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TOLEDO, Ohio — Given the intensely polarized messaging accompanying our navigation of one of the most contentious election years in recent memory, it’s inevitable to find one’s media feeds clogged with news coverage, think pieces, and colorful commentary on the state of American politics. But for the internet generation, it’s also easy to forget an entire media sector to which an astonishing amount of funding is devoted: televised campaign advertising. While politicians make the jump, more or less gracefully, into social media–based campaigning, there is still a strong preference among campaign managers for television advertising — with particular attention devoted to inundating swing states that might make or break an election. Ohio is one such state, and that’s why I Approve This Message: Decoding Political Ads is an extremely timely and crucial exhibition for the Toledo Museum of Art — an institution that defines its role with respect to its audience somewhat uniquely.
“Our purpose is a little bit weird in the art museum world,” Associate Director Adam Levine told Hyperallergic. “It is art education. It is not a long litany of other things. Our focus is on teaching people from our collection, and the way we’re exercising that is to try and teach people how to see better. So the value proposition isn’t, ‘Come see great works of art’; it’s, ‘Come learn to see by engaging with great works of art.’” In Levine’s view, I Approve This Message fits that mission, despite presenting no actual works of art. Rather, the entire 7,000-square-foot exhibition hall has been dedicated to the granular dissection of the visual semiotics and rhetorical stylings of political advertising. Adopting a stance that is fastidiously apolitical, the show analyzes some of the most famous ads from Democratic and Republican candidates over the last 50-plus years.
The actual material is concentrated on five display screens, which are sorted into different emotional categories: “Fear,” “Anger,” “Hope,” and “Pride” — and an additional area labeled “Change.” At the heart of the exhibit is a chamber called “The Mood Room,” which crystallizes the impact of each of these emotional approaches within political advertising. The rest of the exhibition lies in the interpretive materials, which are incredibly comprehensive. A key at the entryway visually codes the different techniques in play: “associate” (a heart icon pierced internally by an arrow), “confuse” (a labyrinth graphic), “contrast” (a half-moon icon), “repeat” (essentially the refresh-button arrow), and “omit” (a broken “i”). Wall-mounted storyboards dissect political ads shot for shot, annotating them with these icons, as well as commentary, in an attempt to break down their subtext and highlight the reactions that they’re attempting to provoke. Interspersed with the storyboards are chalkboards, many of which contain prompts asking visitors to provide feedback about the content and analysis being presented.
This feedback loop is the warm-up round for the “Change” area, which further encourages visitors to engage with the ideas presented via various activities: the construction of one’s own political ad, choosing from a kind of magnetic poetry jumble of words, images, and visual/audio tropes (e.g. “a calm, deep-voiced male narrator”), and the opportunity to style one’s own political photo op, using a wall of props, costumes, and a green screen. The “Change” room also offers a wealth of historical context, including a timeline that documents key moments in the development of the US political machine, such as FDR’s retention of the first pollsters and the evolution of CNN into a 24-hour news network.
The entire exhibition is the brainchild of Harriett Levin Balkind, formerly of the innovative branding and design firm Franfurt Balkind, more recently the founder of a website devoted to truth in political advertising, HonestAds. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Balkind described her eye-opening transition from the world of corporate advertising to that of myth-busting. Following a round of volunteer canvassing in swing states, including Ohio, Balkind came away with the impression that a lot of people were getting information on how to vote through commercials.
“So I come home, I turn on the ads, and I go, ‘Wait a minute, these ads are so deceptive. How is this possible?’” said Balkind. “Because in the marketing world, where I came from, there are ‘Truth in Advertising’ laws. A lawyer has to look at every word you write. I went online to see who was doing anything and realized that everybody was focused on Citizens United and the money in politics; nobody was really focused on deceptive advertising.” Balkind was further confounded to learn that, even when claims made in advertisements were demonstrably false, it did not always affect people’s decisions about how to cast their votes.
I Approve This Message drives Balkind’s points home; reviewed in bulk, political ads seem generally unconstrained by the imperative to make sense. Within the “Fear” section is an ad titled “The Bear,” part of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign. It consists of footage of a grizzly bear in the forest and the following narration: “There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear.”
Out of context, the ad is laughable; it literally makes no claims whatsoever, equivocating about whether or not the bear even exists. But as Balkind explained, “The Bear” was a coded message attempting to leverage latent fears about post–Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is a perfect demonstration of the way that political ads drive voters by manipulating them emotionally rather than convincing them intellectually.
“Even though people were sort of pissed off and angry, they still voted for the guy who is lying to them,” said Balkind. “And I thought, ‘What does this mean?’ If your business partner lied to you, or your mate lied to you, or your child lied to you, there would be some sort of repercussions. These guys lie to you, and you reward them with a vote? There’s something wrong with this picture.”
Further research led Balkind to three key takeaways. First, “neuroscientists now know that we feel before we think,” she said. “It’s really impossible to have a purely rational thought.” Second, “there’s a lot of research now that shows that people vote based more on emotions than on issues.” Finally, “we’re very predisposed to the party that we choose by who our parents are, where we’re raised, our cultural experience, what church we go to, you know … the whole thing. So to get somebody to change their mind is difficult.”
These factors are powerfully distilled in “The Mood Room,” which sits at the heart of the exhibition and was devised by the New York–based Thinc Design. The viewer enters at the base of a triangular space, with the remaining two walls comprised of floor-to-ceiling video screens. Without any advertising or political context, the “Mood Room” cycles through four sets of images that correlate with the emotional areas of the exhibit. Stirring music plays as a bald eagle wings over pristine wilderness. Survivors gather to help each other amid a post-Katrina wasteland. A wolf growls, bares its teeth, and finally lunges for the viewer. A smash cut of babies crying, people shouting, subjects frowning. Mindful viewers will notice psychosomatic responses — rising blood pressure, tears of pride, gritted teeth — regardless of whatever intellectual distance they’re able to achieve. I entered the room knowing that it was designed to manipulate my emotions, but that knowledge did very little to diminish its ability to do so.
I Approve This Message is accomplishing several things, all of which are important. The first is simply to offer perspective — again, without taking a side in the bipartisan schism within American consciousness — in a state that has a disproportionately large sway over the governance of the rest. More generally, though, it offers tools for informed viewership and visual literacy, skills that have incredibly broad applications in a society that’s heavily invested in mindless consumption of media. Arguably, encouraging critical thinking is the most valuable role that art can play in society — more than aesthetic enchantment, more than objects with market value, and more than expression of the human condition. What the Toledo Museum of Art suggests is that the message is not nearly as important as the ability to decide for yourself whether or not you approve of it.
I Approve This Message: Decoding Political Ads continues at Toledo Museum of Art (2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio) through November 8