A Critical Vision of Gender in 2002 Campaign Ads
Janis Teruggi Page, Ph.D. Student
School of Journalism
University of Missouri, Columbia
2774 E. Main St., #178
St. Charles, IL 60174
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Accepted for Presentation by the Visual Communication Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Kansas City, MO
July 30 - August 2, 2003
AV Request: Overhead projector and screen
A Critical Vision of Gender in 2002 Campaign Ads
This qualitative study explores how repetitive visual images in political
candidates' ads reflect gender traits and issues, and analyzes how visuals
reinforce stereotypes, break through them, or convey gender balance. Using
2002 Illinois campaign spots as texts, the author employs film theorists'
mise-en-scene framework and rhetorical depiction theory to construct an
interpretive approach for visual rhetorical analysis. Results reveal gender
cross-over and balance, and suggest how visuals establish authenticity or
Ever since the Wall Street Journal introduced the "glass ceiling" in 1986,
the concept has been widely acknowledged by academics and journalists as an
invisible but powerful barrier that allows women to advance only to a
certain level (Carli & Helgi, 2001). Perhaps nowhere is that more evident
than in American politics. The percentage of elected offices held by women
ranges from 13 percent in the Senate to 27 percent statewide
(whitehouseproject, 2002; CAWP, 2002). Considering the responsibility of
the mass media to inform the voting public, the fairness of U.S. media
coverage for male and female political candidates is highly debatable. From
media consultants who bring gender strategies into the battle, to
unbalanced news coverage, to news programs that slight female politicians
and candidates despite policy or platform comparability, it can be argued
that the mass media has a heavy hand in holding down that glass ceiling. It
can also be argued that women still bear the burden of proving their
political worthiness. "Women candidates are still held to a higher standard
of establishing credibility than men," confirms political analyst Ann Lewis
(Getlin & Evans, 1992, p. 16).
Over the past quarter century, the number of women running for U.S. Senate
and gubernatorial offices, as well as statewide offices, has increased
substantially, yet not in the victory category. Twenty-five percent of all
women candidates won in the 1970's and 1980's (Kahn, 1996, p. 163). Kahn's
study (1996) further offers some explanation for this standstill, revealing
that women Senate candidates received less coverage than males, and more
negative coverage. Character, personality traits and image issues favored
male candidates and news articles tended to discuss male traits more
frequently than female traits. In 2002 these ratios and reasons still
hold: Women are 14% of the House of Representatives, and women represent only
11% of all guests on the Sunday morning political talk shows
Thus it is critical that women candidates create their own messages
through television ad spots that counteract biased media coverage and
communicate strengths and capabilities clearly to voters. This paper is
concerned with this most powerful medium controlled by the candidates
themselves: the television campaign advertisement. Specifically, my
research purpose is twofold: to identify how gender is represented in
political television advertisements and to contribute to theoretical
analyses that seek to comprehend the impact of the visual. Prior research
has established that political television advertising has become the
predominant method political candidates utilize to share political messages
with the electorate. Further studies have argued that the visual components
are the most prominent and effective argument in many political spots; they
are an argument by camera work and are far more potent than verbal logic
(Nelson & Boynton, 1997; Biocca, 1991; Richards & Caywood, 1991). To
understand the force of the visual arguments, Osborn's theory of rhetorical
depiction posits that recurring imagery imprints and amplifies attitudes in
viewers (Osborn, 1986). This study asks what is being imprinted by
candidates' ads? A final consideration in this analysis gives voice to the
voter. A review of past research yields contradictory reactions to gender
representations in political ads, however a trend appears that is
disapproving of male gender traits (Eagly & Mladinic, 1989; Nesbitt & Penn,
2000; Hosoda & Stone, 2000) and approving of combined male-female gender
traits (Jamieson, 1988; Sullivan, 1988; Hahn, 1998; Nesbitt & Penn, 2000;
Carli & Hegli, 2001), thus I will seek to discover how contemporary
political spots adapt these gender strategies.
