, and sports stars.

Visit fidm.edu and take the Career Quiz to find out which of your interests can lead to a career in one of these exciting industries.

Follow FIDM on Twitter @FIDM.

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