unizeit Schriftzug

Striking messages

In election campaigns, parties not only rely on political content, but also on images. The aim of these is to steer the public image of the candidates in a specific direction, through the associated emotions. Researchers from Kiel University have taken a closer look.

Election poster
© picture alliance/Daniel Kubirski

The election campaign has begun. Before the federal election, the parties will once again put up their posters. The images are meant to arouse emotions - and motivate voters to put their crosses. (Archive photo, Landtag election Baden-Württemberg 2021)

The Bundestag elections on 26 September are approaching. The parties are in election campaign mode. This is also evident in the photos that present the candidates for chancellor. They know that a picture says more than a thousand words. It conveys a certain public image of the person to those who look at it through the visual language and the resulting associations – faster and more directly than any text can. The parties use these emotions in a targeted manner to mobilise their voters.

Politics and emotions: at first glance, these are two terms that – according to general opinion – are perhaps, or even certainly, mutually exclusive. "Politics is generally considered very rational," explained political scientist Dr Brigitte Bargetz, who teaches political theory, history of ideas and political culture at the Institute of Social Sciences at Kiel University, and tackles topics such as gender research. "Decisions should be made on the basis of facts and figures, and not based on feelings." In Germany, the reason for this view also lies in the country's history. After the manipulations of the masses in the Third Reich, a certain objectivity and rationality became important in politics following the end of the war.

In any event, feelings in public life were widely frowned upon. "Emotions have been predominantly attributed to women over the centuries. To show feelings, especially in the male-dominated world of business and politics, was considered weak, even though this view has now changed in society," explained Bargetz.

However, feelings have always played a role in politics, explained her colleague, political scientist Dr Axel Heck, who researches international relations at the Institute of Social Sciences. "Many conflicts have an emotional dimension. They are based, for example, on the feeling of a lack of recognition, threat and fear." However, up until about 15 years ago, this was hardly an issue in political science research. And this is even though emotions are always involved in politics, whether unconsciously or consciously: in texts or images, on election posters or on the Internet. "Politicians portray themselves there as strong, brave, goal-oriented and assertive – these are all feelings. However, they are often not perceived as such in society," said Bargetz. "And if so, they are put into play primarily as a benchmark for assessing female politicians. They then show either too much or not enough feelings, as was often claimed in the media about Hillary Clinton, for example, but also about Angela Merkel."

But how do the politicians present themselves visually? Statesmanlike, reputable, competent, young, modern? What kind of image of themselves do they want to convey on their respective websites by selecting the photos used, and what associations are actually awakened in the people who look at them? Heck wanted to determine this in a small experiment with around 50 Bachelor's and Master's students. "On the subject of ‘politics and emotions', we examined the homepages of the chancellor candidates who were already decided in mid-May," said Heck. These are Annalena Baerbock (Green Party), Armin Laschet (CDU) and Olaf Scholz (SPD).

The students looked at the photos on the pages, and discussed what impact these had on them. In doing so, they made exciting discoveries. For example, Armin Laschet, actually known as the "relaxed, cheerful Rhinelander", presents himself as extremely serious and statesmanlike on his website. Images with the German and EU flags in the background, and with him in the company of world leaders, are intended to show that he is competent to be chancellor, said Heck regarding the opinions of the students. “There are no photos showing him relaxed and down to earth, or in private. He can always be seen wearing a tie." A noticeable shortcoming compared to the other sites is that there are only three images featuring women. One of them is Chancellor Merkel.

Olaf Scholz is different. Although the black-and-white photo on the homepage of the SPD candidate's website, in which Scholz appears "very serious", looks like a "funeral picture," according to original comments by the students, the homepage itself scores points due to diversity. Scholz presents himself with people of every generation and culture, and in the colourful pictures, which also show him in private with rolled-up trousers by the Baltic Sea, presents himself as approachable and open-minded. "The SPD politician often appears in the media to be gruff, cold and a little bland," explained Heck. "The images on the website are a visual counter to this public image."

According to the students, Annalena Baerbock presents herself in a modern, goal-oriented way, and looks very natural in the images, no matter whether in a suit or a leather jacket. "The photos present her as very competent, and are supposed to counterbalance the opinion that she has less experience than the male candidates," said Heck.

However, the expert does not believe that the images really have a decisive influence on people when choosing to vote for the respective person. "A voting decision requires much more than just an image. Whether the candidates are as competent as they present themselves, will become apparent. After all, the election campaign has only just begun."

Author: Jennifer Ruske