One phenomenon which has been growing in our society since World War II is, without any doubt, the frequent use of some new means of communication by politicians and the emergence of new persuasion techniques based on elective marketing strategies.
Politicians have always tried to convince the nation using different techniques and special procedures designed for this purpose. In other words, media plays an important role in building the public opinion: it presents a fusion of personal, local, social and national opinions. Unlike the masses, which act impulsively and disorderly, the opinion of the public is much more organized and creative. Therefore, media contributes to the „intellectualization” of the social world and is a key element in the mechanism of democracy. It is certain that while other information channels kept expanding, citizens took advantage of the new contribution of mass media in the political scene. The reccurent use of marketing strategies, polls and television by political figures will drastically change the conditions of the political communication.
The political message is a way of persuading which emphasises certain qualities of the candidate and hides his flaws or weaknesses with the help of the traditional arsenal of advertising and political marketing. Thus mass-media serves as a relay for politicians who shape their speech according to each information channel. It is necessary to mention from the beginning that the political life does not resume to the art of communication. Debates and reflections in a political party do not come down to simple formal discussions meant to catch the journalists attention. Media coverage of the political life becomes more and more obvious: it hints that the relationships between politicians and mass-media have highly evolved.
The message politicians want to send is knowingly distorted with a specific aim, since propaganda is based on a manipulated argumentation. Persuasion techniques used by a politician, a government, a party, even an administration to change the view of the public towards them targets mass-media not only as a transmission relay, but also as a compulsion tool. Propaganda to support a particular party or a specific candidate reaches both the feelings and the intelligence of the voters. For instance, election campaings present absurd or impossible promises, but introduce them in a credible manner for voters to hear what they want to hear.
Political communication involves a complex game between three actors (candidates, mass-media and the public), where the adequate control of both representations and their interpretation is the key to success. With the help of polls, candidates try to find out which are the demands and expectations of the voters, but also to evaluate the image that people have about them, in order to mitigate or correct it. Furthermore, they study the election platform of the competition, especially the contents of the programs, the manner in which the other candidates promote their image and their position in mass-media. These candidates permanently decipher the political context in which they are evolving so they can build their communication strategy.
Mass-media filters and selects the array of information they come in contact with: journalists are also constrained to interpret the arguments, typical phrases and the images of politicians, through surveys that reflect the citizens’ judgements and expectations. Thus they offer their readers and viewers a special take on the political life.
The public (the voters) is assaulted by an enormous quantity of messages coming from the candidates (declarations of faith, posters, speeches, pictures, etc) and from mass-media (broadcasted information, radio editorials, newspaper articles), which they need to filter and understand in order to make the best possible decision.
The election campaigns try to sell a political figure just like a product is sold, while taking care of consumers’ needs. They try to respond to the public needs without paying attention to the ethical values and common interests.
This process started in the United States during Eisenhower’s presidential campaign in 1952. He was the first politician to use advertisments in politics; since then, this movement has been facing a continuous acceleration.
The new political communication mainly focuses on the customization of the candidate: it creates a dynamic image of the politician, highlighting the attractive features of their personality, calling for emotions. Candidates are advised, among other things, to use the emotional registry and simple words to make themselves understood by more people.
The best example is the famous debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960. If there was still a need to underscore the importance of nonverval communication, those who heard the debate on the radio would have betted on Nixon, while those who watched it on TV were by far sure that Kennedy was going to win. Before the broadcasted election campaign, Nixon had the reputation of a redoubtable speaker and he was backed by a long political career. On the other hand, Kennedy was considered an amateur who had no chance of winning. Their presentations were quite similar; both pleaded for national security, economic prosperity, the need to strenthten the army. However, it is considered that the broadcasted debate between the two overturned the initial survey results. During the show, the way they acted and communicated influenced the voters. Kennedy was tanned, with a healthy appearance, looking much better than his opponent, who had a pretty pale and tired face. Neither his outfit was a good choice – Nixon wore a gray suit which did not match at all his fatigued appearance. In contrast, Kennedy had a more presentable outfit and showed confidence through gestures while keeping constant contact with the cameras.
The four broadcasted debates between the two candidates showed that John Kennedy succeeded in creating a different image of himself, the one of an enthusiastic, responsible and persuasive politician. Mastering the communication mechanism also means mastering nonverval language. Many people believed that his success was the proof that having control over television was one of the most important factors of his victory.
Another great model is Ronald Reagan, the master of public appearances of all American presidents. Many union leaders and political opponents have learned the hard way that it is not only important to have a valuable cause, but also to know how to present it in the best perspective.
The influence of the new political communication can be noticed on three levels: firstly, over the governors themselves and their staff members; secondly, over the governed citizens who are more and more affected by the political life; lastly, over the public space, seen as a place where political figures, citizens and journalists can express their opinions regarding the situation.
These constraints enhance the difficulty of the decision making process because politicians are increasingly more dependent on surveys and comments, which encourage them to seek the most spectacular outcome. The broadcast of the political activity has two sides, and the politician must find the right balance between discretion and theatricalization.
Numerous studies prove that because of the distribution of the information about the political life in media, radio and television, we are witnessing an increase in the public’s knowledge when it comes to politics. A strong degree of exposure to mass-media, undeniably favors an accurate perception of each candidate’s position in a democractic debate. From this point of view, the massive usage of mass-media could be an advantage. Political communication allows an easier identification of the present issues during a public debate.
In this case, there is still a possibility that there could be no clear distinction between the election campaign and the allocated time for decision making, because through the use of surveys and popularity rates mass-media constantly bombards the public with new information.
Depending on time and conjuncture, politicians define their strategy in different ways, using the television, multiple written media forms (national, regional, daily or weekly), or even mixing the media channels, giving interviews on the television, radio and in the newspapers as well. Being part of a broadcasted journal, a conference with journalists or simply answering some questions in an interview does not have the same effect on the public.
No matter what hypothesis we support, it is clear that the connection between mass-media and the political life is stronger now than ever. The current political communication sometimes enriches the debate, other times impoverishes it. This does not have to be considered a goal itself, for a politician worthy of the name is not limited by a good communication strategy, but he must conceive it as a simple mean in the service of ideals and values which need to be defended.
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Seymour-Ure, Colin. The political impact of mass media. Vol. 4. London: Constable; Beverly Hills, Calif: Sage Publications, 1974.
Swanson, David L., and Paolo Mancini, eds. Politics, media, and modern democracy: An international study of innovations in electoral campaigning and their consequences. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.
Cull, Nicholas John, David Holbrook Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and mass persuasion: A historical encyclopedia, 1500 to the present. ABC-CLIO, 2003.