When Harriett Levin Balkind founded HonestAds in 2014, her vision for the nonprofit organization was to bring to light the deception in political advertising, a vision fueled by months of knocking on doors in presidential swing states.
“What I learned was, people were mad as hell about all the lying in politics. But it intrigued me that they might be mad, but they still voted for the people who were lying to them,” Balkind said. “So I thought that’s fascinating, because if my child or friend or business partner or mate lied to me, I would probably kick them out the door or at least deal with it. Why do they still vote for these people?
“That led me down the rabbit hole of learning about the emotion … and why people actually vote for the candidates they do,” she said.
Fast forward to 2016, with the debut of the first exhibition of presidential political ads, I Approve This Message: Decoding Political Ads at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition is housed in the museum’s Canaday Gallery and is co-curated by Balkind and the museum’s associate director, Adam Levine.
But let it be known that the exhibition, which is presented through political ads shown on national television between 1952 and 2012, is not about politics. It’s about the people who have voted for the nation’s presidents over the decades and how the ads got them there. Avoiding this year’s controversial presidential campaign was intentional. It’s not over, and the intent of the exhibition is not to sway voters currently.
“This is not an exhibition about issues. This is not an exhibition about politics. This is an exhibition about voters, how voters feel emotion, and how voters make decisions, in this instance, who to vote for on the basis of emotional triggers,” Levine said.
Through videos, graphics, and multimedia displays in five different theaters, the show plays off the emotions of fear, anger, pride, and hope. It strives to do what Balkind did in those neighborhoods years ago: decipher what makes the voting public tick.
Dwight Eisenhower was the first presidential candidate with the opportunity to take a stab at persuasive advertising in the 1952 race with a cartoon “I Like Ike” ad.
That ad was followed by decades of others using colorful photographic and verbal portrayals of candidates, catchy music, both joyful and distressed citizens, law enforcement officials, and unflattering visuals of opponents to sway voters.
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s ad “Daisy Girl” shocked the world with its depiction of a young girl pulling the petals off a daisy, followed by a daunting countdown that ends in nuclear annihilation.
In Walter Mondale’s “Teach Your Parents” ad during the 1984 election against Ronald Reagan, sweet, innocent looking children are contrasted against fear-evoking images of missiles and nuclear implosions, all to the sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children.”
Reagan, on the other hand, made waves with the ad “Morning in America,” in which Reagan himself talks encouragingly about a brighter America while happy Americans go to work, farm the land, and raise the flag against calming music.
Each theater represents an emotion, and presidential advertising that most strongly tugs at those emotions — like Eisenhower’s, Reagan’s, and Johnson’s — plays over and over on a loop.
A mood room at the back shows large images on screens: faces of all ages smile, frown, shout, and show agony in color and black and white; parades with Boy Scouts, voyages to space, people pitching in for their neighbors after a major natural disaster, and the physical rebuilding of a nation depict hope and pride. Images turn to an environmental worker cleaning from a turtle the oppressive oil spilled into the ocean by massive oil rigs; cleaned off, the reptile sidles off into the sunlight, evoking a smile. A large snake, a swarm of bugs, and grieving and disquieted faces jump from the screen to evoke revulsion. The fearful images give way to angry images of traffic jams, incited protesters, and raging fires.
The fifth theater focuses on change and how ads have targeted audiences of different demographics. It includes an interactive zone with hands-on activities, including the ability to include oneself in an ad.
Balkind, whose professional background is in corporate strategy and marketing communications, is hopeful the exhibition will spark discussion and insight about the draw of a compelling political ad.
“What I’m hoping is that this is the beginning of helping people to think about advertising in a very different way. And I actually think it’s a good thing I don’t come from the political world, because I think we have to sort of break out of the way we talk about this stuff and think about it in a different way,” she said.
The exhibition plays off the museum’s focus on visual literacy.
“It is exceptional that we as an art museum with one of the best collections in the world would dedicate 7,000 square feet to an exhibition that has no fine art in it,” Levine said. “There is no more ringing endorsement of this museum’s focus on teaching people to see, teaching them to see things that are relevant and topical to their experience.”
In addition to exploring various emotions, the curators expect visitors to have a good time.
“We take a really serious subject and we are a little bit irreverent with it, and I think people are looking for fun during the political season,” Levine said.
The show, sponsored by Taylor Cadillac with support from ProMedica and Block Communications, remains open through Nov. 8, where the exhibition will end with an Election Night party coinciding with the 2016 presidential election.
The exhibit will feature several free lectures in September and October, starting with Kyle Kondik, the author of The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President, at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Peristyle.
For more information on the show and related programming, go to www.toledomuseum.org.
Contact Roberta Gedert at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6075, or on Twitter @RoGedert.
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