“That night, image replaced the printed word as the natural language of politics.” (Baker, 1992)
Kennedy vs Nixon
US politics is particularly prominent at the moment and going a full day where it isn’t highlighted in the media is unlikely. The debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have specifically attracted a lot of attention from the public, with the first debate breaking records with an audience of 84 million viewers and the subsequent two averaging at around 70 million viewers.
But where did it all begin? On the 26th of November 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon competed in the first televised debate. This particular debate has now become famous for highlighting the role television plays in politics. Mainly because many accounts of the debate have suggested a viewer – listener disagreement, where those who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy had won but those that listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon to be the victor. Although now it has been classed as a myth with little evidential support (Vancil & Pendell, 1987), it sparked interest in how the personal image of candidates on TV can influence voters overall evaluations.
Druckman (2003) revisited this notion that individuals will have different evaluations of the debate and the candidates (Kennedy vs Nixon) depending on the medium the debate is portrayed on. The findings were consistent with accounts of the debate, that TV image does matter and could have played an important role in the first Kennedy – Nixon debate. TV viewers were significantly more likely to think Kennedy won the debate than audio (radio) listeners and viewed Kennedy as having significantly more integrity than Nixon. Interestingly, it was found that watching the debate on TV primed participants to rely more on image (i.e integrity) and this played a significantly more important role for viewers than for listeners. Listeners relied only on their perceptions of leadership effectiveness compared to TV viewers who relied on both leadership effectiveness and image in evaluating the candidates. Moreover, the influence of perceptions of image for TV viewers lead to a decreased influence of whether the candidates and respondents agreed with the same issues but this remained a significant factor for listeners.
What is it about image that persuades people to think candidates would be better presidents?Todorov and colleagues (2005) found that inferences of competence from facial features with exposures of just 1 second could correctly predict voting behaviour of US election outcomes. Those that were perceived to be more competent from their facial features were more likely to have won their elections. Mattes and colleagues (2010) found results consistent with this but with other positive and negative traits as well. In their study images of the two candidates in the race were shown together for both 33 ms and one second and participants quick judgements correlated with which candidates won the elections. As you can see from the table below those perceived to have more of the positive traits were more likely to have been chosen by the participants and actually have won their elections. Those with negative traits were less likely to be chosen by participants and less likely to have won their elections. Both Todorov et al (2005) and Mattes et al (2010) saw this as support that the evaluations of candidates individuals make are quick and effortless processes.
So how does this research relate to the Kennedy – Nixon debate?
What was it about Nixon that lead to him being perceived so poorly on TV compared to radio? According to Hughes (1995), Nixon was still recovering from a knee surgery which he had spent time in hospital for which added to his already pale complexion and lead him to shift his weight a lot during the debate making him look uncomfortable. Moreover, in the black and white TV his dark beard made him look unshaven which his team attempted to cover up with ‘lazy shave cream’ but only added to his disastrous image making him sweat more under the extra lights requested by his team. All of this lead to Nixon being perceived as sickly and uncomfortable and thus possibly less competent. In contrast, Kennedy had spent time touring California and was subsequently tanned making him look healthy and well rested. Additionally, Kennedy wore a dark suit, making him stand out against the light background, compared to Nixon’s light grey suit which meant he blended into the background. Also during the debate, Kennedy directed his focus towards the camera and was seen making notes in reaction shots which made him appear self-confident. Whereas, Nixon often directed his focus towards Kennedy and was caught checking the time during reaction shots which lead him to being perceived as ’shifty eyed’ and thus less trust worthy. The comparison between the candidates of these non-verbal cues (only seen by those who watched the debate on TV) was the most likely reason that Nixon was reported to have lost the debate on TV compared to those that just listened to what he said on radio.
How can Theories of Persuasion explain this?Petty and Cacioppo (1986) have proposed a dual process model called the Elaboration Likelihood Model which illustrates how individuals process information when they are persuaded (or not). Persuasion can take place via two routes Central or Peripheral. The central route refers to higher cognition or processing of information (arguments) and this route is taken when there is desire for beneficial outcomes, motivation to know and control and often when the individual cares about the topic. The peripheral route refers to lower cognition or processing most likely due to limited cognitive resources or capacity to process and often not a strong argument is needed as other peripheral cues or heuristics are used to make a decision. From what has been described above (how individuals can be influenced by appearance of candidates) it appears that often people may rely on heuristics (cognitive short-cuts) to make judgements about candidates. This seems counter-intuitive, especially when thinking about candidate elections for presidency, you would think individuals would use the central route as elections of this nature would be important to them and there would be a desire for beneficial outcomes. However, a paper by Lau and Redlawsk (2001) suggests otherwise: stating that the ‘average’ individual tends to be less motivated when making political decisions and uses the peripheral route. Lau and Redlawsk (2001) identified 5 types of politic heuristics and found that these were employed the majority of the time by participants (see table below). One of which is specifically relevant, ‘candidate appearance heuristic’. This heuristic refers to when individuals makes judgements based on specific cues about the physical appearance of a candidate (Reilly). This is particularly worrying as findings from Lenz and Lawson (2011) suggests that there is a greater reliance of this heuristic in those with less political knowledge and that ‘appealing-looking’ politicians will benefit more from increased television exposure.
So it appears that a candidate’s TV image is important as people tend rely on inferences made about appearance when making voting decisions. If you want to run for the US presidency do not make the same mistakes as Nixon. But then again, America voted in Donald Trump so it can not be the only factor given the things we see on TV about him.
(see part 2 for some of the different persuasive techniques Trump employs in his debates with Hillary Clinton).
Baker, R. (1992, November 1st). The 1992 Follies. The New York Times.
Druckman, J. N. (2003). The Power of television images: The first Kennedy‐Nixon debate revisited. Journal of Politics, 65(2), 559-571.
Hughes, S. R. (1995). The effects of nonverbal behavior in the 1992 televised presidential debates (Doctoral dissertation, Texas Tech University).
Lau, R. R., & Redlawsk, D. P. (2001). Advantages and disadvantages of cognitive heuristics in political decision making. American Journal of Political Science, 951-971.
Lenz, G. S., & Lawson, C. (2011). Looking the part: Television leads less informed citizens to vote based on candidates’ appearance. American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), 574-589.
Mattes, K., Spezio, M., Kim, H., Todorov, A., Adolphs, R., & Alvarez, R. M. (2010). Predicting election outcomes from positive and negative trait assessments of candidate images. Political Psychology, 31(1), 41-58.
Reilly, B. D. The Ties That Bind: Candidate Appearance and Party Heuristics.
Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A., & Hall, C. C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes. Science, 308(5728), 1623-1626.
Vancil, D. L., & Pendell, S. D. (1987). The myth of viewer‐listener disagreement in the first Kennedy‐Nixon debate. Central States Speech Journal, 38(1), 16-27.