Storytelling in politics:
A new tool for campaigning
Supervisor: Rachel Cohen
MA Political Communication
CHAPTER 1: LITERATURE REVIEW
A. Theories...................................................................................................................... 9
B. Propaganda.............................................................................................................. 12
C. Political communication .........................................................................................14
D. Storytelling .............................................................................................................. 15
CHAPTER 2: THE POWER OF THE STORY
A. Narrative structure...................................................................................................20
B. Dramaturgy.............................................................................................................. 22
C. Illusion of intimacy..................................................................................................24
D. Symbolism............................................................................................................... 25
E. Emotions.................................................................................................................. 27
CHAPTER 3: AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS
A. Spin doctors and American specificities...............................................................30
B. Presidential elections..............................................................................................33
The ideal candidate frame..........................................................................................33
The 1992 election.......................................................................................................35
The 1996 election.......................................................................................................35
The 2000 election.......................................................................................................36
The 2004 election.......................................................................................................36
Reagan’s mythical America........................................................................................37
Barack Obama........................................................................................................... 38
CHAPTER 4: METHODOLOGY
A. research method......................................................................................................43
B. Other possible methods..........................................................................................45
C. Research design and timeline................................................................................46
D. The limitations and ethical issues..........................................................................47
CHAPTER 5: FINDINGS
A. Focus group videos.................................................................................................50
Feel good ad: “Morning in America”...........................................................................50
Fear ad: “Daisy”.......................................................................................................... 52
unimpassioned ad: “Trickle down”..............................................................................53
Storytelling ad: “Ashley story”.....................................................................................54
B. Findings and literature............................................................................................55
Focus Group 1.............................................................................................................. 68
Focus Group 2.............................................................................................................. 74
Focus group 3.............................................................................................................. 80
Focus group 4.............................................................................................................. 85
Consent Form to Participate in a Focus Group ........................................................91
As an introduction to this dissertation research, I wanted to thank sincerely
people who gave me their support and contributed to the development of this
research as well as the success of this great academic year.
I sincerely thank Rachel Cohen who, as my dissertation supervisor, has always been
attentive and helpful throughout the last six months. I also want to thank her for giving
me inspiration, support, time and useful advices.
I would like to thank a lot the focus group participants without whom I would not be able
to do this research and for their involvement and seriousness during the groups
I express my gratitude to all the UN staff members and interns who helped me
proofreading this dissertation and for their patience when I was very stressed at work.
I do not forget my parents for their contribution, support and patience.
I would like to express my gratitude to my sister who was kind enough to correct my
Moreover, I want to thank my family and friends, for their support and encouragements
during the making process of this final dissertation.
Finally, a big thank you to City University London for giving me the opportunity to study
in one of the most prestigious London university and for providing me with precious
I sincerely thank you all.
Storytelling in politics is a pretty new technique of communication employed mostly in
the United States. It is based on the idea that stories can impact the voters decision
making process and is going along with various emotions such as fear, hope or
compassion. Storytelling is now often use during American electoral campaign and
appears mainly under the form of television advertising (TV ads). These short videos
trying to convince voters are set up as short stories illustrating the candidates strengths
in using music, images and others theatrical tools to trigger specific emotions to the
This topic idea comes from a sociology of media academic background which triggered
interrogations about political communication and its impact on democracy. While
focusing on this questions, storytelling appeared as an interesting starting point for a
new research. This interest for this new political communication tool raised mainly after
reading Salmon (2008) “Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind” which provides a
general view of the matter and its possible social implications.
This research aims to better understand the impact of storytelling and through focus
groups, is trying to catch the efficiency of such a technique. Four focus groups
composed by 5 participants each have been set up in order to comprehend how people
interpret and understand different types of TV ads.
The findings of this research are not representative of the population because are only
reflecting focus group results which can’t be generalised to a larger scale. However it
gives information on how people interpret TV ads and the emotions triggered through the
different videos shown. It helps understand how human interpretations can be biased by
social and cultural background and how emotions are received by the participants. It
also seems to support the idea of storytelling as an efficient communication tool due to
the designation of the last video as the most efficient by the majority of the participants.
This last video, “Ashley story”, is considered by Salmon (2008) as a political storytelling
“The essence of American presidential leadership, and the secret of presidential
success, is storytelling” (Cornog, 2004:1)
Stories are part of the human life since its beginning, first used to transmit tradition and
teach how to behave in society. Recently, stories have been used for different purposes
such as publicity, management or politics. Undeniably, storytelling in politics became a
real technique of propaganda used mostly in the United States. It has often been
provided through TV advertising (TV ads). Its efficiency hasn’t been proved, yet
American candidates spend millions for their political communication every four years
and use storytelling more and more often. The previous research about storytelling
mainly focused on the story itself, how it could help improve leadership skills and a few
attempted to interpret the real impact such stories had on voters. However, it is really
difficult to result with clear conclusions about this impact due to the difficulty to
understand and categorize human interpretations.
This topic appeared pretty interesting after a first dissertation about the relationship
between press, politics and democracy which raised several interrogations about the
role of political communication and storytelling. Are political communication techniques
really efficient and why has the use of storytelling increased within the last few years?
These first questions led to other questions and became the starting point of this
This research does not pretend to give answers yet simply attempts to clarify and obtain
a better understanding of the storytelling approach in politics. Most importantly, on why
and how stories could influence the decision making process. It is mandatory to have a
look at the different components needed in a good story and why they are essential to
impact receivers. It is why this research went through concepts such as symbolism,
dramaturgy, narrative and emotions, along with a review of American politics and how
the US presidents have used storytelling and similar concepts throughout history.
Moreover, it is important to understand that storytelling in politics is mostly used in the
United States and seems to work well with the Americans mainly because of their strong
patriotism. Another American political tradition is television advertisements. This
research will use as exemplary four videos which were previewed during focus group set
ups that attempted to explain how a good story can impact citizens and how people
receive and interpret these manipulated images.
Through these qualitative methods, this dissertation aims to answer the following
question: How can storytelling impact people’s mind and behavior? And sub-questions,
who is the storyteller and what tool is being used? How do people comprehend political
storytelling when they are targeted by it? And is it really efficient?
This research begins with an important literature review transitioning from old
propaganda to political communication to storytelling in politics. In a second part we will
try to better understand how a story works and how it can be such powerful. In trying to
answer this question, we will go through the different aspects of a story such as narrative
construction, concept of dramaturgy, political personification, symbols and emotions. In a
third chapter, we will focus on the United States, its spin doctors and presidential
campaigns throughout history. Then a fourth part will be dedicated to the methodology
chosen namely by focus groups. Last but not least, we will end with a fifth chapter in
which we will try to provide a conclusion and explain the findings of the research.
CHAPTER 1: Literature review
Sociology of media focuses on mass communication and its impact on social life. It goes
through 3 main steps: the first highlights media’s power and the principal work on it
follows the idea that mass media can shape public opinion and make people lose their
critical mind (Tchakotine,1939). The second enhances the limited power of media. This
concept is mainly developed by Paul Lazarsfeld (2008) in proposing the “two step flow”
model, which minimizes the direct media influence on public opinion. Its power would
actually have an impact through opinion leaders and takes place in two stages: from the
media to opinion leaders, and then from them to the people they are in contact with.
There is a selective exposure to media actions because people understand information
through their social environment and characteristics.
The third evolution in media theory gives again a powerful influence to the media in
shaping opinion through setting an agenda. This means deciding the topics in what the
opinion will be interested in. In this concept of agenda, media doesn’t tell people what to
think, but what they have to think about (Shaw & McCombs, 1977).
Regarding politics, it is now more popular to think that people are influenced by longterm social forces and personal disposition. Mass media message from a candidate
appears to be less efficient nowadays (Lazarsfeld (2008).
One of the most important changes regarding the use of media is the popularisation of
television all around the world. Since its invention many scholars have expressed a
critical point of view regarding this new media and how it is used to advertise and spread
The democratic process seems to be slowed down by broadcasting political storytelling
and thereby missing central information necessary to enhance a democratic process
(Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 4).
Television appears to be one of the best ways of conveying political communication.
Indeed, political campaigns use this medium to convince through image-making (Grabe,
Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 5). The best examples are political ads which
provide a new power through nonverbal behaviours. In triggering emotions and creating
an intimate link between the candidate and the viewers, television allows a greater
influence on voters (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 7). Images are not
the only way to influence opinion. The power of broadcasting television resides also in
camera shots, angles, expressions or body language; the communication is not only
effective through the candidate but also helped by visual effects. All these artefacts are
aimed to shape voters’ opinions and how they perceive the candidate. However,
scientific research about the real impact of such visual manipulations have just begun
and is not yet ready to prove any related positive outcomes (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth;
Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 7).
Television appears to be a perfect medium for political campaigns because of its facility
to highlight candidates personalities, which is why most of the political storytelling on
television focus on accentuating a particular aspect of the candidate’s character (Grabe,
Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 100).