Given the disproportion of women in elective office, and the often absent
or misleading press coverage, it is important to analyze the repetitive
visuals in women's political ads. These ads are the logical rhetorical
venue for female candidates to convey strong, honest narratives that defy
gender stereotyping or traditional masculine qualities. It is also prudent
to analyze the visual rhetorical messages of their male opponents, to
determine if they are balancing gender or even presenting feminized traits,
to gain a better understanding of the context of the political battlefield.
Thus, in this critical essay, I will examine fifteen political ads of male
and female candidates running in statewide executive and legislative
campaigns in Illinois in 2002. The offices sought by the female candidates
were Illinois Attorney General, Treasurer, Secretary of State, and State
Senator. The offices sought by the male candidates were U.S. Senator,
Governor, Attorney General, Treasurer, Secretary of State, and
Comptroller. All fifteen ads were video-taped by the researcher during
evening primetime news and entertainment broadcasts in the Chicago
market. Tapings were conducted during the final five days before the
November 2002 election, a time-period known as the "blitz" for its density
of political television spots when voter impression is crucial. Television
viewers are likely to see many of these ads, and see them in close
proximity. Thus it can be argued that they are both individually and
cumulatively influential in impacting voter perceptions. A shot-by-shot
visual analysis was then conducted to identify the gender representations
communicated by the imagery.
It is important to acknowledge here that undertaking a purely visual
analysis is a precarious task. When transcribing the visual material, my
critical perspective and theoretical
framework of rhetorical depiction through mise-en-scene elements led me to
choices that guided my research. Some information was lost, other
information was singled out. "The process of analyzing pictures," offers
Diana Rose (2000) "is like a translation from one language to another."
With the complexities offered by television, any translation usually
entails a simplification. This ambiguity offers one explanation why
research has yet to fully examine visual rhetoric. However, the genre of
film has a substantial history in visual critique, of which "mise-en-scene"
plays a leading role.
Of all techniques of cinema, and hence video, mise-en-scene is the one most
commonly familiar: many of our most sharply etched memories of the cinema
turn out to be an element of
mise-en-scene (Bordwell & Thompson, 1979). Its French translation is
"having been put into the scene;" it includes setting, lighting, costume,
and the behavior of the figures; and it has the power to transcend normal
conceptions of reality (p. 76). Settings frequently incorporate metaphoric
props to advance the message, for instance an American flag, a front porch,
or an office desk cluttered with books and documents. Costume elements may
also convey meaning, for example casual versus business attire. Characters,
too, are always graphic elements in the video, where their juxtapositions,
gestures, and facials expressions offer broad clues and codes of meaning.
Seldom do these elements appear in isolation; rather, states Bordwell, they
orchestrate a final production that guides the viewer's experience from
beginning to end.
Beyond spoken or written text, and music or sound effects, the visual
components of video dominate the message in this medium. "Visualization is
a powerful dynamic of memory and delivery in many media" (Nelson & Boynton,
1997, p. 97). Postman has said that "television gives us a conversation in
images, not words" (p. 7). Although Biocca writes of the speaker/
listener dynamic in the political ad (p. 56), its visual voice also helps
to establish a give-and-take relationship between the candidate and the
viewer, drawing the viewer to infer, fill in the blanks, and take ownership
of the message. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle described the enthymeme as the
very body and substance of persuasion. Jamieson (1999) explains that
enthymemes function by suppressing premises that are then filled in by
members of the audience. Out of this complicity come conclusions whose
impact is heightened by audience participation in their construction. In
political ads, juxtaposition of images functions frequently as a means to
semantically frame the messages. They unify and present a common
interpretive frame for large numbers of social groups (Morreale, 1991).
Unlike the commercial ad, political spots often present a documentary-like
scenario that viewers enter and vicariously experience.
Rhetorical Depiction Theory
Today's political ad with its inherent qualities, in nearly all cases a
tight thirty seconds in which to engage and persuade a variety of publics,
is a fitting candidate for Michael Osborn's theory of rhetorical
depiction. Because the television ad is often dodged, glimpsed, or
passively viewed by the typical television audience, as an interruption in
news or entertainment programming, by nature it must repeat key messages or
imagery to impact as many viewers as possible whenever they might attend to
it. Depiction is a significant, recurring form of address and under the
theoretical framework of rhetorical depiction, the rhetorical force cast by
the repetition of gender images in these television spots is illuminated.
