Federal Politics

Reflecting on a presidential image

A decidedly different light is being shone on the alternative PM.

President Jed Bartlet slides softly into a plush Air Force One seat beside his wife, Abbey, who asks him, "What are you thinking about?"

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Spinning campaign ads

Does Tony Abbott's campaign photo look familiar? It seems to echo the final scene of the West Wing while Rudd's stand-up looks a lot like Obama's campaign videos which is all about connecting with the audience.

"Tomorrow," he says, staring pensively out the plane window with the light slowly moving across his face.

For anyone familiar with political drama of the highest order, this is instantly recognisable as the last scene of fictional US television show The West Wing. But even for those not in the know, it feels like a familiar scene - much like an image at the end of a new Liberal Party campaign ad.

This photo, used in a campaign ad, shows Tony Abbott on the campaign trail flying from Melbourne to Sydney on a private ...
This photo, used in a campaign ad, shows Tony Abbott on the campaign trail flying from Melbourne to Sydney on a private plane. Photo: Jason South/Fairfaxphotos

The Liberal ad, titled New Hope, comes to an end with a powerful still of a thoughtful Tony Abbott staring pensively out a plane window, perhaps thinking about Australia's tomorrow.

The photo itself is an editorial image, taken by Fairfax photographer Jason South during the 2010 election campaign, and sold to the Liberal Party for commercial use by the Fairfax Syndication service.


And, according to Australian National University lecturer Andrew Hughes, its purchase and use by the party marks a subtle shift both in Tony Abbott's image from sportsman to deep thinker, and in Liberal tactics towards a more US-style campaign, marketing a more presidential Abbott.

Hughes says the classic composition and subject of the picture is the political equivalent of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, and is all about presenting a particular image of a strong, smart, authoritative leader.

President Jed Bartlet, a character in the US television show The West Wing.
President Jed Bartlet, a character in the US television show The West Wing. Photo: NBC screen grab

"It's meant to show the person involved in deep thought, thinking about an issue. So in other words they're not being rash or rushed with a decision," Hughes said.

"They're usually on the plane by themselves or there's no one else in the shot … because it shows that way they've asked for time to be left alone, so it's all reinforcing that image that this person is intelligent."

A similar photo shows Barack Obama on a campaign charter during his successful 2008 election campaign.
A similar photo shows Barack Obama on a campaign charter during his successful 2008 election campaign. Photo: Jae C Hong

Hughes, who is in the final stages of a thesis on political advertising, said the psychology behind an image choice can run deep, and in this case is more about marketing Abbott's presence rather than Liberal policy.

"It's very prime ministerial or presidential. That's the thing - it's a part of the presidentisation, or Americanisation, of Australian politics and how we're now moving into campaigns being on the leaders effectively," he said. "Political parties don't aim for you to connect any more to the party brand, it's more identification with the person brand, the leader brand of the party."

Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett in <i>The West Wing</i>.
Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing

FTI Consulting's Russell Mahoney, who was a communications adviser to Julia Gillard during the 2010 campaign, said these sorts of solitary, serious photos not only portray intelligence and authority but also can capture a human side to politicians - a key element in modern campaigns.

"That's what these photos are about, they're about showing that our leaders are serious, thoughtful people, and they do spend time contemplating the big issues for our country," he said.

"Voters can spot insincerity a mile off, and that's one of the reasons you see politicians, particularly Kevin Rudd, Instagramming essentially private moments of their lives. It's about showing people that they are real … It plays into this sense that these people are real people, that they understand your issues, that they have the same problems getting up in the morning and going to work that everyone else does."

Rudd made headlines early in the campaign by recruiting several members of Barack Obama's team to handle digital strategy for the Labor Party leading into the election.

But despite the ever-increasing promotion of leaders and personality over parties and policy, it is still comparatively rare for Australian journalists to gain the sort of access afforded to American colleagues.

Unlike in the US, candidates will not always make room on the plane, or allow photographers into the back rooms, to see the times when guards are down, politics are left at the door and raw human moments overcome public facades.

Mahoney said politicians had to weigh up the risks of allowing journalists deep inside election camps with the benefits of the stories of genuine humanity that might emerge.

"Should politicians do them more? Probably, because they can just throw up golden moments for you," he said. "When you give lengthy, intimate access, I think voters can pick up on that, and they can see that they're seeing the real person rather than the very staged-managed person that they'd see in a 12-second grab on the nightly news. I think voters can pick up on that."

Photographer South, who took the photo of Abbott staring out the plane window during a flight to which Fairfax was given exclusive access during the 2010 campaign, said providing these opportunities was one area where US politics got it right.

In his view, a shift towards that American style would give voters more insight into their nation's leaders as human beings. "The fact that you're on a great big 737 with only 12 people on the flight and [Abbott's] sitting on his own, it's a moment that not many people will see," he said

"The White House have their own photographers, and pretty much everything is documented; there aren't any holds barred. You know the great historical photos of the Kennedys in the Oval Office, and all of that stuff - that's really rich history that we will never have here unless we instigate something like that."

Hypotheses on the sociology and psychology of letting the public in to these intimate moments run deep, and the choice of a particular photo can be analysed endlessly.

But it could also just come down to good photography in a tight situation.

"Planes give off an odd light because you're above the cloud layer, and the cloud layer also reflects light back upwards. And also that makes the exterior light stronger than the interior light, which gives it that kind of spotlight effect that when you're trying to isolate someone it's really helpful," South said.

"Plus when you're on a plane there's not a lot of choice … They're trying to sell a message, and we're trying to convey a story, and sometimes they meet in the middle. It may have suited Tony to be [portrayed as] a more reflective human being."

As focus on individual personalities continues, image choices by both parties will probably prompt more scrutiny both in the media over the coming weeks and in voters' minds come September 7.


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