A famous critical point of view regarding television is that of Pierre Bourdieu (1996)
thoughts which focus on television artefacts and illusions. According to him, the political
sphere is using television to oppress symbolically journalism and democracy. He notes
few effects specific to image broadcasting such as the difference between stage and
backstage, and how the hidden part of a show is an efficient way to manipulate opinion
through invisible censorship. Moreover, he points out the fact that everything is shown
but at the same time hidden, which is confusing viewers’ interpretation of the political
Even if most of the actual political campaigns are directed through television ads,
scholars have not proved yet that it would have an impact on voters’ decisions. Few
psychology studies assume that triggering feelings would not have any influence on the
decision-making process (Brader, 2006: 2).
Following the idea of powerful images, it is important to examine the Roland Barthes
(1957) study. Before the popularisation of television, political communication used to
take advantage of the power of visual effects. During the fifties, he remarked that media
was mythologising the “bourgeoisie” in creating a specific way to categorize it into the
collective imagination through pictures and images (Montémont, 2012: 132). He also
proposed a theory describing ways in which candidate’s presentation in pictures could
serve to influence peoples’ reception. Even if at that time pictures in magazines and
other media had nothing to do with actual visual technologies, Barthes (1957)
highlighted the already personal link with the reader created by the intimate feeling
which provides a well scripted picture. “A picture is a mirror, it gives familiarity and well
known feelings” (Barthes, 1957: 150).
The point of this analysis is to show that a picture can highlight candidate’s intimacy and
creates a close link with the viewers (Montémont, 2012: 133).
Richard Sennett (1979) also studied the creation of intimate links between a candidate
and the public opinion. He considered intimate representations in public life, criticizing
the inner transparency as a trend for psychologism and in consequence to be an
intimate view of the society (Montémont, 2012: 133). The public image is thereby
contaminated by private life and Sennett (1979) following Max Weber’s theory of
charismatic authority considers personality as a political strength. Moreover, in the
seventies Sennett (1979) noted that the media are enhancing this charismatic aspect
and help creating an intimate link through new media technologies such as television,
radio and computers (Montémont, 2012: 133).
“The whole basis of successful propaganda,” Bernays wrote, “is to have an objective
and then to endeavor to arrive at it through an exact knowledge of the public, modifying
circumstances to manipulate and sway that public” Bernays (2007: 125-126).
Throughout history propaganda has progressed in different ways but the main point
remains the same: how to manipulate opinion in order to control people and gain political
One of the most relevant examples could be the Hitler movement in Germany during the
thirties. Helped by his “spin doctor” Joseph Goebbels, Hitler knew how to attract people
and convince them by using different methods such as lights and music effects during
his meetings. Hitler’s public appearances were totally calculated and he was effective in
using emotions and feelings to impress participants by making his audience waiting for
him for hours, increasing lights and turning up the music progressively until the crucial
moment of his arrival on stage. His apparition was followed by an explosion of lights and
loud music, leading the audience to its excitation maximum.
During the Cold War as well, filmmakers such as Leni Riefenstahl or Sergei Eisenstein
were using fictional movies to stage and highlight the values of the regime they were
supporting. Now, with the addition of new media it is even easier to diversify
propaganda’s tools (Montémont, 2012: 134)
One of these new tools could be the storytelling used in politics, but to better understand
the actual political communication practices it is important to be aware of the old means
of propaganda. The reference book written by Bernays (2007) shows and explain how to
manipulate public opinion. Step by step, the book describes the tools needed and how to
use them efficiently. Following this theory, Tchakhotine(1992) demonstrates in his book
how propaganda is effective in leading masses. He links most of its study to real
examples such as Hitler’s propaganda practices, and had to face censorship and
debates about his own theory.
Propaganda still exists nowadays but under a different form called political
communication. In trying to do the same thing but more discretely, modern tools and
specialists are both using revised propaganda theories.
Bernays (2004) is well known as the father of spin. He worked for the US government
during the First World War and had the mission of advertising the war as a necessity for
world peace. He tried to combine scientific practices with public relations, advising
politicians to understand population needs and to use media coverage in order to
propose solutions to opinion issues (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009:
90). He advised a candidate campaigning for lower taxes that he should “not merely tell
people that the high tariff increases the cost of the things they buy” but should “create
circumstances which would make his contention dramatic and self-evident” (Bernays,
2007: 121). According to him, the main point in order to manipulate masses is to
understand them, their feelings, behaviour and needs. In gathering knowledge in the
fields of psychology, sociology, economy and statistics, governments can plan a
successful propaganda (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 90). He also
notices that to effectively employ political communication, verbal tools are not enough to
convince opinion and need to go along with emotions. It is in using new media
broadcasting and emphasizing the candidate personality that persuasion is really
possible (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 90).
He was one of the first to advise leaders about having a person specialized in
interpreting the opinion needs and linking it to the government. In short he was
proposing a specialist in public relations: a “spin doctor” (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy,
Erik Page., 2009: 90-91).
After world war two, political communication started to change and became more and
more focused on candidate’s personality and mass mediated communication tools
(Brader, 2006: 19).
C. Political communication
In fact, the modern way to do propaganda is called political communication and even if it
uses less obvious techniques, the goals stay the same: convincing people to follow a
leader. The idea of political communication is not new and began with the idea of
democratic vote. Since the democratic process goes along with votes, candidates and
parties had to find a way to convince the public to vote for them (Riutort: 2007).
Since the first signs of political leaders, they have had to justify their legitimacy to
govern. Thereby, they also had to control their public image and convince opinion in
using political communication (Riutort: 2007: 8). Communication appears to be an
essential tool for politicians and year after year, its techniques change following the new
media pulse. These social transformations led to a new way of communicating in politics
and changed the rules of campaigning (Riutort: 2007: 18).
The expectation of effective communication is unfortunately hard to verify but
government and candidates still spend a lot of money on trying to control voters’
behaviours through triggering emotions.
Campaigning is a way of gathering more supporters and boosting others to be more
involved in political life (Brader, 2006: 20).
The main point of political communication is to make the candidate as attractive as
possible. In order to do so it is necessary to highlight the best part of the candidate’s
personality, past experience or personal environment. Communicating in politics is
actually framing a story about a candidate. In using narrative, it is possible to create
sense and make people focus on what the communicators wants. Images are also an
important part of political communication and help reinforce and support the
communication framework (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009: 98).
Political communication is changing step by step to adapt itself to new media and new
tools such as storytelling. Originally used to describe the action of telling a story, reading
books to children or how fairy tales were transmitted, this new term is now used in other
In marketing and publicity for example, storytelling is a new practice which allows one to
frame a story about a brand or a company. Moreover, it can be used as a leadership
technique in management to help leaders communicate more easily with their
employees. This new way of communicating appears to be quite efficient in these areas
and a few books demonstrate this new interest for storytelling. Denning (2005) wrote a
guide of how to become a leader in using stories. He argues that saying the right story at
one particular right moment can develop leadership competency.
In advertising as well, storytelling can be employed in order to create a story around a
product to improve sales. Godin (2006) notices that every brand is telling its own story,
which help buyers to remember the product through the atmosphere created by the story
A brand with a story has better chances to succeed financially (Durand, 2011).
It is important to understand how this practice is employed in different fields before
applying it to politics because it is exactly the same process but the product is different.
Storytelling started to be used in politics a few years ago, and one book can be used as
reference: “Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind”. In this book Salmon (2008)
argues that to have an efficient communication a good story is needed. This tool is often
used in the United States during political campaigns. According to him, telling stories in
politics is the best way to reach people’s interests. “If you communicate without stories,
you don’t communicate” (Salmon, 2008: 118). He explains the impact on people through
the power of emotions and feelings triggered by stories told. In collective imagination
human beings are easily touched by narrative construction because stories are
employed in every socialisation step, such as childhood norms transmission or simple
education. In this case stories are used to manipulate people’s unconscious in creating
needs and interpretations. He even qualified this practice as a misinformation tool
(Salmon, 2008: 13).
To describe the phenomena Salmon (2008) gives a simple example of the intense
attraction to television series. According to him, people who are actually fans of TV
shows are drawn in because they are telling a story which reminds the audience of old
feelings from their own childhood, for instance stories such as the famous Walt Disney
cartoons. He gives the example of Peter Brook who noticed that his colleagues favoured
the TV show West Wing over watching CNN news (Salmon, 2008: 16). It is through the
power of stories that narrative gears are set up to make people identify themselves with
determined social models and to follow a specific protocol (Salmon, 2008: 17).
“It is simply a Hold Up on our imaginary” (Salmon, 2008: 20)
In sociology, research about storytelling mostly focused on interpreting texts that explore
the power of stories in real context. Most sociologists are rather critical about the real
impact of such a practice, but they recognize the importance of social representations
and how these can lead people to act in a way better than another. If culture can change
power relations, can narratives transform institutional context and affect people’s
behaviour? (Polletta, 2006: 168).