This theory emphasizes the importance of symbolic presentations of reality
and audience perceptions. It fits the immediacy of television and its
visual delivery. Osborn explains the power of depiction "is that it often
possesses its audience at the moment of perceptual encounter, and thus
insinuates itself into our consciousness, where it becomes difficult to
dislodge" (Osborn, 1986, p. 80). He more eloquently describes the dynamic
of depiction as when "premises rise into consciousness" (p. 97). When
visual depiction is utilized, its delivery and meaning is cumulative in
nature: typically there exists a repetition to constantly amplify the
depiction. Television is a medium technically efficient in "imprinting"
depictions on viewers in that its audio-visual qualities communicate to an
immediate audience in hopes of affecting attitudes and actions on specific
issues of the moment.
Gender Traits. Gender Bias
Numerous academic studies have determined the traits society assigns to
gender, more commonly referred to as the values and roles society
constructs as gender identification. A complete summary of traits would be
exhaustive, but the following results approximate what most relatively
recent studies have determined to be masculine and feminine gender
identification. Males are independent, competitive, logical, skilled in
business, and financial providers; females are emotional, gentle, graceful,
concerned with appearance, and nurturing (Foss, 1996; Murray, 1996). Huddy
and Terkelson (1993b) identified female traits as warmth, sensitivity, and
compassion, and ascertained female issues as education, the elderly, the
poor, and healthcare. They identified male traits as assertiveness,
aggressiveness, and self-confidence, and pinpointed male issues as military
crises and economic issues. Rosenwasser and Dean (1989) identified
masculine tasks with military crises, terrorism, military defense, and
commanding the Armed Forces. They found feminine tasks to be education,
minority rights, the aged, and the disabled or handicapped. The environment
and the American public were found to be neutral. Alexander and Andersen
(1993) measured both issues and traits. They concluded female issues
concerned daycare, the poor, health, education, environment and civil
rights. Male issues concerned the military, foreign trade, agriculture,
arms control, and taxes. Regarding gender traits, Alexander and Andersen
(1993) identified females to be compassionate, liberal, honest,
compromising, moral, effective, hardworking, one who balances family with
office, and one who stands up for her beliefs. They identified male gender
traits as conservative, tough, crisis-handling, emotionally stable, and
The importance of gender role presentation in political ads factors in two
influential ways. First, given the persuasive rhetoric of advertising,
gender representations may modify or develop viewers' opinions of the
specific candidate, or of male or female candidates in general, regardless
of policy positions. Second, viewers bring their own biases or preferences
on gender roles to the television set, influencing their interpretations of
the ads, and here academic evidence is complex.
Some studies have revealed, along with Robertson, Froemling, Wells & McCraw
(1999), voter preference for candidates who are portrayed through the media
in a gender appropriate manner. In Nesbitt and Penn's 2000 study, the most
socially desirable qualities for women were: very protective, very willing
to accept change, very aware of feelings of others – all qualities that
ranked much lower for the typical man. The typical man's most socially
desirable qualities were: very adventurous and very competitive – areas
that ranked much lower for the typical woman. Certain studies supported
male gender roles as preferable. In their 1989 study, Rosenwasser and Dean
revealed that men were perceived most likely to win a presidential
election, and that "masculine" characteristics were more important than
"feminine" characteristics in any local, national or presidential
election. Huddy and Terkelson (1993a) found more masculine traits
(assertiveness, aggressiveness, self-confidence) were considered more
beneficial than typical feminine traits (warmth, sensitivity, compassion)
to deal with policy issues, and even to further women's interests in the
world of politics, especially at the national level.
Other studies supported female gender roles as preferable. In Eagly and
Mladinic (1989) both male and female respondents had evaluated women more
positively than men, and more favorable traits were ascribed to women.
Nesbitt and Penn (2000) found that both their male and female participants
valued male characteristics significantly less than female
characteristics. And Hosoda and Stone (2000) found a greater number of
unfavorable attributes were used to describe men than women, creating a
more negative masculine stereotype.
