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Understanding the power of visual cues in election campaigns

By Johanna Añes-de la Cruz, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 19, 2021 1:37 pm

The election fever is starting to heat up fast. In a few more weeks, we will be even more bombarded with election-related messages across all platforms, from legacy to digital media.

Now, more than ever, we are seeing the reproduction, transformation, and sharing of images at breakneck speed especially on the social media.

These are exciting, yet also disconcerting times, as images or visual cues are not always used to share facts and objective information. Many times, they are used to deceive and spread misinformation for the selfish interests of the message sender. This sad reality is in full, blatant display during election season.

Visual cues: Why are they important?

For better or worse, political campaigns partly rely on visual cues to communicate messages. We are highly visual creatures after all. From cave paintings to memes, human beings have always used images to tell and share stories. More than just storytelling, however, visual cues have the power to stir strong emotions—love, hate, anger, fear and everything else in between.

President Rodrigo Duterte

With this, visual cues become especially powerful and even potentially life-changing when they go beyond depicting or informing, and take on persuasive roles like shaping attitudes and behaviors, like the role of women, ideas about race and nationhood.

We use visual cues for easy recognition, recall, brand personality and brand meaning. Human branding is akin to marketing for consumer brands—not so different from efforts to market fast food chains, shampoo, gadgets and clothing.

It goes without saying that there is danger lurking behind the use of visual cues for they do not always tell the whole story. Add to this is the fact that images may be strategically manipulated or constructed to deceive and spread lies as in the case of many an election campaign. Sadly, there are people who cannot easily tell if they are being deceived or not, and some who willingly let themselves be hoodwinked because of blind fanaticism to their idol-politicians.

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Associate Professor Dave D. Centeno of UP Diliman’s Virata School of Business and an expert on marketing and consumer behavior, talks about the importance of visual cues particularly in election campaigns.

“We use these elements for easy recognition, recall, brand personality, and brand meaning. These so-called ‘visual cues’ are essential elements for ‘branding,’ which is defined as a process of subjecting any persona to marketing communication efforts.” He describes human branding as akin to marketing for consumer brands, not so different from efforts to market fast food chains, shampoo, gadgets, and clothing.

When it comes to politicians’ campaign efforts, Centeno explains, “These visual elements are important so candidates would be able to persuade on the heuristic level or provide mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load in making a choice or a first step to attention—and then elaboration.

These visual elements are also important to ignite participation—the fans or followers assume these elements to signify identification and affiliation.” Examples of these are donning the colors or mimicking the iconic gestures (e.g. fist bump, peace sign or L-sign) of your preferred candidates.

Vice President Leni Robredo, presidential candidate for 2022.

In a separate interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Assistant Professor Charles Erize Ladia of UP Diliman’s Department of Speech Communication and Theatre Arts and a researcher on political rhetoric and communication discussed why politicians heavily invest in how their campaigns “look” and what image they will portray to the public.

Ladia said, “These visuals help promote the political narratives that these politicians crafted. For instance, if a campaign narrative banks on simplicity and anti-corruption, the choice of visuals particularly the choice of clothing matters like Grace Poe’s white polo shirt in the 2016 elections and Vice President Leni Robredo’s tsinelas in her campaign logos,” Ladia explains. These visual cues help politicians validate their stories that their yellow ribbons mean democracy and their jingle that goes “Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura?” is authentic and should be believed in.

He adds that visual cues and language in politics not only help us remember, they also at times make us forget narratives, “In our consciousness, we have images and political brands that we still remember because at some point, they were able to affect us emotionally or cognitively. Visual cues and images allow us to remember the effective and forget the forgettable.”

He cites the ‘L’ hand gesture popularized during the EDSA People Power Revolution to signify ‘Laban’ and ‘Cory’ and which was again used during the 2010 elections by former President Noynoy Aquino as a good example of an indelible visual cue. “These visual cues have their own political weight on our memory. And we see this every election season — from the tarpaulins of the candidates of the buildings or roads they sponsored, the funny memes of those who lost the previous elections, and political advertisements and their accompanying jingles.”

Impact of visual cues on voting behavior

It cannot be denied that these visual cues have an impact on voting behavior—but how influential are they really?