Stories have been part of humanity since its beginning. Stories were told about every
leader such as King David and King Arthur; these narratives are sources of different
human traditions and always have influenced people’s actions. These stories and their
impact on opinion can be explained by the fact that they are projecting a population’s
emotions such as hopes and fear and are expressed through a leader which could either
be a king or our actual president or prime minister (Smith, 2009: 3). People’s behaviour
is often led by their beliefs and ideologies which can be triggered or changed by specific
feelings, symbols or even mass delusions. It is why politicians have to tell a story which
can touch as much people as possible in order to be efficient (Smith, 2009: 5).
“The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the
make-believe world may often mold the real one.” (Morgan, 1988: 13).
The vision of Storytelling as a powerful tool is not shared by every scholar and Salmon
(2008) faced several critics such as Berut (2010) in an article starting with this question:
“Storytelling: a new narrative propaganda?”
In this article Berut (2010) tries to show that the storytelling isn’t as powerful as Salmon
describes it in his book but is powerful instead because of its use of symbolisation.
According to him, this practice can have a moderate impact on people but is not giving
full power to leaders who are using it. Berut (2010), emphasizes the fact that Salmon
sees storytelling as a dangerous political weapon only powerful in manipulating
emotions. Salmon would reduce political analysis to a simple staging which enables the
ones controlling it to understand this communication tool Berut(2010). Storytelling
becomes a symbol of cynical and manipulative political communication that few people
think they can describe Berut(2010).
The most important critique follows the idea that spin doctors and other communication
gurus are described as competent enough to manipulate opinion through stories, and
one of the examples used by Salmon is Ashley’s story during the George W Bush
campaign in 2004 Berut(2010). According to Berut (2010) it is about how and who is
creating these stories that determine storytelling limits. For him telling stories in politics
can be efficient but is not powerful enough to control and manipulate public opinion.
Moreover, the whole process would not be dependant on hidden spin doctors because
of counter powers such as journalists or other competitors Berut(2010).
The main belief related to the power of storytelling is in its capacity to manipulate using
narrative codes and how the receivers interpret them. These codes would have the
power to turn politics into a fiction and thereby trigger specific feelings. Berut(2010)
criticizes the fact that politics can’t be summarized as emotional reactions instead of a
debate of ideas Berut(2010).
However in the United States, politics has often been practiced along with the ideas of
emotions, myth and fiction. For instance Reagan used to narrate American public life
through stories, anecdotes or war movies references ( Schwartzenberg, 2009: 337).
“Politics it is then a place for legends and dreams in blurring perceptions.”
( Schwartzenberg, 2009: 337).
Politics is now a place where candidates fight through stories rather than with ideas;
storytelling ousts logical thinking and it is now narration before explication and
arguments (Schwartzenberg, 2009: 334).
Berut (2010) still argues that narrative does not have enough power to control how
people interpret the message and emotion can’t replace totally a practical mind and
human interpretation based on each one’s experience.
Storytelling would be more an imperfect tool based on complex narrative codes which
can’t be entirely controlled by a small group of people manipulating the masses
Regarding the power of narratives, it can be used efficiently in touching the receiver’s
personal experience, and stories are a natural need which is closely linked to the
symbolic nature of socialisation (Quéré, 1982: 149).
To conclude, storytelling can be an interesting analytical tool to understand how social
norms are shaped and used to highlight the complexity of the political world through its
manipulation and counter powers. However according to Berut(2010) storytelling is not
the new powerful propaganda weapon but instead an opportunity to better understand
the impact of narration on human beings.
Following this literature review and after having compared the two main visions about
the power of storytelling, it is time to deeper understand how a story works and where its
potential power comes from.
CHAPTER 2: The power of the story
“Without a good story there is no power and no glory” (Cornog, 2004: 2)
A. Narrative structure
To start evaluating the power of stories it is necessary to understand how they are
Stories contain a beginning, middle, and end. They reveal realities that call out the
audience; they all include characters, and always convey a message or an idea. Polletta
According to Simmons (2007: 23-24) six different kinds of stories can be observed:
Who-I-Am Stories, Why-I-Am-Here Stories, which help legitimize the candidate,
Teaching Stories, containing morals gained from personal experiences, Vision Stories,
stories that justify present issues for a better future, Values-in-Action Stories which
illustrate values through actions made or planned to be made, and finally Know-WhatYou-Are-Thinking Stories which create a link between the storyteller and the audience
through sharing secrets.
Story and politics might appear as a strange combination but several scholars have
noticed a link between a winning candidate and a good story.
For instance, according to Polletta (2006: VII), during the 2004 U.S. presidential election,
George W. Bush prevailed over John Kerry because he had a better story to tell. Despite
what can be seen as problems in his first term, such as engaging in multiple wars in the
Middle East, he still defeated Kerry, a respected Vietnam War hero Polletta (2006: VII).
With the candidates having the same amount of money and support, what made the
difference? According to Polletta (2006: VII) the democrats were missing a good story
while the republicans were proposing “heroes” vs “bad guys”.
In U.S. politics, republicans and democrats generally tell different stories. They fight to
change policies by using two different types of stories, the causal stories with a multiple
of policy choices and the second story which focus on social conflicts narratives (Mann,
Stories play an important part in politics as they can be used to divert people’s attention.
For example, a sexual scandal case erased by a war or a threat (Simmons (2007: 11).
Stories are subjective. They are interpreted by people as good, bad, important or not. In
fact, a reaction to a story can be completely different person to person. People reframe a
story told by interpreting it differently, which makes it difficult to really know in advance,
the effect of a story. (Simmons (2007: 13-14).Communication is all about stories and
stories have been used to communicate since the beginning of humanity. Before
science, stories were the way humans used to think. (Simmons (2007: 15).
The power of the story can also reside in the fact that detailed narratives link the
audience’s imagination with their real experiences (Simmons (2007: 19). Moreover, a
story is often presented to a group, which allows the teller to impact on more than one
person’s feelings (Simmons (2007: 12).
Another important thing about stories is their framework, understood by everyone
structure allows people to feel familiar and then more easily influenced by it (Mann,
Stories are part of the human tradition of communication and help people organize ideas
through a narrative framework and a meaningful context. They also allow people to
make events more logical and link people, living, action and personal experience and in
gathering imaginary and real life into a story make it becoming understandable (Harris,
Often, a good story has to be set up in a structured way such as a play. In politics,
staging is everywhere all the time and everything needs to be calculated in advance.
“Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of
Staging communication” (Baudrillard 1994)
The main study about using the theater’s tools to have a stronger impact on people is
the Theory of Dramaturgy from Erving Goffman (1990). This theory follows the idea that
the best way to convince people is to stage social scenes using roles, script, costumes
and stage Goffman (1990). According to him, it is necessary to set up a fictional
environment to manipulate people’s perception and then try to control and impact their
To illustrate this theory in a political environment we can use U.S. President Barack
Obama’s speech about terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden’s death (1). In this video, we
can analyze the story using the four tools proposed by Goffman.
First, the staging is precise and well set, made by the red carpet, the pulpit with USA
written on it, and the American flag. Obama plays the role of President of the United
States or leader of anti-terrorism. Script is the speech he delivers using carefully chosen
words and body language. How Obama is dressed up with a formal dark suit and a red
tie is the costume.
According to Goffman (1990) and his idea of “self presentation”, candidates try to show
their best image through videos, speech or any public appearance (Danton, 2002: 184).
However, public image is not controlled solely by communication specialists, it is also
manipulated by the media following the theory of agenda setting (Shaw & McCombs,
During a political campaign the candidate and their team can try as much as possible to
create a positive image of the candidate but they don’t have the full power of controlling
media appearance. As soon as media is needed to advertize a campaign the media
outlets can choose to angle information as they choose. They are framing a story about
the candidate ( Harris, Moffitt, Squires, 2010: 195). Depending on if the media is partisan
or not the media frame created by them can be totally different and stage the candidate’s
life in a completely different ways ( Harris, Moffitt, Squires, 2010: 197). For instance,
Michelle Obama’s public image was framed by the media as for every first lady but in her
case the classification has been changed from a supporting wife to potential policy
adviser. Since 2000, candidate’s wife’s have gained a role more important than just a
companion (Harris, Moffitt, Squires, 2010: 248).
Media frames a candidate's public image by distilling it into messages or ideas and then
candidates have to fight to maintain a positive image or control it through private or
public media (Harris, Moffitt, Squires, 2010: 194).
Just as it is in theater, everybody has a role. There is a script, costumes, and everyone
is following specific staging to create a fake political world where opponents fight each
other for the whole public to see.
Through positive media appearance, candidates try to create an intimate link with voters
to gain their votes.