A number of studies also support combined gender roles. For example, one
study revealed that women, in order to be influential, must combine agentic
qualities, such as competence and directiveness, with communal qualities,
such as warmth and friendliness (Carli & Hegli, 2001). Carli (2001) reports
that when women are perceived to be as competent as men, they are often
seen as violating prescriptive gender role norms that require women to be
communal, and as a result people, especially males, often dislike highly
competent women and reject their contributions. In their replication of
the1968 investigation of gender stereotypes by Rosencrantz et al, Nesbitt
and Penn (2000) established that many stereotypes did not survive the
thirty-year gap. While emotional qualities still were seen to differentiate
the sexes, the typical woman was seen to have the same competence and
capacity to be effective as the typical man. Nesbit and Penn (2000) noted
this change in gender stereotypes, due to increased public
exposure to women in greatly expanded roles, is predicted by virtually all
models of the process of stereotype change.
Finally, Alexander and Andersen (1993) note that both women candidates
themselves, along with their consultants, contribute to stereotyping by
creating acceptable campaign images that capitalize on the public's biased
expectations. However, these authors conclude that the female candidates'
characters are being constructed and redefined to include the best of men's
and women's capabilities. Indeed, this re-construction is evident.
Senatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein's tough and caring approach
represented a blend of the best of both male and female gender qualities,
and she presented it with authority. Jamieson (1998) identified the
"womanly narrative," in advertising messages. Hahn (1998) found that the
emotional involvement rhetoric, employed by female candidates many more
times than men, conveyed a deep commitment to action. Sullivan (1988) noted
the extension of a different voice to political messages, and that
candidate's television spots are especially significant because they
represent the one dimension to campaign communication that is under the
candidates' complete control.
While these studies contribute substantially to understanding the roles
gender play in U.S. politics and indicate a blend of gender roles is a
positive trend, they also raise more questions about the dynamic of gender
representation and perception in political ads, especially as channeled
through persuasive visuals. Thus, the gender dilemma remains a complex one,
with the absence of women in higher political office as evidence of its
repercussions. In his 2000 study, Koch summed up this ambiguity when he
indicated that gender-stereotype effects on perceptions of candidates'
issue position, competencies, and character traits may be more complex than
Thus, to investigate the dominant visual rhetoric of current political ads,
the following research questions were asked:
RQ1: How do the repetitive visual images in female and male candidates' ads
reflect gender traits and issues?
RQ2: Do these gender traits and issues reinforce gender stereotypes or do
they breakthrough to construct a gender-balanced image?
For the purposes of this study, prior research establishes gender as a
psychological and cultural term for male or female, and bias or
stereotyping as society's construction of traits and roles considered
typical of females and males (Foss, 1996; Murray, 1996). Visual
communication in political television advertisements is determined as the
setting, characters, clothing, action, and behavior of the characters, as
defined by film critics' mise-en-scene analysis (Bordwell & Thompson, 1974).
I utilized the qualitative and interpretive research methodologies of unit
and textual analyses. First, I transcribed the visual progression of each
of the fifteen ads. Since it is impossible to describe everything on the
screen, transcription decisions were based on the theory that gender roles
are represented through the mise-en-scene elements of setting, characters,
costumes, action, and the printed word appearing on the screen, known as a
chyron in the video production trade.
Next, I conducted a unit analysis to determine how female and male
candidates presented themselves to voters. As the "unit" of analysis is
visually-based on the camera shot, when a camera switches content, a new
unit of analysis begins.
To develop an identifying framework for the unit analysis, the process
began with specifying gender traits and issues. I isolated the dominant
stereotypical gender traits and issues referenced earlier in this paper,
concluding the following: Feminine traits will be defined as compassionate
and emotional, and nurturing and gentle. Feminine issues will be defined as
the elderly, education, minority rights, the poor, healthcare, and
character issues. Masculine traits will be defined as self-confident and
aggressive, tough, and logical. Masculine issues will be defined as the
military, crime, the economy, terrorism, leadership issues, business skills
and finance issues. (Foss, 1998; Murray, 1996; Huddy& Terkelson 1993b;
Rosenwasser & Dean, 1989; Alexander & Andersen, 1993).These dominant traits
and issues were then matched with specific visuals, based on preliminary
viewing of the fifteen spots and prior research consensus, resulting in the
following identifying framework:
[See Table 1.]
