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INTERVIEW WITH KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (part2)


Q: You mentioned the black and white effect which is one we're all familiar with and also the side by sides of Dole and Gingrich in those Clinton spots. Is black and white a sort of signal? Are there things that you should sort of frame into how you filter and view commercials?

JAMIESON: One of the things that was interesting about the Clinton portrayal of Dole was that the visual techniques were designed to make Dole seem old and outdated. And so the move to black and white and the move to more grainy images in the past was a way of signaling "old and out-of-fashion" without ever saying it.

And so that one thing that a voter should be aware of in watching those ads is that there is a visual technique being used in order to make a claim about the candidate. One of the most clever Clinton ads shows Dole making statements across a long period of time. And in the ad, you're actually seeing Dole age because from the first statement to the last statement, he's moved from being a young man to being a much, much older man. Implicitly, what voters are being told is "He may be too old to be President or he may out-of-date as a Presidential candidate. Never raised explicitly as an issue, but it's implicitly there.

And one of the questions when one is watching advertising is, because it's happening so rapidly, since the visual images are moving so quickly, since there's involving music, you're not paying much attention anyway. After all, this is a break between program content, will those things just slip by? One of the goals of ad-watching, for example, is to increase the likelihood that the voter is aware of those sorts of things, so that the voter can decide if they're relevant or not, accurate or not, fair or not.


Q: You mentioned the Goldwater taken-out-context statement in 1964 which brings to mind probably the most famous ad in '64, the so-called "Daisy" spot. How significant was that, or do we view that as being a bigger deal than it really was in terms of technique, in terms of what it advanced?

JAMIESON: The importance of the "Daisy" commercial in 1964 is not that it was the most negative ad in the history of Western campaigning, because it wasn't. It is that that campaign ad was the first clear recognition that meaning exists in audiences and that you can use visual symbols in order to elicit that meaning.

And so in the context of 1964, seeing the child picking the daisy, seeing the nuclear explosion, seeing the Johnson statement elicits in the audience its fears of Goldwater.

Now those fears wouldn't be there had there not been other messages from Goldwater and other messages from the Goldwater, or from the Johnson campaign about Goldwater, but the suggestion that that ad is bad because it is an attack is just an illegitimate suggestion. What it shows is how much we as audiences bring to the act of communication and how much we invest in the process of drawing conclusions.

There's something else that's very important about that ad. That's the first real news ad. A news ad in my vocabulary is an ad that is designed to give news coverage. There was no intent, and we see this in the strategy memos from '64, to air that repeatedly. It aired once. The intent was to get news play. It got it. And there is a standard strategy in campaigns to try to create the kind of advertising that gets into news, thereby getting credible free air time.


Q: One of the next examples of that, I'm sure there were some in between, was the Willie Horton ad of '88 which wasn't even a Bush ad of course. So it's significant in any number of ways. But that was that same phenomenon.

JAMIESON: Yeah. In 1988 the National Security Political Action Committee produces an ad that focuses on William Horton. And his name is William, not Willie. The impact of that ad is largely through replaying in news.

We found some interesting things in studying that ad. First we found that that ad, and the discussion of that ad, created a context for people to interpret the Bush furlough ad. So when the Bush furlough ad, which never mentions William Horton, shows convicts going through a revolving turnstile, people invest that ad with the story of William Horton, very much as they invested Goldwater into the Daisy commercial.

But it's important for the additional reason that the ad aired so much in news that it created a black face for crime. And when we looked at the portrayal of the alleged perpetrators in crime stories that were not about William Horton, before and after the Horton story got into news, and we looked at network news, what we found was that the backdrop visuals that portray the supposed criminals being arrested, as crime was being discussed, were increasingly showing African-American and Hispanics as alleged criminals.

What the Horton image managed to do, driven by that ad and by Bush's telling of the story was to subtly engage in a process that academics call priming. They made it more likely that news producers, not thinking they were doing it, would just inadvertently show a black or hispanic face for crime. And so in a subtle way that ad triggered a response that magnified racial fears. Not simply in what the ad itself did but also in what it did to the whole news context.


Q: The revolving door ad also used a lot of technique in terms of black and white footage and other things. Critique that a bit more and how it was produced?

JAMIESON: The revolving door ad is a very evocative ad. Because it portrays a prison scene that is very starkly represented in black and white with a guard at a conning tower above what is taken to be a prison scene as supposed criminals walk through what is called a revolving door. Actually it looks more like a turnstile. And, as a result, the context for the ad is symbolic and very powerful. It's visually reinforcing our sense of prison and our fear of those who are in prison. The music is ominous.

The ad then, in that context, with the backdrop of the Horton story, which is unarticulated in the ad, suggests to us that the Dukakis position on furloughs has had serious negative consequences. But it does it in a way that is subtly misleading. One of the problems that people have in analyzing ads is that ads can be literally true but none the less invite you to draw incorrect false conclusions. And that's one of those ads because while the announcer is saying first degree murderers escaped, you see on the screen a number of those that escaped. And I believe it's 267. What you as a viewer of the ad are likely to do, given the announcer who says first degree murderers as you see on the screen a large number is to read two hundred and whatever first degree murderers escaped. And it's out of that juxtaposition of materials that the false inference is forged.

The ad never told you that all of those who escaped were first degree murderers, you told yourself that, out of the alliance of those two pieces of information. But it's reasonable to think that the people who produced the ad knew you were going to do that. It makes it very hard for reporters to critique and ad like that.


Q: How do you assess the famous "Hands" ad that Alex Castellanos produced for Jesse Helm in terms of inference and technique and fairness?