C. Illusion of intimacy
Modern political communication is all about the candidate or president rather than the
congress or the party (Popkin, 1991: 90) It is real personification of politics. In order to
make the voters feel closer, communicators create a sense of closeness between
candidate and audience. They do so by using narratives and small stories much like
those seen on television series, with suspense, twists, and turns. This television effect
phenomenon is called “the illusion of intimacy” by Keeter (1987).
This is observable in most developed countries, take for example, France. Since the
Third French Republic, politicians’ private lives have been used to influence the public
opinion in order to improve political campaign communication. Victor Hugo was one of
the first to use his grandfather's status or the pain of being exiled to get closer to the
citizens and build a nice public image in order to be elected at the French National
Assembly (Stein, 2012: 45).
The main goal of using tools such as storytelling is to make citizens focus on the
candidate's personality as a product to sell. This practice is imported from advertizing
adapted to politics by spin doctors. (Nachtergael, 2012: 134).
The fact that this movie was shown in theaters mystifies the whole story and magnifies
the topic (Nachtergael, 2012: 137). These political stories of candidates private life have
actually an important political function to feed intimate fantasy of power transparency
which let think people that they can reach political world but this is only a myth
communicated through storytelling and political communication (Nachtergael, 2012:
In order to connect the issues to the candidate and to communicate opinion quickly
political specialists use mostly symbols which allow a rapid understanding and
comprehension from receivers (Popkin, 1991: 90).
“A campaign is nothing if not a series of seductions” Mann, 2000: 162).
In order to have an efficient story, a clear and meaningful framework is needed and is
often accompanied with symbols. According to Baudrillard (1983) every product need to
have meaningful symbols to help people identify themselves to it. It is the same process
for a good story in politics, it is all about symbolism.
Stories have been shared as a way to communicate since the beginning of humanity and
appear as a sense-making tool in every culture but symbols are not universal and vary
depending on people's perception or socialization. This lack of sameness is why myths
and legend are often used to enhance social links and citizenship (Polletta, 2006: 21142).
In every type of advertising it is not rare to see symbols or meaningful things such as
flags, puppies, or shrieking infants as they are used in order to have an emotional impact
on people through adapted representations (Brader, 2006: 64). Non verbal cues are as
important as words and highlight a message through unconscious interpretations. Three
kinds of nonverbal behavior involving emotional reactions in politics observed by
Lanzetta (1985) are anger and threat, fear and evasion, and happiness and
Meaning and symbols are often more powerful than anything and people like or dislike
fact based on what these symbols represent for them (Simmons, 2007:16).
Stories which impact the most are generally the ones conveying fears, fear is very strong
and stays longer in minds than happy stories, for instance scary urban legends are
always the one that people remember and hope or love stories appear to be easier to
forget (Simmons, 2007:185).
Knowing all these observations allow spin doctors and communication teams to play with
the human imagination and interpretation of symbols and resulting feelings, however
these theories are not truly verifiable and nothing is never sure about non rational
decision making (Simmons, 2007:187).
During a political campaign it is actually a symbols war going on between the opposing
candidates. In using clear and well known symbols, one candidate can be more
successful than another in communicating (Popkin, 1991: 103-104). Stories need
symbols to be more understandable and to impact more easily targeted audiences,
Stories use symbols to get meanings to create emotions. It is why in politics in gathering
all these parts they often create legend or myth about a candidate or a president. For
instance, Reagan created a story about Soviet Union as a vile enemy that he had to fight
with new technologies (Mann, 2000: 173-174).
As an example of symbolic communication when George Clinton was president of the
United States, he announced, by himself, a simple security car policy. Behind this policy,
however, there was a story, a personal story which was full of emotions and symbols. He
noticed that one member of the panel expert lost his niece in a car accident and added a
small personal anecdote to gain parent's trust immediately.
The main goal of this way to communicate was to change the way voters see
presidential role (Mann, 2000: 185-186).
In adding symbols, meanings, emotions and personal narratives you can create an
efficient story with all the elements needed to influence people. A good story is all about
feelings and emotions.
“Its appeal to emotions rather than reason” (Polletta, 2006: xi)
Stories are used mainly to trigger emotions and appeal to feelings more than reason. In
general a person who tells a story is trying to gain the audience’s empathy (Polletta,
A few psychology studies have pointed out that enthusiasm can trigger citizenship
motivation and reinforce existing fidelity and in contrast, fear can push people to rethink
their initial choice and It appears to be quite the same process and outcomes with
sounds such as scary or threatening noises (Brader, 2006: 13-68).
Another study on emotions highlights people's process of information shaping and how
using emotions in political campaign can have an impact on their political choices. Fear
can have a particularly strong impact on people behavior and can lead to unexpected
political choices while enthusiasm even though it also has an important impact, it acts
more as a strengthener than as a convincer (Brader, 2006: 111-144). When spreading a
political message using feelings the main goal is to tell people what to be scared of or
hopeful about and what they must do with these feelings. This last political psychology
study highlights the power of emotions in influencing people's behavior (Brader, 2006:
Ronald Reagan's successful elections reflect the power of emotional appeals in political
campaign according to the economist Richard Wirthlin in 1980 and 1984 people voted
for him because they felt close from his way to put values before policy, they trusted him
and were persuaded of his honesty. As a result it wasn’t important anymore to agree or
not with his policy because people were already conquered by the man (Westen, 2008:
Every American president came with a story, Jimmy carter played on the idea of a
reliable government after the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton brought new hope for
the American dream. These stories touch people because they are reading emotions
and then making conclusions in giving sense to the data (Westen, 2008: 14-25).
Emotions are essential in American politics and Republicans and Democrats use them
differently.. The more conservative politicians generally use feelings more often than the
more liberal minded ones who think that emotions are demagoguery (Westen, 2008: 3644).
According to Westen (2008: 99), two kinds of constraints can impact people's
perception. Cognitive constraint coming from the accessible information and the
emotional constraint which is linked to interpretation feelings. These two unconsciously
affect fight to set up brain conclusion and interpretation differently for everybody. A good
candidate would be the one who trigger emotions through making you laugh or cry, it is
simply having charisma such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had. Few researches
highlight the importance of positive emotions in political campaign and the necessity to
identify the candidate through happiness and hope (Westen, 2008: 284).
In order to spread positive emotions, a candidate has to manage his communication in
order to calculate every verbal and nonverbal behaviour. People are going to interpret
unconsciously every facial expression, body language, and voice sound from
candidate’s appearance. The whole challenge is to choose the right candidate to run the
campaign, a person with a gathering of strong political intelligence, good non-verbal
skills, and a solid emotional appeal such as Reagan with his public image of proud and
powerful America (Westen, 2008: 294-301).
But fear and negative emotions are also part of the political game and are mostly used in
TV ads, many scholars argue that this kind of negative campaigning is growing and kills
the quality of political information. However, triggering negative emotions seem to be
quite effective and actually helped George W bush to win in 2004 where a huge portion
of his campaign budget was dedicated to attack ads (Westen, 2008: 317-333). In
stimulating human feelings with stories, they(who?) try to give a specific direction to
these emotions and it is why during an election both sides have to counter the opponent
using emotional associations and always respond to an attack using the same emotional
weapons (Westen, 2008: 337).
Every political message needs to include feelings to have a real impact on voters. It can
be fear or hope, using flags for patriotism or scary music to trigger negative emotions. In
any case, the most important thing is to make people feel something. Tv ads are the
most used tool in American political campaigning and it seems to match perfectly the
narrative and emotional needs for campaigning. Eisenhower, already in 1952 bet
everything on narratives about himself more than ideological principles, through an ad
telling his own story he highlighted his hero status and legitimised himself as a president
(Westen, 2008: 302).
In the following chapter we will explore deeply how political TV ads work in the United
States and try to understand why this country uses the most storytelling in politics
through its mysterious spin doctors.
CHAPTER 3: American presidential
“A charming candidate is the alchemist’s secret that can transmute a prosaic platform
into the gold of votes” Bernays (2007: 117)
A. Spin doctors and American specificities
Who are the spin doctors? This term was first used in 1984 by the advisers of former US
president Ronald Reagan. They are political communication specialists and are called by
candidates to help them during their electoral campaign. Salmon (2008) suggests they
are agents of influence providing arguments, images and staging in order to create a
specific opinion reaction.
For the 2004 elections candidates spent over $ 1 billion to advertise mainly through
televised ads. The number of communication specialists has grown significantly in
political campaigns which illustrates how important is to find new ways to influence
voters (Brader, 2006: 177). Candidates are advertised as a product to sell and spin
doctors are in charge of their public image, for instance, John Beckley is considered as
the first political campaign manager and was in charge of Thomas Jefferson’s campaign
in 1796 where he used “thirty thousand sample ballots and thousands of political
handbills extolling Jefferson’s virtues” (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009:
89). Regarding the Reagan presidency, the president hired Michael Deaver as a media
manager, he often used symbols during public appearances or televised events to let
powerful images into people's minds (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page., 2009:
95). Spin doctors were the first to adapt storytelling in politics, emphasizing drama and
conflict to keep people interested and through image making and frame control.