Compassionate and Emotional (aged, unemployed, poor, health, minority issues)
Setting…………In blue-collar and service workplace, closed
factories, farms, health clinics. Props: prescription bottles
Characters……..Elderly, non-white, common citizens, blue-collar,
service and agricultural workers
Action…………Touching people, friendly facial expressions
Nurturing & Gentle (education and family issues)
Settings………...In home, park or school settings. Props: books
Characters……..Family unit, children, teacher
Action…………Interacting with children
Clothing………..Non-traditional business dress, or casual dress
Self-confident & Assertive (leadership)
Action…………Handshakes, animated gestures
Characters……..Addressing a group of adults
Verbiage**……..Achievement or attack verbiage on graphics.
Tough (military, crises, crime and terrorism issues)
Setting…………..Military imagery, prison or courthouse. Props: flag, fireman
Characters……....Military, police, firefighters, uniforms
Logical (business skills and finance issues)
Setting…………...Office, bank, government buildings
Action…………..Working at office desk, attending to paperwork
**Verbiage specifying an issue also was coded for that issue.
In most cases, categorization was rooted in past research findings, for
example a school setting indicated an education issue, or a person handling
paperwork at an office desk indicated business skills. In a few cases where
visuals did not "own" precise traits, the context was the determining
factor. For instance, the action of a handshake in an office or workplace
setting was designated as "self-confident and assertive," whereas the
action of touching or hugging in a health clinic or school was designated
as "compassionate and emotional." As the researcher is the main instrument
in qualitative data collection and analysis (Wimmer & Dominick, 107), to
secure confidence in the findings I based my approach and methodology on
the aforementioned theories and a synthesis of multiple prior research
results on gender traits and issues. I should also add that as a creative
director in the advertising and publishing industries for many years, I
have worked extensively with the rhetorical capacities of visual
communication, and this experience contributes to my interests and
Within the fifteen ads studied, nine were produced by the male candidates
and six were produced by the female candidates. Because the visual
transcription for each ad is extensive, what follows are abbreviated
summaries. Summaries are excluded for the two ads detailed in the Findings
section of this paper. Gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich's ad, "Time
for a Change," focuses on his opponent attorney general Jim Ryan,
criticizing the current administration with visuals evoking job loss, and
promoting his agenda through visuals reflecting jobs, education and
healthcare. In "People's Candidate," Blagojevich mixes male and female
gender traits in this ad focusing primarily on education, with multiple
visuals of classrooms, students, families, racial diversity, and blue- and
white-collar workers. His opponent's spot, "Man of the People," seeks to
reconstruct an image tarnished by ethics scandals of the current
administration. Visuals depict Ryan in casual sweaters with
African-American children, with women, with the elderly, and with male
office workers. Current state senator Lisa Madigan, running for attorney
general, created heavily negative spots. "Jail Cell" evokes the grainy
black and white terror depicted in George Bush's "Revolving Door" spot,
utilizing a constant jail cell visual juxtaposed with unflattering photos
of the opponent, along with multiple negative chyrons.
In Madigan's "Strictly Business," color pictures of a smiling candidate
working in the office and multiple text press endorsements bookend an
attack on her opponent, juxtaposing an unflattering black and white
headshot with the wording, "Has learned NOTHING." Another negative Madigan
spot, "Wrongful Prosecution," directs its grainy black and white visuals at
attacking her opponent's past record as a county states attorney. Her
opponent Joe Birkett counter-attacks in "Scandal," using grainy black and
white photos of Madigan and multiple chyrons accusing her of wrongdoing,
coupled with hyperactive production techniques that shake images and
His second spot, "Court Scenes," attempts to diffuse "Jail Cell" with
heroic imagery of the candidate addressing the court, propped with flags
and police officers. In "Photo Album," incumbent state senator Kathy
Parker presents a vision of her tenure with multiple images of her engaging
the public, the elderly, the police and co-workers. She also makes an
attack on her female opponent. Current state representative Dart, in his
bid for the office of treasurer, uses "Shame" to attack incumbent Judy Barr
Topinka's fiscal maneuvers. Graphics of wadded dollar bills accompany a
smiling Topinka in submissive posture next to the current scandal-plagued
governor. Kris O'Rourke Cohn's challenge of incumbent Jesse White as
secretary of state yielded "In the Neighborhood," a talking-head static
spot featuring Cohn wearing a double choker of fat white pearls, standing
in an upscale neighborhood with American flags hanging from doorsteps. Her
opponent, Jesse White, the only African-American candidate, bannered his
achievements in "Tumblers and Truckers." The spot opens with the Jesse
White Tumblers, young African-American male athletes, performing in a gym
with shoulder pats from White. It moves to office images, the flag, a
conference table with Caucasian men and women, and visuals of trucks
juxtaposed with chyrons touting his tough response to an administration
Incumbent comptroller Hynes' "Back to School" spot is all about education.
