Demagogues and propagandists of all strains have learned with increasing effectiveness just how to present themselves and their ideas so as to appeal to our hopes while maximizing our fears and anxieties. They compel us to support people and programs by manipulating our unconscious emotions rather than appealing to our rational assent. They promise a taste of heroism to alleviate our death anxiety, but the promise is often empty, and the price, high.
Common Motifs in Political Advertising Viewed Through a Becker Lens
Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad Political ads skillfully connect to the anxieties, fears, longings, and aspirations that Becker identified as stemming from our most primal anxiety about mortality and the inevitability of death. In what follows, we identify four motifs that commonly show up in these ads. We invite you to participate with us in using a Becker lens to examine them, and in thinking through the implications of being psychologically manipulated by political messaging. We have identified four types of political ad content that have the potential to manipulate voters’ decision making.
When audiences are exposed to fear, rational thought can be derailed as people switch their focus to looking for protection and safeguards against that fear. This has been demonstrated empirically through Terror Management Theory, and it’s also well-known to makers of the most effective propaganda of all sorts who use fear to bypass rationality while offering a leader, party or movement (or even a product) as a shelter from the fear.
Studies of war propaganda demonstrate how widespread the tactic is of picturing the enemy as an evil and deadly threat, as diseased-ridded vermin, wild and amoral rapists and murderers. While political propaganda and advertising rarely goes this far in demonizing opponents, it’s still possible to discern the same narrative flow in its images and messages.
Ads attempting to arouse death anxiety are likely to contain images of war, bombs exploding, buildings falling, street riots, or ominous faces of known criminals and killers. The accompanying music is likely to be suspenseful, with periodic crescendo and cymbal crashes. The overall message is that ours is an unsafe world made even more unsafe by current policies or leaders, but this candidate, party, or movement has answers and can be trusted to protect and defend you and “your kind.”
A ubiquitous variant of this direct appeal to death anxiety is the more subtle appeal to fears of social exclusion, failure (or “losing” and “falling behind”), and rejection, i.e., “social death,” which can feel as frightening and dire for humans as actual death. Ads seeking to arouse fears of social death might include images of people in poverty, shuttered up houses, rejection letters, unemployment lines, and other depictions of personal alienation and failure. Such images might also include the subtle message that while we are being left behind, there are plenty of “others,” who are doing great and perhaps even benefitting at our expense.
Death anxiety drives our efforts to give enduring meaning to our lives, to accomplish something “heroic.” It’s culture that defines what “heroism” means and gives us opportunities to achieve it and thereby gain a kind of transcendence of death. For this reason, Becker says culture is sacred. Of course, this means that any challenge to our “sacred” cultural meanings threatens our hero-systems and arouses our death anxiety, triggering our emotions in predictable ways: We want to defend our culture and demonstrate its superiority compared to others’ cultures. Not surprisingly, such responses play a role in all kinds of persuasive speech—commercial, political, religious, inter-personal, etc. We appeal to people by elevating their culture while degrading competing or “threatening” cultures.
Political campaigns effectively arouse our death anxiety by depicting our sacred culture under threat and presenting their own agendas as the solution. Such efforts quickly devolve into an “Us vs. Them” fight for legitimacy. This reduces all opposition to a simplistic zero sum game, but such clarity and urgency can win over anxious supporters in what can seems like a matter of life or death.
These political messages warn of threats to “our American way of life,” “national security,” “religious freedom,” or “right to work.” They identify certain people who they imply are “un-American” and do not share “our” values. They stoke fear that something sacred will be lost by with images of the desecration of a sacred object, like an American flag in flames, warning that if you vote for the wrong candidate, you jeopardize your very freedom! Alternatively, an ad might appeal positively to sacred images like children playing by a cornfield, or a family reading a Bible at bedtime, suggesting that if you vote for the right candidate, you can be assured that those things you hold sacred remain secure.
“Apocalypse” can mean lots of things, but traditionally it signified a revealing or unveiling of the way things really are–or the way they soon will be. The peace, order and security of life in normal times is shown to be an illusion shattered by apocalyptic revelation, most often involving dramatic, violent, and horrifying events like economic or ecological collapse, mass refugee crises, outbreaks of disease, drought and famine, terrorism and mass murders, or precipitous moral decline in society. The rise of apocalyptic fear signals desperate times that may call for desperate measures in response, measures that would never be sanctioned in normal times.
