17 June 2004

Preaching to the Converted

One often hears the criticism that political graphics are just “preaching to the converted.” After all, no one’s mind is changed by a poster. Why waste limited time and energy on mutual admiration? A self-reinforcing love-in doesn’t move the masses.

This criticism assumes that such graphics are actually intending to change the mind of the viewer. In turn, this is based on a narrow conception of how advertising works: one sells an idea, brand, or product to a passive and otherwise uninterested consumer.

Whatever the intention, the function of posters is often not to change people’s minds outright, but to push them in a certain direction. Posters make ideas publicly visible and provide alternative explanations, interpretations, narratives, and myths, or reinforce existing ones. Whether or not they directly convince, posters can provoke skepticism. And, without putting forth a nuanced argument, posters can provide notice of an event or opportunity.

Within politically marginalized communities, posters are a way for the community to assert its voice publicly, to put forward its own images and narratives, promote collective action, and ultimately seize political power and push for social change. When no dissent is visible in the corporate media, posters and graphics are one alternative venue. Showing cracks in the ‘consensus’ may convince others to speak out.

While many in the street are ephemeral and quickly replaced or washed away, posters also have historical value. They are often collected and preserved by a variety of individuals and institutions. As Carol Wells, of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, points out, when history is written by the victors, posters provide a tangible record of social movements otherwise confined to the margins or entirely left out of the ‘acceptable’ narrative. Such grahpics are a visible voice from the past that future generations can learn from and build upon.

But if graphics don’t change people’s minds, how does one reach those ‘moderates,’ ‘undecideds,’ and ‘swing states’? drapetomaniac once proposed that changing minds is often an indirect result of propaganda. No one I know listens to right-wing talk radio, yet somehow its arguments seep into the “mainstream,” occasionally tilting “conventional wisdom,” and ultimately trickling into casual conversation. I imagine that hearing an idea one agrees or learning additional facts, broadcast with conviction from a source you trust may do something to bolster one’s own confidence. And in conversations with others, this must surely come across.

While those 92% of people polled who said political ads had not swayed them to change their prospective votes, how would a poll measure the impact of the ads on the people who agreed with the messages? i.e. of those people on others?

So why not preach to the converted? There’s certainly a value in bringing people together around an issue, rallying the base, and reinvigorating exhausted campaigners.