It opens with "Trust" reversing strongly out of a black background, and
alternates between Hynes working an adding machine at his desk to sitting
outdoors among a diverse group of smiling young school children, with two
on his lap, posing for what suggests to be a yearbook picture.
After completing the visual transcription for each ad, the identifying
framework (see Table 1.) was applied. A total of 280 images contributed to
this analysis. For the female
candidates, 105 images were utilized; for the males, 175. All possible
images were not included; a second person did not function as an
interrater, and reliability was not measured. As a critic of visual
rhetoric, I followed the methodology of "generative" rhetorical criticism
(Foss, 1996) to develop and measure units of analysis that would best
investigate my research texts and answer my research questions. This
exploratory structure enabled me to gain the following insights: The
leading gender trait for women was self-confidence and assertiveness,
followed by nurturing and gentle, compassionate and emotional, tough, and
lastly, logical. For men, the leading gender trait was nurturing and
gentle, followed by self-confidence and assertiveness, compassionate and
emotional, logical, and lastly, tough. Of these broad summaries, there are
three significant findings. One, both males and females were equally as
likely to display compassionate and emotional traits. Second, of all
traits, women were far more likely to convey self-confidence and
assertiveness. And third, of all traits, men were far more likely to convey
nurturing and gentle imagery. Thus the ads' recurring imagery for both men
and women candidates most powerfully imprints gender qualities that
contradict stereotypical traits. A closer look at two select ads
illustrates how the gender roles are depicted. I chose the following spots
primarily because their execution offered clear examples of the way visual
depictions establish gender cross-over. All non-Caucasion racial
identifications are included in the transcriptions because minority race is
defined by this study as a political issue. If at first reading these spots
seem unusual for political ads, I reference the remaining thirteen spots
previously outlined in this paper, noting my descriptions suggest similar
gender representations and consistent visual formulas that can be easily read.
Poli Spot 1: Farms and Families
Judy Barr Topinka, the only incumbent and only Republican to win a
statewide office, Treasurer, in the Illinois 2002 election, demonstrates a
breakthrough persona through visual depiction: "Farms and Families" begins
with Topinka sitting at her office desk wearing a black suit and sporting
short red hair. There is an American flag in the background. Her gaze is
cast downward at her work; she is moving paper. On-screen text reads, "Judy
Baar Topinka." The second frame tightens in on a smiling man wearing a
T-shirt with an American-flag image and what appears to be a fireman's hat
on his head. The scene quickly switches to a middle-aged couple, a man with
his arm resting around a woman's shoulder. They might be farmers from their
work dress: he has a cap on his head, she is wearing a denim shirt and is
speaking to the camera. Next, another couple appears in a setting with a
field of grain in the background. The spot then switches to an interior
shot of Topinka wearing a royal blue jacket with white shirt, making a
broad welcoming gesture to blue-collar workers. The on-screen message
reads, "Over 70,000 jobs." Next, in an outdoor farm-like setting, she
stands talking with two couples. She is wearing a brown suit and is
clasping her hands together in front of her. The screen reads, "$1 Billion
for Agriculture." The following frame is a park-like setting and she is
with young families, mostly women with toddlers. Some are holding babies.
