- Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016
- TOLEDO, Ohio
A mishmash of voices and music blaring from video screens compete for attention inside a new art exhibit in Ohio looking at the images and sounds of presidential campaign television ads.
In another show near New York City that explores how photos affect voters, snapshots of John Kennedy greeting supporters are mixed with selfies of candidates with celebrities and "regular people."
Whether the images are from grainy black and white videos or colorful Instagram posts, there's no question they've all impacted the way Americans choose who lives in the White House.
The election year exhibit at the Toledo Museum Art provides a glimpse into how campaigns use ads to sway opinions and capture votes through four emotions: hope, pride, fear and anger.
"This is about lifting the veil on the persuasive techniques that politicians use to influence you," said Harriett Levin Balkind, a co-curator of the show.
And those tricks and techniques are done with our emotions in mind, she said.
That's because researchers have found voters tend to make choices based on feelings more than the issues, said Balkind, founder of HonestAds, a New York City nonpartisan group that deciphers political ads.
The exhibit, called "I Approve This Message," features miniature theaters showing the evolution of presidential ads on television, beginning with the first commercials in 1952 up through the 2012 election.
The clips include Dwight Eisenhower's cartoonish "I Like Ike" commercial from 1952, President Ronald Reagan's uplifting "Morning in America" in 1984 and President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Daisy Girl" from 1964 that warns of nuclear holocaust.
The LBJ ad, in which a girl's innocent counting of daisy petals morphs into a countdown to a nuclear explosion, aired just once as a paid ad, but was shown many more times in news reports. "I think of that as the first viral ad," Balkind said.
There are some obscure ads featured, too. One shows Jacqueline Kennedy speaking in Spanish during her husband's 1960 campaign.
What stands out is how themes are often repeated — Eisenhower was the "The Man from Abilene" in 1956; Bill Clinton "The Man from Hope" in 1992.
Organizers of the exhibit — open now through Election Day on Nov. 8 — made sure each exhibit features an equal number of commercials from both parties, said Adam Levine, the Toledo museum's associate director who's also the show's co-curator.
"This is not an exhibition about politics," he said. "It's about voters."
The evolution of imagery
The exhibit on presidential images by the International Center of Photography in Southampton, New York, comes at a moment as technologically historic as Johanness Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 1400s, said Mark Lubell, the center's executive director.
Part of the exhibit, "Winning The White House: From Press Prints to Selfies," shows examples of how a new form of communication can influence society, in this case choosing a president, Lubell said.
"The world was a much different place before the printing press than after and I think we are now living through that same moment," he said. "If someone takes a selfie and sends it on social media and that person has 20,000 friends, that's a more impactful picture — you with Clinton or Trump — than a picture from a traditional news source."
Approximately 200 selfies featuring everyday people and celebrities like Meryl Streep and Katy Perry with Hillary Clinton or others of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders with supporters form a pattern of wallpaper covering a 12-foot wall inside the gallery.
The exhibit features many iconic images from the past half-century, including the Kennedys campaigning in New York City in 1960 and the Barack Obama "Hope" poster designed by artist Shepard Fairey for the 2008 campaign along with posters and video materials. It runs at the Southampton Arts Center until Sept. 11, before moving to the Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey, until November.
"Since the time of Abraham Lincoln through the present day, presidential candidates have used photographic imagery in their campaigns to impact public opinion," says Claartje van Dijk, assistant curator of the center. "While staged and curated press prints have historically been the tools of choice for candidates to reach and perform for their electorate, the delivery method has shifted."
Work by professionals and photojournalists are the heart of the exhibit.
"Despite the oversaturation of images seen on social media, publishers still hire professional photographers for their political knowledge," says Nina Berman, director of the photojournalism program at Columbia University. "What we are seeing more of from their work is a particular style of interpretive photography."
Since the 1990s, news photographers have strived to break down "the vision of propaganda" that show candidates in idealistic settings, she said.
"They are photos emphasizing that this really is a show," Berman said.
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio, and Eltman reported from Mineola, New York.