An Internet ad by the anti-Bush group MoveOn PAC paints Cheney as a fear-monger and Edwards as a candidate of compassion, trust and hope. It uses snippets from speeches by each of the candidates, artfully edited and enhanced with music and sound effects that play on emotions.
Opinions will differ on whether this ad is misleading or not. Viewers not paying close attention could get the false idea that Cheney was predicting “the end of America” when in fact he was quoting an al Qaeda operative — and scornfully at that.
What we offer here is added context to show what was left out of the ad, and our observations on some of the persuasion techniques used by all political admakers to influence what viewers will think and feel about what they are seeing.
MoveOn PAC announced July 13 it was asking its 2 million members to e-mail a new 60-second Internet ad to their friends, and to post it on Web sites.
MoveOn PAC Ad:
Edwards: We are going to build an America where we say no to kids going to bed hungry. No to the kids not having the clothes to keep them warm and no forever.
Edwards: The truth is that every child and every family in America will be safer and more secure if they grow up in a world where we are once more looked up to and respected — that’s the world that you and I can create together.
Edwards: We believe you should never look down on anybody. You ought to lift people up. We don’t believe in tearing people apart. We believe in bringing them together!
Cheney: In this period of extraordinary danger we came to recognize our vulnerability to the threats of the new era . . . the ultimate nightmare . . . the beginning of the end of America . . . (Repeated) . . . the beginning of the end of America..
Announcer: Choose compassion, truth, hope. Choose Kerry/Edwards.
Painting a Picture
MoveOn PAC’s news release describes the ad’s intent:
MoveOn PAC: Using stark video images set to music and footage of the candidates themselves, the ad paints a picture of Edwards’ commitment to an America that lifts people up and unites its citizenry in compassion and trust. Dick Cheney, on the other hand, is shown promoting a climate of fear. (Emphasis added)
Is the picture accurate? How do the “stark images” and the added music comport with reality? Let’s dissect some of the techniques being used here.
The raw material for this ad comes from two much longer speeches given by the two candidates. Edwards spoke at a campaign event at Largo, MD Feb 20 (when he was still running against Kerry for the nomination, by the way), and Cheney was speaking to the conservative Heritage Foundation way back on Oct 10, 2003.
One dubious bit of editing comes at the end of the ad, where Cheney seems to be chanting “the beginning of the end of America, the beginning of the end of America.” How’s that for fear-mongering?
However, Cheney did not repeat that phrase for emphasis as the ad does. He said it only once. The repetitive editing is a clever persuasion technique that turns the phrase into a mantra, subtly giving it more weight than Cheney did himself.
More importantly, Cheney himself was not predicting the “beginning of the end of America” — he was quoting an al Qaeda member. To be sure, the ad does flash the words “quoting al Qaeda” on screen, but anyone who misses that disclaimer would get the impression that the words were a gloomy prediction by Cheney.
Here’s the way Cheney really said it:
Cheney: Since 9/11, we’ve learned much more about what these enemies intend for us. One member of al Qaeda said 9/11 was the “beginning of the end of America.” And we know to a certainty that terrorists are doing everything they can to gain even deadlier means of striking us. From the training manuals we found in the caves of Afghanistan to the interrogations of terrorists that we’ve captured, we have learned of their ambitions to develop or acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. And if terrorists ever do acquire that capability — on their own or with help from a terror regime — they will use it without the slightest constraint of reason or morality.
Of course, reasonable people could still see that as a message of fear, and many do. On the other hand, Cheney’s main point in that speech was that America had been made safer:
Cheney: Today we do not face this prospect. There are terrorists in Iraq, yet there is no dictator to protect them, and we are dealing with them one by one. Terrorists have gathered in that country and there they will be defeated. We are fighting this evil in Iraq so we do not have to fight it on the streets of our own cities.
No sense of that message was in the ad, of course.
The ad also edits Edwards’ words to leave out any hint of negativity. Just before Edwards talks about “building America,” for example, he paints a dark picture of present-day reality:
Edwards: Just think about it for a minute. In a country of our wealth and our prosperity, to have children going to bed hungry, to have children who don’t have the clothes to keep them warm, to have millions of Americans who work full-time, every single day, working for minimum wage to support their families and living in poverty — it’s wrong.
This is what you and I are going to do about it together: We’re going to build an America where we say no to kids going to bed hungry; no to the kids not having the clothes to keep them warm; and no forever to any American working full-time and living in poverty. Not in our America. Not in the America you and I will build together. We can do this.
Music and Effects
For those who might otherwise miss the point, the ad cues the viewer by placing the words “compassion,” “trust” and “hope” on screen as Edwards speaks, and “FEAR” in pulsating capital letters as Cheney speaks.
Behind Edwards’ words the ad’s soundtrack lays “subtle uplifting music” (as MoveOn PAC’s news release describes it), and behind Cheney’s words we hear the sound of an “ominous heartbeat.”
And as Cheney is made to chant “the beginning of the end of America” his image turns from full color to shades of red, signifying (we suppose) blood — or at least something evil.
We’re neither disputing nor endorsing this ad’s description of Edwards as a man with an inspirational message, and Cheney as man spreading fear. That’s for voters to decide.
What we are saying is that watching this ad is a far cry from watching what Edwards and Cheney said, directly and unedited. In the real world, the audiences heard the whole thing — and without music, sound effects or graphics inserted by somebody telling them what they should think about what they were hearing.
The same can be said for nearly all political advertising. Voters should know that its aim is to persuade, not necessarily to inform. And they should also be aware that even when words and images are accurate, they can be manipulated, edited and enhanced to create a desired impression.
MoveOn PAC, “Voters Urged to Support Edwards’ Message of Hope and Trust Over Cheney’s Message of Fear,” news release, 13 July 2004.
Vice President Richard Cheney, ” Remarks by the Vice President to the Heritage Foundation ,” Washington, DC, 10 Oct 2003.
U.S. Sen. John Edwards, Prince George’s Community College, Largo, Maryland, 20 Feb 2004.