Election imagery matters


It was no mere coincidence the two large Australian flags on either side of John Howard at this week’s campaign launch were identical in fold, cut and fall.

Nor was the carefree kid playing so innocently with Mark Latham’s tie at his childcare launch some stroke of campaign luck.

Voters might say they want to hear what a politician has to say before they decide how to vote, but increasingly visual images matter more in modern campaigning. Too few commentators, particularly in this long campaign, appreciate the place and power of sophisticated political imagery.

Howard wears the flag superbly. It is his campaign slogan and thematic sewn into one. The flag has dominated Howard’s image like no other, surpassing even Janette as his most frequent sidekick. It might be somewhat old fashioned but it his key imagery ingredient.

Regardless of your views about the flag or John Howard, its fortunes have risen dramatically under his use over the past eight years. At once it is reassuring, consistent and strong. The flag has repaid Howard many times over.

The Prime Minister and his office are nothing if not precise on where a flag sits at any event. Slightly over the shoulder, the Federation star folded gently over a Union Jack falling down to reveal most of the Southern Cross.

Sunday’s campaign launch super sized the flag; the super screen’s digitised standard gently floated in an animated breeze.

If the flag is somewhat old school in modern political campaigning, Mark Latham is somewhat (but not dramatically) more contemporary.

His backdrop has been similarly consistent, appearing at each step of the campaign trail. Clearly it is some poor schleps’ job to lug the Labor ‘taking pressure off families’ display unit from airport to kindergarten to RSL club each day.

As a visual it works. Originally the Labor display unit was separated in two, resulting in the television cameras missing most of the words. By week two it was united again, strongly displaying Latham’s vision for Australia just as Eddie McGuire is never seen without his Collingwood backdrop.

Digging deeper, Latham has been an impressive look during the campaign. He has dressed well and matched his day’s substance with a leader’s image. Conservative blue for an economic announcement, a standout orange tie on a quieter Labor news day. Howard, too, has dressed his best for this campaign. Even the blue pocket handkerchief has had its place to lift his colour presence for the camera.

Labor’s use of the giant sized novelty cheque for the interest rate guarantee signing was branded cheesy by some, but as many in the Canberra press gallery observed, how else do you visualise your commitment to low interest rates for the TV camera?

The point of all of this is that imagery matters. Consistent, strategic imagery works and can win tight elections.

Howard’s trip to Green Island in Queensland during the campaign was photo op perfection. He looked comfortable in a powerful setting. Whilst media from the day focused on other (less positive) issues, too many commentators don’t pay enough attention to the fact that of the 20% of Australians actually watching TV news, most only pay attention to the pictures, look and related visual judgments.

As Paul Keating once said, politics is theatre.

The reason why protestors dressed in rodent or sheep outfits must be stopped by security is not for the safety threat they pose, but because they usually steal the day’s front page photo.

Australian politicians have sometimes paid too little attention to the great backdrop, the great visual metaphor, the camera angle.

People recall Amanda Vanstone not because she has made some great speeches but more that she milked the life out of the photo opportunity with the sniffer beagles at Customs.

Need further proof? Ronald Reagan was so warmly farewelled and remembered by Americans not just for his deeds, but because he was the cinematic President. The truly memorable Reagan moments were at Normandy, the Grand Canyon and in front of, you guessed it, the American flag.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.