JAMIESON: The evaluation of visual symbols is extremely tricky. But there are two things about that ad that are worthy of discussion. The first, when you look frame by frame at the ad, there are frames in the ad in which the hands are crushing the head of one of the candidates. And I reproduce those pictures in Dirty Politics.

Secondly, there is a black mark on the letter that's shown in the ad that is supposedly the rejection letter that a blue collar worker has just gotten telling him that he hasn't gotten the job and the ad's implication is that it was given to someone who was an unqualified minority. Well, when talking to people in focus groups about the ad, first most people didn't recognize that at almost an imperceptible level there was the hand appearing to crush the head of the candidate. But a number of people did see that and when you point it out to people they do see it. Now we don't know what that does to audiences. But it's interesting that it's there. Secondly, there's a black mark on the paper. And when you ask Castellanos how did it get there, he says, 'I don't know it's just a piece of paper we picked up.' But there are some people in some focus groups who see that as a black hand holding a black gun. Different people bring different meanings to different symbols. We don't all respond to the same message in the same way.

The question becomes for an ad like that, is that ad subtly activating racial fears? Illegitimate fears that are not about the explicit content of the ad, but are about something else. Or were those just production accidents that elicited that unintended response in some members of the audience.


Q: He tells the story as if it was all much more casual. You know, he used the cameraman, to be the person in it because he was wearing the right kind of plaid shirt and had the wedding ring and so forth and so on. You sound dubious about the lack of intention?

JAMIESON: It's impossible in any circumstance to know what was intended. What you can know is when you show people the ad, what is their reaction. And what I can say is that when, during the campaign, we showed people in North Carolina the ad, we had a small but discernable segment that saw the black mark on the letter as symbolically significant and as triggering something that had racial content.

Now whether Castellanos intended that or not, to some extent becomes irrelevant. It produces that response in some people in the audience. But on the other hand, since we respond very differently as individuals it's possible that you got aberrational responses to messages as well.

One of the things that's important about understanding communication is the extent to which we are always creating our own messages. And so an ad may have one completely different interpretation for me. And the interpretation might be very, very different for you. And yet we're responding to exactly the same stimulus.

Good advertising producers know the range that they can elicit across a population. And are trying to make sure that nothing that's elicit is going to hurt them. That everything that they can elicit is going to help them. So I think it's reasonable to think that when Castellanos saw his final product, he didn't see anything there that he thought was going to hurt his candidate's case.


Q: In a somewhat similar way, I'd like you to comment if you would on the extent to which advertising is about us as much as it is about the candidates own principles. Since a lot of it is based on polling and data that's accumulated about the audience, how should we look at ads in the sense of thinking that in some ways, they're really more about us, or what the candidate thinks about us, than they necessarily perhaps are about a candidates own principles.

JAMIESON: The first thing to note is that there is a high level of policy content in political advertising, much more than most people are aware of. And as a result there is a lot of useful information that can be gotten in ads. But what one can predictably tell, say is that candidates aren't going to tell you things that are controversial. And candidates are going to tell you every area that they possibly can that you agree with, you the mass public that they want to seek votes from. And so, typically what you can say about an ad is that it's going to reinforce things that you already believe, it's going to try and ally those things to the candidate. But that that alliance is usually going to be a legitimate alliance. I'm not in the camp that says that it's illegitimate for candidates to do that.

As a practical matter, you bring communities together to function as a whole, by reinforcing common values. And part of what happens in ads is that we reinforce common values. And so when you see the parade in the ad, when you see the flag in the ad, when you see the candidate with children in the ad, that's part of suggesting we're talking about a community as a whole and about our future. Now I don't think that's cheap symbolism I think that's an important part of reconstructing us as a community during elections.


Q: Can ads also though be a kind of barometer of culture in the sense and of what's on people's minds. For example, these days there's lots of ads about classrooms, about education. There's lot's of ads about health care, about a patient bill of rights. There's a reason for that, right? This isn't suddenly made up in a vacuum?

JAMIESON: Candidates don't ordinarily put new issues on the agenda. But they do often enough to not make a rule that says that it can't happen. For example, the furlough issue, in 1988, is not on the national agenda until it is effectively put there by the National Security Political Action Committee and the Bush campaign. The environment as an issue, embodied in the Boston Harbor, is not effectively a national issue. It's not coming up as the first, second, third most important issue on the public's mind. In 1988, the Bush campaign, in an environment in which the Dukakis campaign was very inept, managed to put into the agenda, issues that hadn't been on the agenda before. That's not the rule.

Ordinarily when you've got two competing candidates and they have both got very good messages, the major messages that come forward are messages that already have resonance with large parts of the population. And they're fighting for those undecided voters who can be swung one way or another on issues about which they already feel pretty strongly.


Q: This has been a year in which outside groups, as also happened in '96, have been significant, whether it's term limits or both sides of the abortion debate. How does that change the advertising terrain and the campaign terrain?

JAMIESON: In the early 1980's there was a lot of concern about political action committees. And the same kinds of concerns are now being poised about issue advocacy advertising. The campaign model that we work under assumes that advertising is a vehicle for the public to come to know the candidate who will represent them ultimately in office. And so although I may not vote for the candidate who wins, the campaign is a process of getting to know enough about that candidate, that I know what is going to happen when that candidate takes office.

Issue advocacy groups, political action committees, don't have that kind of accountability. And so they can come into a campaign environment and, for example, try to alter the issue terrain to issues that are not focal to the candidates and possibly not focal to the electorate. They also have the ability to come into that issue terrain unidentified. So you don't know who they are, or whose money is advocating this as a position. And as a result there is an unaccountable form of message that comes into the electoral context and rampages around in ways that can fundamentally alter what happens in the campaign.

  Kathleen Hall Jamieson
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