Political ads utilizing apocalyptic language and imagery suggest we are nearing or are already in such desperate economic, political or moral times that radical measures, even those which are novel and untested, may be the only hope we have for meeting current demands of the situation. These political ads tap into our basic apprehensions and gut fears, which spring from our most visceral forms of death anxiety. They evoke a menacing sense of devastating personal and collective loss, of impending disaster and social chaos.
Abandonment and destruction are typical images in such ads: towns, freeways, and businesses abandoned; communities destroyed, leaving people – especially veterans, the sick, the elderly, the orphaned – homeless, helpless. More recently such images also include floods of refugees spilling over the borders, with strong hints that Muslim/terrorist immigrants are infiltrating our country, setting up sleeper cells and planning attacks in stadiums or elementary schools. The picture is one of political and moral chaos in an unstable, leaderless society. These ads may tap into present/actual suggestions of apocalyptic demise or future/imagined suggestions of apocalyptic demise.
The intention of such ads is to stir up a sense of desperation and desire for a strong, charismatic leader to pull the nation out of the chaos and protect us from danger, cultural demise, and moral defeat. The message is clear: In a time of immanent apocalyptic danger, the choice is between tough leaders and weak leaders and the stakes are high. Don’t be afraid to take a chance if a tough leader calls for action outside the box—after all, God helps those who help themselves!
Our most expansive opportunities for heroism come from religion, a chance for cosmic heroism. Cosmic heroism differs from cultural heroism (achieving significance through the symbols and institutions of culture) in that religion provides significance and meaning through the pursuit of ultimate truths, the aspiration toward ideals (sometimes universally shared and trans-cultural) and the quest to experience transcendence through the symbols, rites, and practices of religion. Religions can be thought of as our greatest “immortality projects;” most offer hope that the limits of mortality will be overcome via the promise of life after death. The most benign and constructive expressions of religion as cosmic heroism emphasize the experience of transcendence and the renunciation of materialism, greed, and violence through connectedness with the divine, with creation, and with fellow human beings. They speak to the “holy longing” for transcendence and deep (and cosmic) significance that appears to be universal to the human experience.
Unlike negative, fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions of desperation, ads that appeal to our desire for transcendence and connectedness are generally positive and uplifting. They encourage us, as participants in a blessed community, to dream big about our social hopes and possibilities. They tap into a deeply human sense of longing, hope, and desire for a deeply spiritual communal connection, which transcends the isolation and selfishness of individualism. Ads that appeal to such “holy longing” aren’t generally overtly religious, beyond perhaps quick visuals of churches or ministers at soup kitchens and civil rights rallies. Instead, they highlight images of community productivity: neighbors assisting each other and people coming together around a common cause. These ads contain a promise (whether explicit or implicit) that the politician, party or social movement can provide these things, or can at least set the stage of possibility for the fulfillment of these longings. Whether through charisma, ingenuity, dedication/hard-work, moral fiber, or connectedness to God, we can trust these leaders to understand our longings and step in to actualize or achieve them. In this perspective, death anxiety is less about death than it is about a meaningless life. These ads tap into our most basic need for a feeling of significance, for feeling that we matter (what psychologists simply call self-esteem). For the individual, it says the featured politician will bring you jobs, financial security, public safety and health care. For your community, it says the featured politician will deliver national security, community, togetherness, a sense of common humanity, and happiness.
As humans, we don’t like to dwell on our human frailty for good reason: Everything in us protests the inevitability of the end of life. Our lives are filled with beauty and wonder, and with suffering and sorrow, too. But on the whole, death feels like a great injustice, and so our energy is directed toward fending off death, at all costs. The anxiety this feeling generates makes us vulnerable. That vulnerability makes us susceptible to all kinds of manipulations, including manipulations performed by the political machinery of our culture.
Our earnest hope is that we have unveiled the reasons why emotional and psychological manipulation happens so easily and so persistently, especially in the political arena. We also hope that by peering into the most basic and primal motivations of the human experience, we can more readily recognize the manipulations in political messages and make the effort to reflect more thoughtfully on their language, tone and potential emotional impact. To that end, we invite you to analyze current presidential campaign ads with the themes in mind that we have laid out here, and we invite you to suggest ads that would be useful for such analysis.