The screen reads, "Bright Start & Promise." Next, an elderly woman
addresses the camera, followed by a scene that places Topinka amidst
hard-hat wearing male workers, with their hands all connected together in a
"let's win one" gesture. The camera closes in on her joyful smile and head
tossed back, looking upwards. The clasped hands are still included in this
frame. We then see a young blond-haired mother outdoors, holding and
talking to a blond male toddler. Next, Topinka is in same outdoor setting,
crouching and talking to the standing toddler, gesturing with her hands.
Next is a close-up of Topinka talking with another female toddler who might
be Hispanic. Next, Topinka is walking with Caucasian and African-American
women who are holding their young children. The final frame is still
outdoors: ducks and geese are walking in the background. Topinka is
kneeling and talking with an African-American boy. The screen reads,
"Topinka. Illinois State Senator. Investing in Illinois."
When I entitled this spot "Farms and Families," it was an inadvertent
metaphor for the spot's gender balance. Agriculture, for long a male gender
issue, has become more feminized as farmers have suffered severe economic
setbacks. It also embodies character. Families, too, have become more
centralized issues as working mothers and fathers share responsibilities
and as family values platforms have surfaced across party lines. Thus the
title suggests the gender integration Topinka achieves in her ad.
The opening visual is not what it appears to be, and from there the viewer
is transfixed with juxtapositions and rapid image progressions. First we
see "Treasurer Topinka" briskly working, in black tailored suit, at her
[--- ??? Graphic Goes Here ---]
I. Web site image of actual frame from TV spot.
Note: over-printed type appears only on Web site.
The quick juxtaposition of the next shot, a young man smiling directly at
the camera, creates a surrogate persona for Topinka. The man, wearing a
white T-shirt with an American flag and what appears to be a costume
fireman's cap, takes us into the world of "Judy." The following visuals
depict frequent just-like-one-of-us imagery: She is on a farm with
she is briskly gesturing to welcome blue-collar workers; she is romping in
the park with young families; she is giving high-fives to hard-hat guys:
[--- ??? Graphic Goes Here ---]
II. Web site image of actual frame from TV spot.
Note: over-printed type appears only on Web site.
There is a strong balance of logic and character appeals in this spot,
creating a consistent blend of gender representation. The tight camera
frames on the faces of Topinka's various publics connotes an openness and
honesty. It is respectful of her constituents. The ethos she establishes
through generous depictions of both workers and children functions to not
only cue the viewers to her self-confidence and care, but to also identify
themselves as one of Judy's pals. The generous camera depictions of the
children transform traditional patriarchal imagery. They are not viewed as
distant "others," nor grouped as a "type," but are featured individually,
either in lively independent postures or interacting with Judy at eye level:
[--- ??? Graphic Goes Here ---]
III. Web site image of actual frame from TV spot.
Note: over-printed type appears only on Web site.
Poli Spot 2: That's DurBin!
Incumbent democratic U.S. senator Dick Durban ran a single ad in the
sampled viewing area and time period. "That's DurBin!" is a spot set in a
school classroom instructing voters to not confuse him with republican
challenger Dick Durkin. This ad opens in a classroom, featuring a young
female Caucasian teacher. She is wearing pants and a bright blue shirt, and
has long light-brown hair. She is pointing to two names written on a green
chalkboard at the front of the class, DURBIN, and underneath it, DURKIN. We
see the backs of the students' heads as she faces the camera. She holds up
two fingers, and then the camera tightens in on one hand which underscores
the B in Durbin. The camera closes in more tightly on her face, framing
also the big B on the board. She is smiling. In the next frame, a young
girl wearing a bright red sweater stands at the front of the class and
smiles facing the camera. We read DURBIN on the board in back of her, and
then the chyron "DurBin" also appears at bottom screen. We switch to an
outside shot of African-American girls jumping rope. "DurBin" appears at
bottom screen. The
frame switches quickly to an African-American boy hanging upside down from
the climbing bars. On the right side of the screen "DurBin" runs
vertically. Finally we see candidate Durbin for the first and only time,
standing on the school grounds surrounded by the students. The wording,
"Dick Durbin, United States Senator," and "Vote Nov. 5" appears. The
students then hold up various signs reading "Durbin."