Originally political advisers used to use focus groups and surveys, however, now along
with that they also use narratives to convince and control voters in connecting
candidates to symbols and specific issues (Grabe, Maria Elizabeth; Bucy, Erik Page.,
Stories have to be persuasive to be efficient so communication specialists have to make
the story credible and the characters authentic. Stories are making candidates closer to
people’s reality using their private life to create a human scale understanding (Smith,
Nowadays, campaigning is a permanent job and needs to be done before, during and
after elections, it never stops. When spin doctors are finished with electoral campaign
they have to shape and maintain a good public image for the candidates elected. It is
now an essential job in modern politics (Mann, 2000: 220).
Storytelling is mostly used in American politics and that can be explained by three
reasons. American patriotism, the talent of people using it such as Reagan and the the
modern transformation of society which favors small stories illustrating new norms and
social behavior (Salmon, 2008: 121).
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use storytelling. Even if most of the time his
stories were totally made up he was able to touch public opinion, he was one of the best
storytellers of political history (Salmon, 2008: 108). When he wanted to make Americans
opposed to welfare state he invented a story about “ the queen welfare” who bought a
Cadillac with government aids. The story morality in this case is clear, Americans who
work hard are the heroes, the queen welfare was the bad guy and poor people from
middle class surrounded by taxes are the victims (Salmon, 2008: 108).
The American particularity in politics is their unique way to demonstrate everything by
using symbols, business processions badges in order to boost enthusiasm (Brader,
In American minds the “ we” notion is strong, as well as the American dream. So strong
that even when activists are complaining about war they use terms such as “we“ invaded
Iraq and “we” are killing innocents (Smith, 2009: 8).
Regarding the American institutions such as the Supreme Court and the US
Constitution, it has been noticed by researchers that they have a role in shaping the
cultural imagination and the American presidency is reinforcing it through a particular
presidential type (Smith, 2009: 7).
Americans have always imagined their president in the way they wanted to, creating a
kind of fiction of authority (Smith, 2009: 247-248). Moreover, stories are an important
part of American policy such as the Iraq war and the supposed mass destruction
weapons, it doesn’t appear as a lie but a well thought construction, a fiction which has “
started today” as Bush officials at that time declared adding that the United States is
ready to write its own story. In every US political story, presidents are the principal
actors, they are making history following a narrative plan elaborated by others (Smith,
Nowadays, the American way to do politics appears as dangerous for democracy
because campaigns are run in a very negative way with candidates fights through TV
ads and disinformation. Spin doctors can even be considered as a “ fifth estate” by their
powerful influence on the American political sphere (Thurber, 2000: 65-113).
B. Presidential elections
Since the beginning of American politics, presidents used stories to trigger emotions and
As a modern example we can use George W Bush and Ashley story which used the 11
September emotional memories to impact on people’s political choices. In another
storytelling style, the democratic candidate John Kerry was using his hero image but his
TV ads from his supporter Real Voice were instead mostly triggering anger and anxiety
in showing family of soldiers killed in Iraq (Brader, 2006: 178).
It is possible to classify three different presidential public image used by american
president throughout the history, the common man, the master politician, and the
These different presidential characteristics are made up in order to highlight one single
point of president personality and then attract public opinion interest on this particular
well chosen narrative (Grabe, 2009: 88).
The ideal candidate frame
Following the analysis of past presidential public image we can observe three structures
which can be named as ideal candidate frames. In order to succeed three main
dimensions are needed. The candidate has to be firstly qualified for his job and highly
reliable, in short he has to be a real statesman. He also needs to be liked by the voters
through compassion and empathy and the third one populist narratives (Grabe, 2009:
Regarding the statesmanship quality the candidate has to inspire leadership skills,
authority and project power. In order to highlight this side through images, two principal
techniques need to be used: associational juxtaposition and mise-en-scene (Grabe,
Juxtaposition can be when “a shot of the American flag is juxtaposed with, or shown
before, a shot of a candidate to communicate patriotism” explains Grabe (2009: 102),
this association tries to manipulate people interpretations and create links between two
totally different things.
Another important part of the candidate frame is compassion. As soon as the candidate
is well known as a statesman he needs to attract people deeper through specific
feelings. Voters like to have a warm and compassionate president that they can freely
and truly love and admire. Regarding images the best way to use narrative in this case is
to link candidate act or decision to famous symbols of compassion such as children and
family. It is why most of the time American presidents are surrounded by a loving wife
and children (Grabe, 2009: 104).
The last kind of narrative is the populist. A candidate who use this way to communicate
insists on his opposition to an aristocratic elite. In using images, the populist tries to
highlight his modest background and how he succeed without coming from a rich family
(Grabe, 2009: 105). For instance, John Kerry wasn’t able to give a populist image when
he was publicly showing himself windsurfing, snowboarding, and skiing which are very
elitist sports he didn’t create a link with voters and particularly because democrats are
mostly targeting middle class (Grabe, 2009: 104). However Jimmy Carter in his
campaign of 1976 successfully spread a simple image of himself in advertising where he
was wearing jeans hanging out in his farm like a proper american. The populist frame is
also observable through speeches such as Reagan’s who was always using simple and
understandable words along with short sentences and common language (Grabe, 2009:
The 1992 election
During the 1992 election Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were campaigning for the
American presidency. In the Bush camp, three bodies were in charge to run the
campaign reelection, the White House, a reelection committee, and Bush’s outside
consultants. George H. W Bush use mostly the populist frame like in 1988. He was
shown as a country music lover living in a farm in Texas but use to govern in a more
aristocratic way focusing more on international matters than domestic policy (Grabe,
In response the Clinton camp, which won, used a populist frame as well showing the
candidate as a humble person from Arkansas highlighting his compassion skills and
spreading hope (Grabe, 2009: 113).
The 1996 election
During this election Bill Clinton won again using enthusiasm, hope and energetic ads.
The Clinton camp actually used in this campaign the traditional Republican issues
making his opponent Bob Dole sounds just like an echos and not a real choice (Grabe,
Regarding the Dole camp the campaign was not a success due to an absence of a clear
message and dynamism to run the campaign (Grabe, 2009:119).
The 2000 election
This campaign is interesting because it was the first time that so many non verbal
messages were spread, the physical presence of the candidate was as much important
as his speaking (Danton, 2002: 191). In the Al Gore camp, they were clearly focusing on
health care and other social issues, it was a totally populist frame using this clear
slogan : The People versus the Powerful. The Gore problem was his incapability to
follow strict communication rules which led him to many public akward moments and
appears in the eyes of the voters as rigid and unfriendly (Grabe, 2009:122).
The Bush camp in contrast made the candidate appears through a populist image and
sounds like a real republican, a compassionate conservative. They used this frame to
increase Gore public image of a stiff guy in offering in contrast a Bush honest and
plainspoken (Grabe, 2009:122).
The 2004 election
The 2004 election is considered by journalists as the most emotional and fear driven
campaign. In October the New York Times even used a meaningful title : “Scary ads
take campaign to a grimm new level” (Brader, 2006: 3).
During this campaign the Bush camp was more focusing on countering Gore camp than
on their own candidate. They insisted on the fact that Kerry was an elitist to highlight the
populist frame of Bush and showing himself as a strong leader (Grabe, 2009: 124).
In the Kerry camp the campaign seemed to be disorganized, unfocused and
undisciplined which was maybe why Bush won that easily (Grabe, 2009: 125).
We are going now to focus on two different presidents who used a very powerful story,
an only american story. The first one is Ronald Reagan one of the first candidates in
American history who understood the power of a good story.
Reagan’s mythical America
“I tell this story just to remind you of the magical, intoxicating power of America. we may
sometimes forget it, but others do not.
(Ronald Wilson Reagan January 19th 1989 remarks at the presentation ceremony for the
presidential Medal of Freedom)
Reagan was the first to use this efficient story about a powerful America where families
can live in peace in a country blessed by God. Moreover, he told a story of Americans as
heroes living in a saga where they have to fight villains inside and outside the country
(Hanska, 2012: 20). He was actually creating an american way of life and a mythical
America concept. In his story, Reagan administration is needed to bring happiness and
friendship into the society, his concept of tomorrow is always better than before and
can’t be done without him but also the citizens themselves who feel like they have a real
role in Reagan mythical America and can impact on the end of the story (Hanska, 2012:
To make his story credible and to convince people to believe on it, Reagan used a lot of
emotional appeals such as honesty and sincerity through thee old myth of the Western
heroes (Hanska, 2012: 25). he was also using a lot of religious symbols and meanings
that Americans could easily understand and would convince the fifty-six percent of them
who believe that religion is the best answer to most of the questions (Hanska, 2012: 75-
136). In this American story, god has an important role and is powerfully used to create
this mythical fiction starting from God to end with heroes (Hanska, 2012: 144).
