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Susan Scheibler on the Media and 2016 Presidential Elections

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Susan Scheibler
School of Film and Television

The media’s role in reporting elections and their own impact on them have been have been scrutinized for decades. With primary races underway, it’s clear that there will be just as much to study in the 2016 election cycle. Susan Scheibler, who teaches in the Film, TV and Media Students program of the School of Film and Television, talks about broadcast and online media and their place in the current election season.

When did television first begin to be used effectively for political messaging?

Around 1952, right about when TV really began entering homes. Eisenhower was the first candidate to create political ads. He spent a day at Radio City Music Hall in New York answering questions from an audience. His answers were edited to 20-second spots that aired as commercial breaks during popular shows, like “I Love Lucy.” They were called “Eisenhower Answers America” and credited with helping him win the election.

President Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were given credit for their use of social media, but were they also innovative in their use of visual media?

Bill Clinton is credited as being the first to use talk shows and MTV to tap into the youth vote. Obama did the same, appearing on talk shows and “Saturday Night Live.” Obama used Twitter but also, by the second election, Xbox and other game consoles, the visual media of guerrilla art, along with traditional TV spots. While he didn’t control them, his supporters created great memes and GIFs that went viral, as well as their own video posted to Facebook and YouTube.

Televised debates have shaped the campaigns thus far, but do you see signs that any candidates will use TV or online media in innovative ways?

So far, no, although the estimates are that spending on TV by the election in 2016 will surpass $6.4 billion and spending on online media will surpass $1 billion. I think the one candidate who seems to be inclined to use online media the most creatively is Bernie Sanders. He also has the sort of young supporters who do what candidates hope for: create low-budget spots that go viral.

American audiences love pull-the-curtain-away, behind-the-scenes stories, but are they skillful in deconstructing political ads?

It’s hard to say. Scholarship on spectatorship has shown that the generation that saw newsreels about World War II in cinemas was much better at critically assessing fiction war movies made during and after the war than the current generation is at reading war movies. Political ads tend to appeal to emotion not issues, so it’s very difficult for people to find the distance necessary for critical thought.

How has the advent of online visual consumption, such as YouTube, shaped political campaigns?

It has opened up the space for viewer-created content, whether “caught on tape” moments, or memes and parodies, or posting images from traditional broadcast news and official political ads. But most campaigns still think of online media as a place to post ads. The more creative campaigns are using video games and video game consoles. I watched one of the presidential debates through the Xbox and was able to comment through XBox with other gamers who were watching it. I watched Obama’s inauguration on my TV and through Facebook, so I could participate in watching and commenting with people from around the world.

What are political consultants learning from the popularity of funny memes and 15-second snippets of cats at play?

Probably nothing — the videos that go viral are so diverse, and there’s also a lot of depth in some. I don’t know what they study, but if it were me, I’d be checking out the videos that go viral and have subscribers. It’s not so much about the number of hits as the number of comments and subscribers.