“These visual cues are peripheral to influencing voting behavior, much like a packaging to a product. It can only attract and get attention from the majority, but there would always be elaboration to the deeper aspects of the candidates.” Centeno emphasizes that visual cues are not exactly behavior-changers, but because of the visual language executions, a voter would easily be persuaded (or dissuaded) to change preference.

He further elaborates, “In marketing, the best strategy is to have a good product. However, there would be instances wherein the brand personality of the candidates, whether they manufacture themselves as mabait, masaya, humble, matapang, or galing sa mahirap are manufactured through media spinning.”

For example, the color white connotes purity, while red is usually seen as signifying courage or being palaban. Another is the successful fist-bump icon of President Rodrigo Duterte which he and his team use to mean “fight,” connoting “to discipline” and “to eradicate.”

“While these visual cues are seemingly secondary, they are peripheral cues leading to a deeper elaboration of meaning to the message and the sender of the message in the context of political marketing. Visual cues as tools for signification among political candidates want to tell the public what kind of person this candidate might be. The mechanisms of meaning-transfer effect, match-up hypothesis, and classical conditioning are examples of psychological constructs that could explain why visual language aids person branding,” says Centeno.

Memorable campaigns from elections past

Over the years, Filipinos have been made spectators, whether willingly or not, to the circus that is Philippine elections. From Mr. Palengke to Dagat ng Basura, it would not take much effort for us to recall a memorable campaign from past elections.

Centeno shares some of the campaigns that he considers memorable, regardless of whether or not these led the candidate to victory, “Mar Roxas’ Mr. Palengke as he topped the 2004 senatorial list. This is visually engaging to the masa. Relatively unknown pa si Mar back then, unlike how he was in 2016.” He says that Roxas tried using the same strategy again in 2016 but failed as people had already learned that he was not really masa among other factors.

Another memorable campaign for Centeno is the Jamby Madrigal-Judy Ann Santos tandem. “Winner ito. Jamby all of a sudden looked like Juday and even copied her haircut.”

He also cites Noynoy Aquino’s celebrity rally ad, which he considers one of his favorites and even inspired his groundbreaking Master’s thesis on Celebrification, “(The campaign) was very emotional din kasi because of Noynoy losing his mother.”

There is danger lurking behind the use of visual cues for they do not always tell the whole story. Add to this is the fact that images may be strategically manipulated or constructed to deceive and spread lies as in the case of many an election campaign.

Perhaps for many Pinoys, Manny Villar’s “Dagat ng Basura” remains one of the most unforgettable campaigns. “This one’s a classic. It had great potential back in 2010. ‘Di ba Manny Villar was topping the surveys until Cory died? But the melody of the jingle and the visual components—kids swimming in the basura and being saved by Villar— was compelling. Also, it was trying to say that Manny also swam in the basura, but he got successful eventually so he wanted to inspire the masa.”

Ladia echoes Centeno’s thoughts about Villar’s 2010 campaign and adds, “We also get to see its impact across time and different personalities when the family replicated the same theme in a recent commercial.”

He cites Jejomar Binay’s ‘Nognog, Pandak, Laki sa Hirap’ ads as similarly devised for this purpose of identifying with the electorate, “This vivid imagery allowed him to take a swipe against those who bashed him for his physical characteristics but also allowed him to strategize this as his identification with the ordinary people.”

Centeno also gives his nod to Duterte’s now iconic fist bump, “This one is a game-enhancer for Duterte. He was then a popular choice among the many mainstream names. People wanted ‘change,’, and the fist-bomb gesture was like breaking the monotony in the roster. He was also using that gesture na pambati handshake. Prior to his use of this kasi, we all knew it had many other meanings, but he ‘owned’ this visual that has an action or body movement component as well, like the laban hand sign.”

Centeno likewise mentions Grace Poe’s commendable use of “white” to signify independence, “She went ‘colorless’, not red, not yellow, but white.”

On a lighter note, he recalls Rep. Prospero Pichay’s distribution of the “Pechay Fan” in his 2007 senatorial bid. Though it did not translate to votes, it was still memorable because it was amusing.

Elections 2022

We are a little over a week after the deadline of the filing of Certificates of Candidacy, and every day we have been seeing more and more local and national candidates embarking on their respective campaign trails. Tarps bearing candidates’ faces and their slogans have started sprouting everywhere, and their ads are slowly taking over TV and radio commercial airtime. Social media has especially been a hotbed of election-related messages from memes to TikTok videos.