The second president who used a well thought story is Obama. In using his life he
created a American dream narrative based on his own personal story which can be
reduce at : “only in America could the son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother …”
(Harris, 2010: 5).
During this he highlighted the fact that he is an African American who succeed in
reaching the presidency, this is a perfect american dream story in linking his personal
story to the greatest american nation which allow anybody to realize their dream through
equality and opportunity for all (Harris, 2010: 5). The Obama frame is in fact a national
success which highlights the power of the nation as ultimately righteous (Harris, 2010:
Moreover, during the 2008 campaign, Obama camp didn’t only try to control the
candidate image but also how the supporters and volunteers were acting, everybody had
to follow the same message and make it coherent. These supporters were extremely
involved and were also taking initiatives such as a YouTube videos about Obama
proliferated and they were encouraged to do such things instead of other campaign
which tried to monitor everything. Obama campaign appeared as a result as a two-way
and interactive campaign (Harris, 2010: 51).
In using internet and social media Obama created a new way to campaign and was able
to make most of American gathering again in a common dream. He succeeded in giving
hope to every american and not only the black community (Harris, 2010: 65). Moreover,
he was able to motivate supporters and spread a powerful message about american
strengths. People were really into this campaign because it was also meaning something
personal to them, that they could also live the American dream (Harris, 2010: 72). Above
all, the way he led the campaign was really smart because couldn’t actually be against
Obama’s message without being against the American dream itself (Harris, 2010: 73).
After having examined few Americans electoral campaign, it is clear that they are often
framing stories about the country linked to the candidate in order to make citizens more
involved but many other came also with their own story to be elected such as George W
Bush and his ‘‘Freedom is on the march’’. In the same way as obama it was difficult to
be publicly against freedom and then made harder to be against Bush story (Simmons,
In the case of Lincoln, he used religious and classical symbols in order to justify his right
to the presidency. He presented itself as a kind of messy in the cloud, surrounded by
angels and strong symbols such as “Columbia” and “Liberty”. He actually was creating a
myth around his character to legitimise his natural right to govern (Smith, 2009: 88).
Indeed, using stories in politics is not a new thing but it is now becoming a real qualified
work and this is mostly the result of the use of TV ads. Electoral campaign are now
mostly a battle through television and for instance the 2004 election came with over a
million campaign tv ads which were using emotions such as fear and anger or hope and
joy (Brader, 2006: 147).
TV ad is a really common tool for electoral campaign in the United States and
appears at a perfect way to set up narratives using images.
TV ads are often the theater of battles between candidates, it s actually a fight
between two candidates frame and message. TV ads are often made by Interest
group, and not by the candidate team, which support openly one side of the
competition it is why they don't get the same trust credit as journalists. Several
researchers have already tried to understand the real impact of these tv ads on
voters and it seems to be linked to emotions, image and narratives (Brader, 2006: 2).
Few characteristics are observable in TV ads such as the simple message content,
the topics chosen ( issues, characters, records), they also contain more than just
words and are using sounds, images and relevant music. They try to trigger specific
emotions to the voters and make him act or think in a specific way, the power of ads
seems to belong to the unification of images and sounds in a specific narrative frame
(Brader, 2006: 4).
The power of such TV advertising seems to reside in symbols and meaning which
need to be linked to the race, culture and other specificities of the people targeted
(Ridout, 2011: 145).
In terms of findings, Ridout (2011) argues that is it impossible to have an unified
theory about the real power of such ads but he notices that there is a real effect
when these ads are triggering specific emotions such as hope and fear. It was often
asked by psychologists if fear ads were more effective than enthusiastic ads and we
will go through different kind of tv ads used during American campaign and try to
understand the different impact that positive and negative ads can have on voters.
According to Kaid and Johnston (2001), video ads have three characteristics, the
verbal, the nonverbal and production techniques. During the 1992 and 2004
campaign respectively Bill Clinton and John Kerry used different types of ads to run
against Bush. In surface the two ads seem very similar but when going deeper the
difference in emotions triggered and networks activated is getting obvious (Westen,
The Clinton’s ad “Hope” (2)had a very simple narrative, showing him as a regular
Arkansas governor along with a background music and specific images recalling
small and quiet American towns.
In this ad there is nothing about policy but just a creation of positive associations with
Clinton as a Man from Hope in direct correlation with the American Dream. In this
video Clinton is actually telling his life story which started in the small town named
Hope indeed, the name of the town is directly related to the feeling of hope in small
American towns. His voice is accompanied by simple images of the city of Hope, a
train and nice countryside, he is telling that what he accomplished is possible for
everybody trying to give hope to Americans and using the populist frame highlighting
his simple social background (Westen, 2008: 5). According to Western (2008: 6), the
Clinton narrative can be summarized by three simple sentences, “Through hard
work, caring, and determination, I know what it’s like to live the American dream. In
my home state, I’ve done everything possible to help others realize that dream. And
as your president, I’ll do everything I can to help people all over this country realize
their dreams like I’ve done in Arkansas.” and this hope feeling increases when a
child is shown at the end followed by this very meaningful last sentence “bringing
hope back to the American dream.”
In contrast, the Kerry’s ad of 2004 “Heart” (3) was telling a story about how John
Kerry is the man needed for president. At first glance, these two ads are quite similar
in using positive feelings and the American dream as principal narrative and they
both start with their birthplace and environment. Regarding Kerry story he insisted on
the fact that he was born in a military family and he used this to legitimate himself as
a potential president who will be a strong leader fighting the never ending “war on
terror”. The ad is set up through patriotic music, military symbols and kerry as a war
hero. As the same way as Clinton, Kerry used his own voice in background to tell his
own story. However, one of his most important mistake was to talk about Yale and
his several childhood privileges and couldn’t tell a coherent story. Moreover, his face
expression in the second part of the ad was cold and impassive which didn’t trigger
any positive and hopeful emotions (Westen, 2008: 9-11).
The difference between Clinton and Kerry ad is the understanding of American
psychology and how people will interpret exposed symbols. Kerry didn’t pay enough
attention to the importance of a coherent story in politics and how much “Political
persuasion is about networks and narratives.” (Western, 2008: 12)
The art of using tv ads in political campaign needs to be really well thought and a
bad story can ruin a campaign and send the wrong message to the voters like it
happened to John Kerry in 2004. After having analysed and review the different
studies and thoughts about storytelling in politics it is time to link this literature review
to the methodology and findings of this dissertation.
CHAPTER 4: Methodology
“The task of the sociologist... is to describe the essential characteristics of social facts,
demonstrate how they come into being, enter into relationships with one another, act on
each other and function together to form social wholes” ( Hughes, 1990:25)
In order to have an efficient social research methodology it is important to ask the right
questions and to understand the different possibilities. The principal aim of social
research is to identify a reality through experience and reasoning (Cohen and Manion,
Three main points of social research are proposed by Walliman (2005: 41) as the
exploration, the testing-out and the problem-solving and during the growth of the
research; it is very essential to test and try to refute the theory using hypothesis.
Moreover, to make a research successful it is important to remember that a researcher
can’t possibly be fully objective and is always influenced by his environment and
background (Walliman, 2005:76).
As soon as these research characteristics are understood, it is time to choose a specific
A. research method
Regarding my dissertation topic which focuses on how people experience storytelling in
politics, it would be difficult to use quantitative methods. As a result, using focus group
appeared as an effective way to understand people’s interpretations. Following this idea,
I organised four focus groups each composed with five people of different nationalities in
order to see if their cultural background would affect their political interpretations.
I showed the focus group participants four different television ads made by American
political candidates for their presidency campaigns at different periods of time. The first
one, “Good morning America,” was launched in 1984 by Ronald Reagan who was
running against Walter Mondale. The second ad, “Daisy,” was made by Lyndon B.
Johnson in 1964 to use against Barry Goldwater. The third one is “Trickle down” used by
Ross Perot in 1992 when he lost the campaign against Bill Clinton and George H. W.
Bush. The last one, known as “Ashley story,” was launched by George W. Bush in 2004
against John Kerry. George W. Bush won even after his first term stained by several
unsolved issues and many scholars regard his video as a representation of his effective
communication. I chose these video in order to have respectively an ad appealing to
hope and happiness, one triggering mostly fear, another unimpassioned and a last one
often brought as an example of successful storytelling.
The main goal of these focus groups was to see how people interpret these ads and if
the emotional responses are what the ads makers wanted to trigger. I wanted to
understand which ad would convince the audience the most and persuade him/her to
vote for one candidate against the other. Moreover, I wanted to understand why such ad
is more effective than the others.
In general terms, focus groups are useful in attaining a direct access to participants’
perceptions and emotions by observing their interactions in a group (Tonkiss, 2004:128).
This is a serious advantage for my topic because in politics, group opinion or public
opinion is much more important than individual opinion and focus group show a small
scale of the society and how people influence each other in choices and interpretations.
