Nancy Snow

ISIL Beheading Videos: The Scariest Part Is How Well Their Propaganda Is Working

What are you more likely to click? President Obama making a statement about the Islamic State (ISIL) before he returns to play golf ... or an American man on his knees, in a bright orange jumpsuit, on what looks like the surface of the moon, with a ninja-like warrior standing triumphantly next to him, knife ready to perform the ultimate subhuman act?

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Get Yer Warrior Image On

If you thought Campaign 2004 began the day Howard Dean named nearly all 50 states, you'd be wrong. The campaign to reelect the president began just off the coast of San Diego on May 1, 2003 when the incumbent president-turned- warrior-pilot landed on the deck of the USS Lincoln to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq.

It was reported then that Bush may have even been at the controls for a time (just like some presidents are). The image of the president in a macho jumpsuit was triumphant. No one seemed to question the press-government alliance that positioned the reporters with their backs to the shoreline so as to reinforce the impression that G.W. Bush was landing on a warship far out to sea. The message was clear, however messy the facts on the ground in Iraq would later prove -- this president is the commander-in-chief and will see us through choppy waters ahead.

Now flash forward to a bit of mission creep, namely the first TV ads of Bush-Cheney '04 and the warrior president reemerges sans jumpsuit. In times of change, he's the steady leadership. A nation challenged by 9/11 is turning the corner with a president who defends our freedom and makes us safer and stronger. As TIME magazine reported last week, the campaign goal is "to provide Bush with one homeland security photo-op a month."

Getting Your Warrior Image On

Incumbency always has its advantages, but when you've been the sitting president at the moment of foreign attack and then retaliated, your reelection destiny is your warrior image.

Puzzling it was that some of the 9/11 families objected to one Bush campaign ad showing the smoldering Twin Towers, ambulances wailing. The tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 allows this president to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and provides just the photo-op for a nation that (thus far) has seen no further attacks at home.

Not to be outdone, Kerry '04 is presenting his own national defense and security credentials to challenge his post-9/11 opponent's status as warrior-president.

Offering himself as the one candidate (outside General Wesley Clark) with the true wartime credentials to override this president, Kerry is likely to receive a deluge of Bush-Cheney response ads that will show him souring on his service to country in Vietnam by cozying up to Ted "Chappaquiddick" Kennedy and Jane "Hanoi" Fonda.

It's useful to view presidential campaign ads as incoming missiles into the minds, designed to truncate thought and reinforce knee-jerk responses. Bush leads, Kerry follows. Kerry fights, Bush hides. Kerry flips, Bush flops.

Politician as Product

Ever since the first flickering of a campaign ad on America's TV screens in 1952, it has become a familiar decoupage in the living room. Harry Truman, the Marshall Plan president who touted a Campaign of Truth to challenge Soviet lies, wasn't able to electronically transfer his "buck stops here" slogan to success in Korea and threw his support behind the professorial (and hopelessly untelegenic) Adlai Stevenson.

Stevenson was never comfortable with the TV medium's ability to inform the public about the differences between presidential candidates: "I think the American people will be shocked by such contempt for their intelligence. This isn't Ivory Soap versus Palmolive."

This left the door wide open to the white-hatted Ivory Soap candidate General Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower who campaigned as the "man from Abilene." Rising from humble beginnings to triumph in World War II, who could better challenge the stalemate in Korea? A vote for peace in 1952 was a vote for a warrior president who had the capacity to stare down the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower understood very well the power of the presidential image and did not approve of an excess of images of himself playing golf, too leisurely an image for a warrior. (An occasional one, however, could soften the military man and show him to be a regular guy.)

It was under Eisenhower that the United States Information Agency was founded in 1953 to produce films, exhibitions, broadcasting programs and printed materials to counter the propaganda of the USSR.

Sign on Oval Office Door Reads 'Tough Guys Only'

Republican candidates as a rule have often outright challenged the ability of any Democratic candidate to serve as commander-in-chief. In Richard Nixon's first run for the big office in 1960, he said the "most important issue" confronting the American people was to elect a leader who will keep the peace without surrender.

Nixon emphasized his service to President Eisenhower and his confronting Soviet Premier Khrushchev across the conference table. "We will keep America the strongest nation in the world and we will couple that strength with firm diplomacy."

By 1968, Nixon was back with a campaign ad that asked viewers to "Think about it. When the decisions of one man can affect the future of your family for generations to come, what kind of a man do you want making those decisions?" This was followed by a photo montage of missiles, tanks, and Soviet and Chinese leaders. "Who is the one man who has the experience and the qualifications to lead America in these troubled, dangerous times? Nixon's the one." The Decisions ad underscored the image of Republican Nixon as far superior to his Democratic opponent on foreign policy and national security.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter presented his own warrior image as an Annapolis graduate who put a strong national defense at the top of his priority list.

Yet his campaign ads conveyed someone willing to stretch the definition of global security: "Even an expenditure of 136 billion a year on national security does not bring the final security. The final security comes only when nations eventually reach out to touch each other in their minds and hearts. Jimmy Carter, a military man and a man of peace."

It was Carter who changed the name of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to the International Communications Agency (ICA) as an effort to promote two-way exchange of ideas and dialogue over just telling America's story to the world.

Reagan's response was an affiliate, Democrats for Reagan, that used a William Safire column to suggest Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran preferred the weak and malleable U.S. president Carter to the stronger Reagan and would do everything in his power to secure such results.

Reagan's 1984 "Bear" ad was a metaphor for building up military expenditures to challenge and defeat Soviet domination: "There's a bear in the woods. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear, if there is a bear?"

This was later followed by one of the most memorable ads in warrior-president history, the Bush '88 Dukakis in tank ad showing a Snoopy-like character barely able to peep over the tank's shell. The undeniable message: Whom do you prefer? A commander-in-chief or a commander-in-toilet training.

Bush-Quayle '92 ran its own Persian Gulf War ad showing images of sorties over Baghdad, Gorbachev's coup, and terrorists with kidnapped embassy officials followed by a picture of the Oval Office with this voiceover: "In a world where we are just one unknown dictator away from the next major crisis, who do you most trust to be sitting in this chair?"

While the themes of trust, national defense, family values, the hand of leadership, defender of freedom have stayed quite familiar over the decades, the major change has come in the shrinkage of time. Early TV ads were up to 30 minutes long and came across as lectures in a classroom to already committed voters. Today's candidates use ads of 15 to 30 seconds to appeal to the undecided and uncommitted as well as growing independent electorate.

Campaign ads, like effective propaganda appeals, primarily reinforce both positive and negative impressions people already have.

Is Kerry really a flip-flopper? That impression will be reinforced through Campaign 2004. Is Bush a liar? Watch out for that theme to come from outside organizations trying to defeat Bush.

Whatever the next round of ads will bring, we can be sure that image will triumph over substantive inquiry into complex issues. And may the best brand win.

Nancy Snow is the author of "Information War: American Propaganda, Free Speech and Opinion Control Since 9/11" and "Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World." She is assistant professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication.


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