Centeno observes that a common strategy nowadays is the use of the candidates’ initials as the first letters of their taglines or handles. “And of course, the quintessential factor of ‘physical attractiveness’ as a source of visual attention—maganda at pogi—could mean ‘good,’ fortunately or unfortunately for Pinoys,” he adds.

“So far no one is using any visual tool yet, except for the trending ‘pink’ color on social media for Leni,” Centeno says of the current landscape early on in the election season. It can be noted that Vice President Leni Robredo, who is running for the country’s top post, has opted to use pink for her campaign noting the emerging use of the color as a global symbol for protest and activism.

For Centeno, this move might have some issues: “For one, many people say it is still a tactic to do away with yellow, to avoid whatever notions of ‘yellow’ in her branding. Another issue with this is the lack of foundation on her own branding with ‘pink.’ Unlike the established yellow during the People Power, the color ‘pink’ has less political grounding. It may be a good statement for something, but oftentimes it’s associated with illness advocacy like cancer, or the feminine movement. Leni could be associated with that feminine power.”

Rep. Prospero Pichay's Pechay Fan used in the 2007 elections. 

He shares that in this election, however, whatever visual tool a candidates ultimately decides to use should be inclusive. In the case of Robredo, it should not only speak to women and those who appreciate the feminine power in pink.

“I am not sure how the masa is buying this visual tool. Imagine those living in areas where flocks of masa voters are—will they wear pink or buy pink shirts? Truth be told, pink won’t be embraced easily by everyone. Meron pang double-layer cognitive processing. First, they will still have to think what pink means. Second, they will try to associate it with Leni. Of course, we can easily do that consciously—but in the subconscious cognitive processing, medyo may effort pa.”

For Ladia, on the other hand, Robredo’s choice of pink as her campaign color reflects and validates many aspects of her leadership and has even ignited conversations and political actions. “Although we are not surprised, her leaving yellow, which was the Liberal Party’s infamous color, and choosing pink supports her narrative that she is running without a party and for the people.”

Some online discussions have claimed that the color pink was a suggestion from volunteer groups who persuaded her to run, validating the political brand of Leni as a grassroots leader. “Moreover, people’s identification with Leni as a brand was publicly embodied through the changing of display photos on social media platforms and trending her hashtags #LetLeniLead and #Kakampink,” Ladia adds.

Visual elements are important so candidates would be able to persuade on the heuristic level or provide mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load in making a choice or a first step to attention—and then elaboration. They can also ignite participation.

Centeno shares that, ideally, visual approaches should be intuitive, easy to process and comprehend with regard to their political candidate. “All these issues can be addressed anyway by the media and strategy handlers of the candidates. But these have to be executed well,” Centeno adds.

‘The best marketing strategy is to have the best product’

Centeno says that visual colors should have rich semiotics. “They should not just be spur of the moment communication decisions. In other words, dapat may hugot din, deeply founded on a candidate’s cultural narrative. Hindi pwedeng maisipan lang.”

He reiterates that now, more than ever, these visuals should not be explicitly and one-sidedly claimed as “akin yan.” In our highly divided society, these images should appeal to everyone but still be able to convince people that a particular visual icon is strongly associated with their own perception of the candidate. “Dapat inclusive and co-creative with all stakeholders.”

Ladia cautions that “Visuals in politics are not accidental, they are crafted to capture our attention and to proliferate political images and the brandings. And we, as voters, will decide on which narratives we subscribe to.”

He stresses that one of the most crucial things right now is for the electorate to be critical about these visual images and political maneuverings, “They are strategized and at times weaponized in order to get a political advantage. So when we see images or videos, we have to ask ourselves about their veracity and their purpose. As these visual cues and language travel quickly in this digital age, our rhetorical sensitivity — our awareness of the purpose of a message — should be heightened. We always have to ask ourselves — to what political ends is this visual cue targeted? And we decide from that.”

For Centeno, at the end of the day, no matter how well-crafted and highly polished these visual cues are, it all boils down to the product or candidate. “The best marketing strategy is to have the best product. Do not just rely on the packaging. And how do we know it’s the best? We can rely on our experience with the product.”