In interpreting blank, shy people, strong personality or argumentations between the
participants it is possible to analyze and have a better look at what is really going on into
When conducting focus group activities, researchers need to follow several rules. For
example, group members have to be homogeneous and unknown to each other
(Morgan, 1997). It is also very important to understand that the results are not adaptable
to a larger population and can only be analysed in a group scale (Tonkiss, 2004:237).
B. Other possible methods
When starting the research, one needs to choose between quantitative and qualitative
Natural science is more familiar with quantitative methods. But when social science
started using it, researchers realised that it wasn’t the best way to understand most part
of human relationships and behaviours. The difficulty resides in the fact that quantifying
human feelings and emotions is really hard (Walliman, 2005:174). Quantitative analysis
is much more effective when used to give precisions, statistics and sophisticated
analyses. But data it is less effective in describing human experiences, interpretations
and reactions. Moreover, quantitative research result tends to generalise human
behaviours instead of interpreting their experiences (Walliman, 2005:174).
In short, qualitative method fits much better for social and human science but it also has
a few limitations such as the difficulty to interpret subjective data and extend the result
generally. Moreover, it is important to consider the time needed when qualitative
research is conducted and also the fact that the researcher’s presence can be an issue
along with anonymity and confidentiality matters. However, qualitative research also has
a lot of strengthens such as its capability to present a view from the heart of the field
which allows the researcher to better understand hidden mechanisms of human social
behaviour (Hughes, n.d.).
Regarding my dissertation, it appeared to be quite difficult to quantify human
interpretations of storytelling in politics. Qualitative methods can better reach the goals of
this research. However, among all the different qualitative methods, focus group seemed
to be the most relevant choice for my topic.
Participant observation is a very interesting method but it is better applied to everyday
interactions and other fields accessible to the researcher (Suter, 2000), Regarding
storytelling, it is quite difficult to access to the field and analyse all opinions and
reactions at the same time. In opposition, focus group appeared as a good way to
understand political behavior and interpretations through small groups.
C. Research design and timeline
When setting up focus group, it is important to think through a few issues such as where,
who, when and how. First, I decided to conduct only four focus groups to have enough
time for interpreting findings, reading secondary sources and writing the dissertation.
Each group was composed of five members. I set up such small, intimate groups
because I wanted to encourage each member, even the shyest one, to participate in
discussion. On average, each focus group meeting lasted one hour, which was a perfect
duration to show the four videos one after another and discuss them in groups.
Second issue is about participant recruitment. Focus groups need to be quite
homogeneous and to do so the four groups were composed with people aged between
20 and 29 years old. In each group, however, every member is originally from a different
country, so that I would understand if cultural backgrounds affect their political
interpretations. As soon as I understood my selection criteria, I started the recruitment
process through social media such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as the United
Nations network via my current internship.
The third issue regards the venue for the focus group to gather. The cheapest and the
most convenient place I found was at the New York Public Library, which allowed us to
work in a private, well-equipped studio.
Moreover, it is important to take notes and record the focus group at the same time in
order to be sure to keep at least a trace of the work done. It is why having an assistant is
really helpful and after the first focus group I asked a friend to help me in launching the
videos and with few other things such as turning off the light when needed. I also
prepared a consent form that every participant had to sign, a document available in the
Furthermore, the entire research process needs to be planned well. The first step is
reading secondary sources to gain understanding of the topic chosen. I started the
reading process from April and completed it in late July. I started the focus group
activities on the 28/05/2013 which was followed by the second one on the 05/06/2013,
the third one on the 12/06/2013 and the last one the11/07/2013. My drafting process of
the dissertation started in August and ended in mid September, and the rest of the
month was dedicated to proofreading and editing.
D. The limitations and ethical issues
According to Frankland and Bloor (1999:153), the limitations of focus groups are related
to data collection. Focus group activity should be done carefully because afterwards it
will be almost impossible to create the same environment, with the same people and
In order to conduct an effective focus group, it is better to know the goals beforehand so
it is easier to collect the right amount of data needed. In terms of my research, I hope to
use focus groups in order to understand if storytelling in politics is really convincing and
how it works through TV ads. The second issue that I wanted to explore was how people
interpret these TV ads and whether the emotional responses really affect voter
Moreover, in a group, individuals would behave differently due to the interaction of their
diverse personality and traits. For instance, a shy person can have even greater
difficulties to impose his viewpoint while facing the others members of the group. In the
fourth focus group, for example, L. didn’t dare to say that the most compelling video,
which would make her to vote, was the one titled “Daisy”. She lied because the other
participants all voted for the first or the last one and she felt intimidated. Also, she wasn’t
honest perhaps because the conservation was on the record and as a Chinese, she was
scared of any reprisals. I was knowledgeable of this situation because a few days after
the focus group, I received an email from one of the participants who talked to L. right
after the group activity; she thought this insight would be useful for my research.
However, people hiding their true opinions is not the only issue to take notice when
analyzing findings, some people were really confident and spoke a lot during the
exercise, greatly influencing others. These group interaction bias have to be taken into
consideration when analyzing the data. I observed another difficulty is how to lead the
group discussion without interfering too much with the participants. Thus, after the first
focus group, I received help from an assistant who smoothed the process of launching
videos and turning on/off the light while I was taking notes and recording the discussion.
During my last focus group, I had to face another frustration, which was the no-show of
one of the participants. I had to complete the group activity anyway with only four
members, and this issue has to be considered when comparing the results between
Concerning the data analysis, it is very hard to generate a conclusion for the focus group
findings. I can point out different individuals’ interpretations of the videos, their emotional
responses to the TV ads and political messages, but that doesn’t mean that the whole
population would also react like the 19 focus group participants. Moreover, many things
can be taken into consideration such as social and cultural background, political opinion
and personality to explain why some videos were more effective than the others. In
short, the main problem in my analysis is the subjectivity in interpretations and the
difficulty to understand fully human behaviour.
The ethical dimension is also important to social research. When working with fellow
human beings it is important for the researcher to be aware of possible ethical issues.
According to (Ali and Kelly, 2004:60), the researcher has to be very careful about social
differences among the participants which could lead to power abuses. Moreover, the
researcher needs to be honest in providing her work and avoid any plagiarism. In terms
of this research, it was important to bear in mind that any finding can’t be generalised
and applied to a larger population in order to create a global theory about storytelling.
Scientist objectivity is a necessity in social research according to Walliman (2005:240245) and when using focus group it is important to avoid any risks for the participants
and letting them know about the implication of the study. Moreover, it is better to have
them signing a consent form and respect their anonymity and confidentiality of certain
To conclude, social research methods need to be used very carefully and the researcher
has to be respectful and aware of ethical and other possible issues interfering qualitative
CHAPTER 5: Findings
A. Focus group videos
Regarding my research, I chose to use focus groups in order to understand people's
reactions when facing different kind of storytelling TV ads. Four groups with five
members each were set up and the participants watched four videos. The TV ads shown
were chosen carefully in order for each ad to trigger a different emotion and to check the
reactions of each group to these different storytelling techniques. One video is a story
about hope and triggers mainly enthusiasm. It can be called a “feel-good ad”. Another
ad, called fear ad, shows fearful images and, the third one does not provoke any
particular emotion and can be defined as “unimpassioned ad”. The last video displayed
is one of the most successful storytelling ads in American politics and generates many
mixed emotions such as compassion, hope, sadness and the strongest one is 9/11
American traumatism. This ad is well known as “Ashley Story”.
Feel good ad: “Morning in America”
This is the first video shown to focus groups and was made in 1984 by Ronald Reagan
camp. He was running this campaign in order to be reelected after a first mandate and
played mainly on hope and happiness feelings focusing on the fact that what had been
done during its first presidency shouldn’t be stopped now. He emphasized his
storytelling ad on the perfect American way of life, simple, peaceful and patriotic.
According to Westen (2008: 302), in 1980 America needed a president who would give
hope again, make people proud of their country and increase national economy. Ronald
Reagan understood that and played on the fact that he was the right person to start it
and continue it in 1984.
For his reelection he tried to convince through a meaningful campaign that the country
was actually doing better than four years before so why would people want to have a
leadership change? (Brader, 2006:1).
The ad actually shows normal and positive life steps such as a wedding, family, peaceful
neighborhoods and happy Americans. The music and the narrator’s voice are made to
activate feelings which replace any political arguments. Through positive emotions this
ad tries to shape viewers interpretation. This ad is made like a movie with an emotional
soundtrack, sentimental or nostalgic themes and meaningful symbols such as flags. The
main purpose is to prompt specific emotions and not to really discuss politics, using
sentimentalism, patriotism, visuals rich in colors, warm light and happy families this ad
was one of the most successful during the 1984 election (Brader, 2006:2-5-6).
