The Power of Images by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

By at July 14, 2013 | 10:53 am | Print

The Power of Images by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

Edward Maxfield 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Old saying

The old cliché – that a picture is worth a thousand words – is rather misleading. The most powerful and memorable words trump pictures repeatedly. That is why the vast majority of the most memorable events in politics are words, not pictures: Winston Churchill’s speeches during the Second World War, for example, or JFK’s inaugural address.

Move down into the more humdrum world of an election campaign, however, and photographs can trump words. The very best words trump a photo, but even a mediocre photo can trump all but the very best words.

Even a quick glance at a mediocre photograph can convey so much information and emotion. In a world where the public often does not spend much time thinking about politics, cherish and exploit this speed of transmission.

To do this well, precede the use of photographs – and other visual images – with these questions: ‘what information do I want to convey?’ and ‘what emotions do I want to invoke?’

Getting the answers to these questions right determines the political impact of the eventual image far more than the technical skill of the photographer or the quality of the equipment used. Both of those certainly help, and avoid unfocused or badly framed photos, but take the right sort of image in the first place.

For example, the Labour Party used photographs after the Second World War to remind people powerfully of the horrors of mass unemployment in Britain before 1939. As one Conservative agent complained at the time, Labour made ‘very effective use of photographs showing unemployment between the wars. We relied solely on figures and graphs.’

Labour election poster. Courtesy of the People’s History Museum.

It does not always work. In 2008, one US Democrat congressman, Tim Mahoney, applied this thinking to a campaign mailing using photos of soldiers and a veteran proudly displaying his medals next to the headline ‘Honoring those who defend our freedom’.

Tim Mahoney flyer

The idea was a good one – save that the veteran was not an American but a Russian. As a Republican spokesman put it, ‘Is Tim Mahoney’s commitment to our veterans so shallow and superficial that he can’t even tell the difference between an American veteran and one who fought for Communism in Joseph Stalin’s Red Army?’

Of course, most likely, a junior staff member made a mistake with a photo library, but the buck rightly stops with the candidate, especially if they are in the photograph. Then Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond discovered this the hard way when the photograph for one of his campaign stops went horribly wrong – he was snapped not with the Liberal candidate but with the incumbent Labour MP!

Think carefully about the message the photo really sends. It is common to see in local-level political leaflets photographs showing a candidate standing on their own (often pointing at something in the distance). Yet we have never come across a campaign where the right message is presenting the candidate as a lonely soul.

A solo photo can work – but only rarely and only if you have the right appearance and pose. A favourite of ours is of Ronald Reagan sitting, relaxed, on a stage at a campaign meeting. Reagan has his legs crossed, exposing the sole of his shoe. The sole is worn through, sending powerful messages about Reagan’s work ethic and his common touch.

For far more than the quality of the image, what matters is the choice, with the emotional message that it sends. Strong, popular, dynamic, successful – those are the messages you want to convey.

This lesson was taken from our book, 101 Ways To Win An Election which in addition to the 10 in this series has another 91 for you to learn from! Buy the book

Dr Mark Pack is the co-author of 101 Ways To Win an Election and former Head of Innovations for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party, where he ran the party’s 2001 and 2005 online general election campaigns. His internet campaigning firsts include arranging the first British political party leader on Facebook and the first British election candidate website to take online donations.

@markpack on Twitter

Dr Edward Maxfield has worked as a campaigns and communications professional for over a decade. He currently runs the constituency office of Norman Lamb, UK Member of Parliament and Health Minister in the Coalition Government. Ed was a member of the Liberal Democrats’ national campaigns team from 2001 to 2006 and has also worked as a lecturer, a lobbyist and for some of the world’s biggest business consultancy firms.




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