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techniques were designed to make Dole seem old and outdated.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
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told is "He may be too old to be President or he may out-of-date as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
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
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
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
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.