Democrats are messing with your mind at this convention. Republicans last week did, too.
Democrats are making sure that their star speakers stand in front of soothing colors. They speak on a set that’s wide open and welcoming. Behind them are slogans that the party wants you to associate with Hillary Clinton.
It’s all part of subliminally delivering to millions of television viewers indelible images of Clinton and the Democratic Party. Political strategists have been employing such tactics since conventions became televised spectacles after World War II.
In fact, this has been happening for centuries.
As an example of using texture and contrast to promote an image, says John Gates, a Boston-based lighting designer and consultant, look to Egypt’s pyramids. They were “deliberately designed to be a form not found anywhere in nature near where they were built. Not just their height and mass separates them from their surroundings, the lines and texture do it,” he said.
These tactics are the same as anyone with something to sell. “It’s like the popcorn signs flashing in the movie theater,” said Ann Selzer, an Iowa-based pollster.
Republicans last week had the same goal as Democrats this week: They want to trigger impressions of their party and their candidates as serious, loving mothers, fathers, soldiers and statesmen and stateswomen. For GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, the silhouetted smoke-filled entrance on Monday after his wife, Melania, spoke suggested the emergence of a strong leader and star.
“You’re combining aesthetics and psychology, and adding some spectacle,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University and veteran political media consultant.
“Nothing is left to coincidence,” added Kenn Venit, a Hamden, Conn.-based media consultant. “Conventions are staged the same way as a Broadway show.”
We want this to resonate in people’s heads.
Karen Carter Peterson, Louisiana Democratic chairman
Take a look at the 2016 Democratic National Convention logo. The zero is a Liberty Bell. Democrats, that says, are champions of freedom, heirs to the Founding Fathers’ legacy.
Democratic convention officials would not discuss specifics. “I can say that from the beginning we intended this to be the most inclusive, forward-looking and innovative convention in history,” said April Mellody, deputy convention chief executive officer for communications. With the stage design, she said, “we aimed to engage Americans well beyond the hall.”
Republicans had some success last week. A post-convention CNN/ORC poll showed Trump with a bounce, and he’s now slightly ahead of Clinton.
So this week it’s the Democrats’ turn to gently manipulate you into thinking good thoughts about them as the convention moves toward its closing arguments Thursday.
Here are some of their techniques:
1. Color them blue. Yellow is bright and happy. After Clinton won the nomination Tuesday night, longtime friend Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, spoke about her in glowing terms before a bright yellow backdrop.
But for most speakers, including Michelle Obama, the backdrop was largely blue, which is cool and calming.
“The point of all this is to clearly make the viewer look at what we want them to look at – creating contrast by use of color and textures are two tools,” explained Gates.
Conventions are meant to be good theater.
Jaime Harrison, South Carolina Democratic chairman
Blue is useful because “many shades of blue look good behind, contrasted with, all the human skin tones, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender,” he said.
2. Repetition and inclusiveness. Monday, “Putting Families First’’ appeared behind speakers. Tuesday the flashed words included “Social Justice” and “Women and Families.”
“That’s messaging in politics. You have to say things over and over,” explained John Zody, Indiana Democratic Chairman.
The podium, too, is designed to be open and welcoming. It sits atop a long flight of wide steps, open to the floor — though no one unauthorized can climb them. At the top are two lines that converge in a circle, where most speakers deliver their remarks.
“It shows openness. It suggests people coming together and focusing,” explained Jaime Harrison, South Carolina Democratic Party chairman.
3. Everyone has that young, healthy look. “They bring in the best makeup artists. Everyone has to look healthy and vigorous,” said Venit.
After all, Hillary Clinton is 68. Running-mate Tim Kaine is 58. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who led a session on women lawmakers Tuesday, is 76.
GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is 70; his vice presidential choice, Mike Pence, is 57. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke at the GOP convention, is 74.
The parties need to convince viewers its leaders don’t need afternoon naps to do an effective job. Looking vibrant “conveys a sense of strength, of endurance,” said Karen Green, a Democratic delegate from Orlando, Fla.
4. The music matters, not so much the lyrics. What gets played creates mood and evokes emotion, Zody said.
Monday, when Sanders spoke, he was preceded by Paul Simon, singing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
A day later, after Sanders asked the convention to suspend its rules and nominate Clinton by acclamation, Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” blasted through the hall. The delegates waved signs and danced.
What matters, said Zody, was not so much the songs themselves, but the memories evoked. Simon is a reminder to baby boomers of political battles of the past, the ones Clinton fought. “Happy” is a more modern signal.
5. The final image endures. The most important message of all is the nonverbal farewell Thursday night. It’s a carefully choreographed few minutes. The candidate finishes the speech. The family and running-mate join the stage. They raise their hands in triumph. Intraparty rivals can come up, too, in a show of unity. Balloons drop. Confetti fills the hall.
If all goes well, it’s a photo that’s a political cliche. And if something goes wrong, it creates an indelible image that gets analyzed for days.
In 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s reluctance to shake President Jimmy Carter’s hand on the convention’s final night after a bitter campaign set a tone neither could erase. The scene was awkward. Democratic leaders came up to the podium to join Carter. When Kennedy joined them, the audience cheered loudly. He seemed uneasy.
The message was clear. The Democratic Party remained fractured, and Carter lost his bid for a second term.