To better understand this ad it is important to know the context of the year 1984. The
economy was increasing, oil prices were low and interest rates were high. Reagan was
seen as a hopeful president who gave back public confidence to the military. “Prouder,
Stronger, Better” is an ads which gather all the parts of the American dream in showing
normal Americans through their lives steps along with a music and a montage close to
beer advertising. According to Philip Dusenbery, Reagan campaign consultant, this ad
was made to trigger emotions rather than political thoughts. Reagan’s reelection
campaign ads were made by the Tuesday Team which oriented the campaign toward
the idea of optimism restoration through ads showing idyllic lives. Moreover, the voice
chosen as background for this ad is a well known voice already used for many
commercials such as cars and insurance (Thelivingroomcandidate, 1984).
Fear ad: “Daisy”
Lyndon B. Johnson took the office right after Kennedy’s death in November 1963. He
won a positive public image after winning the battle to pass the landmark civil Rights Act
which gave African-American access to all public facilities.
This famous ad named “Peace Little Girl” (Daisy), was broadcast only once on 7
September 1964. This ad shows a little girl counting until ten while picking the petals off
a daisy flower, when she reaches nine; a scary adult voice takes the counting over and
gives way to a nuclear explosion. The ad was actually using public fear of a nuclear war
to shape voters behavior and was highlighting the fact that if Johnson was elected
nothing like this would happen. This ad was harshly criticized but made the buzz and
even appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. At the time, this kind of ad was utterly
innovative and was very strong in emotions generated through provocative music,
images and the catchy closing sentence "Vote for President Johnson on November 3.
The Stakes Are Too High for You to Stay at Home" (Thelivingroomcandidate, 1964).
This ad was made to initiate public anxieties and fear to make people react and vote for
Johnson in associating their fears to the opponent Goldwater. The Daisy ad stimulated
attentiveness and encouraged people to reconsider their choices. This ad was extremely
controversial because it was associating a young girl and a nuclear explosion (Brader,
unimpassioned ad: “Trickle down”
During this election the main topic was economics and internal issues because the Cold
War wasn’t on the front page anymore after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Clinton
and Perot were indeed focusing on economic matters which were the favorite concern of
the surprisingly independent party. It was the first time in American politics that, neither a
democrat nor a republican candidate ran for presidency.
Ross Perot built his campaign around the American economy and his ad “Trickle Down”
is a perfect demonstration of his party concentration on deficit reduction. He stressed
that the American economy was failing because of its debt and the trickle down
breakdown and put himself as the man who was best qualified to fix the problem. His
campaign was mostly self-funded and had a lot of public support which allowed him to
gain 20 percent of the popular votes. Through his tough advertisement he got a relative
success and was able to strongly damage Bush campaign in criticizing how he handled
the American economy (Thelivingroomcandidate, 1992).
unimpassioned ads are mainly made up of arguments and information they are generally
not the ones people talk about during elections and according to Kern (1989) they
appear as less effective due to their lack of emotions.
The ad mostly includes a script which scrolls up the screen while the narrator speaks
and raindrops in the background. The most common unimpassioned ad is “Talking
Head,” which shows the candidate’s face simply talking in front of the camera. It is in this
kind of ads that body language and facial expression are the most important in order to
trigger emotions in the viewers (Brader, 2006: 11)
Storytelling ad: “Ashley story”
This ad is often considered by specialists as a masterpiece of storytelling. This video
was shown in nine contested states in the month before the elections in 2004. At that
time, The Iraq war was the main issue of the campaign as well as domestic concerns
such as the economy, healthcare and jobs. After three presidential elections focusing
mainly on domestic concerns in 2004 the entire campaign highlighted military issues and
foreign affairs (Thelivingroomcandidate, 2004).
It is following this political trend that Progress For America Voter Fund, a private but pro
Bush organization, launched this TV ad featuring its main character: Ashley Faulkner, 16
years old, who lost her mother during the 9/11 events. The video starts with the Ashley’s
father voice “My wife Wendy was murdered by terrorists on September 11th” then the
father tells the story of their tragedy and how Ashley was affected by her mother’s death.
The clip continues with Ashley meeting George W. Bush and the father’s voice in the
background telling how much this meeting helped his daughter and how the President
cared about her. This campaign was very powerful and efficient because it was using
really strong emotions, only three years after 9/11; Americans were still affected by the
tragedy. The ad actually played on feelings such as sadness, compassion, patriotism
and hope. The organization succeeded in showing Ashley as the symbol of American
hope which could get over this tragedy but helped by George W. Bush it would be
People who watched the video couldn’t be against the president because it would have
meant being against America and its need to take revenge. George W. Bush showed
himself as a saver and a protector for Ashley and all the 9/11 victims. He appeared as
the only one who could counter terrorism.
This ad is considered as one of the best in American political history because it provides
a complex message with several strong emotions and was launched at the right moment
using the right feelings.
B. Findings and literature
Using focus groups was really interesting because it allowed me to see different points
of view and interpretations of the four TV ads shown. However, group members are
always influenced by others and some groups worked better than others so it is
sometimes difficult to lead participants to the topic which matter the most. At the same
time I didn’t want to lead them too much by interfering too often in the conversation so I
tried to ask questions only when there were blanks or they were going too far from the
initial topic. For instance, groups 1, 2 and 4 worked very well, they were pushing each
other towards interesting reflection but group 3 was a bit messier. They had difficulties to
understand some of the ads such as the “Daisy” one and were focused too much on the
message content and what it implied on a political level and not that much on emotions,
feelings, images, sounds and other background features.
Besides, focus groups represent a small scale of society with people from different
backgrounds and cultural upbringings so they interpret and understand things
completely differently sometimes such as the choice of the most efficient ad even if most
of the participants went for the “Ashley Story” but few of them preferred either the first,
second or the third. There were mainly different points of view regarding the “Trickle
down” ad, which was either understood as an unemotional ad, a sad ad and an ad
triggering hope. These differences can be explained by how participants understand rain
and what raindrops mean for them. Moreover, it is often noticeable that during the group
activities the members were influencing each other and when someone was sure of their
argument, only a few dared to contradict them and most of the time, points of view were
eventually quite similar.
It is now relevant to link the focus groups’ results to literature, developed in the chapters
Regarding the Salmon (2008) theory of storytelling we can notice that videos 1, 2 and 4
were trying to tell a story. In the first one “Good Morning America” it is a story of a
perfect American living with his family, involved in the church, flags, happiness and
hope. It is actually the story of the American dream. The second one: “Daisy” was a
totally different story focusing on nuclear issues and America in danger triggering mainly
fear. The story of a president who will save America like most of American president had
done before. The fourth one “Ashley Story” was considered by Salmon (2008) as a
masterpiece of storytelling and it seems to be confirmed by most of the participants who
designated this video as the most efficient one.
Regarding the narrative characteristic of these videos, according to Simmons (2007: 2324) there are six different kind of stories. Among them there is the Why-I-Am-Here
Stories, which help legitimize the candidate who can be associated with the “Morning in
America” ad in which Ronald Reagan tries to show how important it is to vote for him
again because he made America better during his first mandate. There is also the Vision
Stories which justify the present issues for a better future and can be related to the
“Daisy” ad where Lyndon B. Johnson tries to scare voters with nuclear issues and
present himself as the solution to avoid them. The third video “Trickle Down” could be
the Values-in-Action Stories which help illustrate values through actions made or
planned to be made in proposing an alternative to an economic model which failed. The
last one “Ashley Story” would be more like a Teaching Story containing morals, gained
from personal experience in using the 9/11 tragedy to get people to vote.
Best narratives appear to be simple ones with a straightforward and short message. For
instance, during focus group number 1, a participant defended the third video by saying
that “it exposes the problem and gives you a solution “.
Following the concept of dramaturgy from Goffman (1990) we can notice that in the first
video the staging is all about the American way of life and patriotism (featuring flags),
music and happiness feelings. The role is being a good American, the script is it is better
than four years ago, the costume are being dressed as a standard American and it is
staged in a “nice” and quiet suburbs.
The second video is very theatrical with strong and scary sounds, set up to produce fear.
There are two main roles: the little girl who represents peace and the nuclear explosion
which stands for the possible danger to come. The script is simple: voting for Lyndon B.
Johnson is inevitable to avoid a dark future and the stage can be the video in black and
white which pushes further the feeling of fear. The third video is the less theatrical and
only the rain could be the staging and the voice and argument the script. The last video
“Ashley Story” is a real play from the beginning to the end with several actors such as
the girl, her father and George W. Bush, the script encapsulate that the tragedy is
understood by the president who will take care of everybody, and the stage is a middle
American family in a peaceful and nice American town.
The personification of the candidate is also observable mainly in the last video for which
a member of the second focus group commented “This kind of ad is good because it
makes people feel closer to the candidate through compassion,” which supports Keeter,
(1987) who states that in order to make voters feel closer, communicators need to create
an intimate link with the candidates and to do so they are using narratives and small
stories such as television series with suspense, twists and turns.