Dick Durbin promoted identification through clarifying the spelling of his
name with this spot, but he also did a lot more. While the spelling lesson
played out, the visuals imprinted him
as an advocate for children, women, minority groups, and education. At the
ad's beginning we are immediately involved with a surrogate persona for
Durbin, a young female teacher dressed in pants and blue shirt who directly
addresses the class, and consequently the camera, enlisting the viewer as
student. Yet while we are drawn into the "nurturing and gentle" setting of
the classroom, the room is set up in a traditional, positivist structure of
rowed seats that distances teacher from student and establishes a hierarchy
of power. There is no touching, in fact no interaction between teacher and
student. Thus, the dynamic is positivist, too: The lecturer controls the
audience to speak only when called upon. There is, then, a contradiction
presented: While dominant visual roles suggest empowerment for children,
women, and minorities, the television viewer's—and voter's—role is passive
throughout the spot. A stench of dishonesty wafts in, like a forgotten
cheese sandwich in the wardrobe. Returning to the beginning, the female
teacher appears in the role of traditional lecturer and becomes the primary
focal point. Looking quickly, we see the word "DurBin" on the chalkboard,
juxtaposed as a counter focal point. Every succeeding image imposes a
reactive role on the viewer. There is no visual dialogue with the viewer;
there is only the appearance of the candidate's name and appearances of
characters who "don't ring true" to the traits and issues they symbolize.
Next we see a young Caucasian girl lecturing in same spot as the teacher,
addressing the class—and the camera—head-on. "DurBin" reads from behind
her. Next we see African-American girls, not in a role of power, but rather
jumping rope in the playground. "D-u-r-B-i-n" appears below them in
text. Finally we see a young African-American boy, not in front of a
classroom nor even standing, but hanging upside down on the monkey bars,
with "DurBin" running vertically in text alongside him.
I argue that this ad is dishonest in its implication and visually depicts
power inequalities. It uses feminized gender imagery to persuade, not
honestly converse. In the context of audience-as-students, it does not even
"call on us" through interaction between teacher and student. It relegates
the audience as passive receptacles through its choice of setting and
static action. In contrast, Topinka's ad presents her physical and animated
connection to each iconic character, and by extension, to the voting
viewer. Candidate Durbin does not even appear with his props. Only at the
very end does he pop in like a principal making a half-hearted appearance
in the third-grade classroom:
[--- ??? Graphic Goes Here ---]
IV. NOTE: Web site image, not actual frame from TV spot.
"That's DurBin" features examples of repetitive visual depiction
amplifying cross gender traits and issues without depth of meaning. While
it works to reinforce awareness of the candidate's name, the employment of
thin photographic "stills" with associative candidate identification
visually suggests a superficiality in core values and issues—and is a lost
opportunity for Durbin to engage voters with substantive imagery that
would communicate his democratic philosophy.
This study contributes to our understanding of how political ad spots
represent gender. Grounded on prior research measuring gender stereotyping
and voter perceptions, the descriptive framework designed for this study
proved to be a functional tool for identifying repetitive visual images in
both female and male candidates' ads that reflected gender traits and
issues. As noted earlier, although visual analysis is subject to researcher
opinion and the nature of qualitative, rhetorical analysis is not
scientific, my care to base the visual coding on consensus data from
previous studies supports its significance as a contribution to the field
of visual analysis. Through analytical frameworks of rhetorical depiction
and mise-en-scene, the dominant recurring images were identified to be most
persuasive. In this limited review, the analysis answers the question of
how repetitive visual images in female and male candidates' ads reflect
gender traits and issues, and how they reinforce gender stereotypes or
breakthrough to construct a gender-balanced image. And it confirms research
trends: A blend of masculinized and feminized qualities are being presented
as appropriate and desirable. This study also advances that the test of
authenticity can be measured by visual rhetorical analysis, as seen in the
contrasting Topinka and Durbin spots. Pictures may be pretty and
politicians may persuade. And at times they may very well work: U.S.
senator Dick Durbin won a landslide reelection and treasurer Judy Barr
Topinka was the only republican to win a statewide office in Illinois in
2002. Visual rhetorical analysis, however, offers a functional tool to
illuminate meaning and ideology, and to unearth the deeper sense of social
justice or power inequalities communicated visually by political ads to
influence the electorate.
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