Take a look in the mirror

Reg Hoare

In the age of television and now social media – image often trumps policy when it comes to general election marketing and candidate reputation.

Political scientists famously use the example of the first televised election debate as to why image matters in contemporary politics, namely the Nixon vs Kennedy debate of the 1960 US presidential campaign. Tricky Dicky (Nixon) looked wan and with a five o’clock shadow; JFK (Kennedy) looked young, handsome and tanned (well it was in the days of black and white TV). In fact Nixon was only four years older but lacked Kennedy’s presence, helped by the latter being much taller. That image turned a six point deficit into a narrow Kennedy victory a few weeks later. Nixon eventually got his revenge in 1968 against Hubert Humphrey, who didn’t have Kennedy’s image advantage.

And so in every election of the last sixty years of the television age (and now social media age) image has often trumped policies. There’s no doubt that Blair and Cameron were perceived as more attractive candidates than their respective opponents. Indeed as this BBC article argues first impressions are a crucial element in how we think about our fellow citizens and leaders.

In the Networked Age, MHP’s own research has shown that unless we try to understand behavioural psychology (and in particular the behaviour that has driven political populism), we cannot understand why people vote as they vote in general elections – in short voters see their candidates’ lips move, but they don’t always choose to hear what they’re saying; ie they’re focusing on the image not the content.

Of course, attractiveness is entirely subjective and in the eye of the beholder, but age is also a first impression on which voters will either instinctively or subconsciously judge the attractions of a candidate. And that instinct (in a two-horse race) will probably lean towards a younger man who may be perceived as having more energy, joie de vivre and staying power in such a demanding role that might last five years.

As the famous misfired Tory strapline of the 2005 General Election coined it – ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’?  Consider this: Corbyn’s nicknames range from the ‘magic grandpa’ to Albert Steptoe (for those over 50 who recall BBC’s Steptoe & Son)…Johnson’s nickname is…well Boris. Remember the Nixon-Kennedy era – Nixon had been known as Tricky Dicky since the 1950s, whereas Kennedy was always the softer JFK.

So when it came to the TV head to head with Johnson, despite Corbyn’s decent showing, much of the social media coverage was around Corbyn’s wonky glasses (apparently due to a medical condition) rather than what he actually said – as was widely tweeted by well-known journalists rather than just Corbyn’s opponents.

In summary, one has to ask the question…will the British public’s subconscious persuade them to vote for the younger man’s party (Johnson is 55 with a 31 year old girlfriend) rather than the frailer looking 70 year old’s. Certainly the polling evidence shows Johnson with a strong favourability lead over Corbyn, particularly in terms of being ‘prime ministerial’ and ‘likeable’.  My instinct tells me ‘likeable’ is code for image attractiveness, and that’s where my money is.