While politicians are often regarded as verbose – especially in their attempts to answer the question they would prefer to have been asked rather than the one actually posed to them – the media that surrounds us is increasingly visual, writes Dr Kevin J. Hunt.
Within the final week of campaigning it is interesting to consider the type of imagery, both official and unofficial, that seems to have dominated the 2015 election.
Unless you happen to live in a key marginal, chances are you won’t have seen too many (or even any) political billboards in your local area. Political posters are often strategically placed to primarily address floating voters whose last minute decision-making could prove decisive. Even the infamous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster, sometimes credited with winning the 1979 election for Margaret Thatcher, apparently only appeared on about twenty billboards across the UK.
Whilst the launch of a new political poster might only feature on one billboard, perhaps even for just a handful of hours, it is now disseminated through social media, as well as traditional print and broadcast journalism, to quickly get the message out. This emphasis upon the digital enables any creatively inclined (and often politically partisan) soul the opportunity to Photoshop, hack or generally re-imagine the visual message being presented to the electorate.
In some cases a political message can misfire without any intervention, such as the Conservative’s ‘Road to a Stronger Economy’ poster that turned out to have been Photoshopped using a picture of a German road. This was parodied by the Liberal Democrats shortly after its launch whilst also prompting a range of reworked versions, including one depicting the Auschwitz concentration camp on the horizon, which made impact across social and news media.
Other memorable moments within an otherwise largely uneventful election campaign have included the Conservative’s Swiftian-type image of a Lilliputian Ed Miliband in the top pocket of a (perhaps Brobdingnagian-sized) Alex Salmond, enabling the modification of an already satirical picture by the replacement of Miliband with a range of alternatives that included a diminutive George Osborne; a Mars bar; a flying woodpecker carrying a weasel (a marvel of nature that was highly topical in early March); a Solero ice cream; and other re-edits that replaced Miliband with that bacon-sandwich eating version of himself or with David Cameron looking worried or comically morose from the respective top pockets of Nigel Farage and Rupert Murdoch.
We also saw Labour’s ‘lady bus’ mocked for being stereotypically hot pink, although magenta and fuchsia were also put forward as contenders in a short-lived (mostly semantic) argument about colour recognition, and Nicola Sturgeon was defended by members of the public donning saucepans, colanders, and other items of kitchenware in response to her being derided as ‘the wee lass with the tin helmet on’ as a riff on her basin-like haircut.
Keeping with domestic interiors, Miliband was branded as Ed ‘two-kitchens’ before his late evening interview in Russell Brand’s kitchen partially shifted the word association. Danny Alexander’s yellow ‘lunch box’ budget spawned parodies from Sponge Bob to a play on the glowing suitcase that provides a MacGuffin (and clever reference to Kiss Me Deadly) within Pulp Fiction. Cameron’s theatrically staged Easter photoshoot with an innocent lamb – possibly intended to recall Thatcher somewhat awkwardly hefting about a two day old Charolais calf in 1979 – overshadowed Nick Clegg’s hedgehog sanctuary moment, but was soon reimagined as the Conservative leader carrying a reasonably convincing feather-winged pig under the slogan #WeLoveTheNHS.
The biggest surprise of the election so far has been the improbable rise of #Milifandom and its less well received, and more seemingly contrived, opposing fan base in the #Cameronettes. Seeing Miliband’s face superimposed onto an array of unlikely bodies that includes superheroes, pop cultural icons, Hollywood stars and sporting legends follows the often stated observation that the newest trend to emerge will often arise from the least likely (and perhaps most geeky) source.
Within the flow of imagery surrounding the election nothing has, as yet, taken on meaningfully iconic status or indicated a significant turning point – although Miliband’s stumble from the Question Time stage has prompted comparisons with Neil Kinnock’s disastrous self-inflicted dousing on Brighton beach in 1983. What is clear is that the tradition of graphic satire, which dates back centuries within European art and culture, is alive and well. And – as technology has enabled an increasingly democratic level of access to image-making and distribution – it has become much harder for a politician or political party to create unchallenged propaganda.
Back in the 20th century, Marshall McLuhan suggested that as modern media grew significantly beyond using the written word as a principle means of communication – favouring increasingly visual, image-led, technologies – the possibilities of expression become dramatically expanded. Subsequently, it is now possible to cross-reference, question, and reappraise any event or statement presented as ‘fact’ with relative ease by drawing upon a range of media.
But while it has become easier to challenge the reliability of a political statement it still remains difficult to prompt our politicians to reveal the dark truths about where the axe will fall in terms of the inevitable future cuts to come, post-election, and what the reality of a carefully-worded policy pledge means in real terms. This is why satire, suspicion and tongue-in-cheek dismissiveness tends to dominate the public response to political imagery – because it is the healthiest and most realistic response to offer.
– this article originally appeared on the Huffington Post –
Dr Kevin J. Hunt
Senior lecturer in Visual Culture
School of Art & Design
Nottingham Trent University