In today’s day and age, we get so much of our information from the media. So many times, we see something on Facebook, in the news, or in movies and we see that image as truth. Image construction in a media culture is complete different than it was prior to these advances in technology. Image has taken hold over how we view everything.
When society broke away from tyranny, Ethos reigned supreme in public communication and how people were viewed. Come the 1960’s, with the emergence of television, there was no longer focus on a single speaker. Instead, there were many. Image dominated credibility and at this point the manipulation of images and symbols were used to move the publics. There was a new focus on fame instead of credentials and we began to move away from a rational world model.
It has been shown that image is more important than it should be and we have moved into an irrational and illogical word flooded with images that are inaccurate but that consumers cannot differentiate from reality. There are five things that are required in consumer culture to build image. In order to be accepted as truth, an image must be synthetic, believable, vivid and concrete, simplify the complex, and be ambiguous.
These traits were introduced by Daniel Boorstein in his book The Image: AGuide to Pseudo—events in America. Boorstein was a product of the rational age and was experiencing the transition into an irrationality of society. By analyzing these traits, we can better understand how image and media affect us, and how even to overcome this irrationality to hopefully see the truth.
The first trait is that images are synthetic. This means that images are crafted by specialists and are peculiar products of the media age. They may not seem peculiar to us, but this is because it’s all we know; it is an idea that is unique to the media age. Meta-imaging is a huge part of images being synthetic. Meta-imaging is taking an actual image and creating a synthetic product of the actual image.
This sounds more confusing than it actually is. A simple example would be the movie The War Room. This movie provided viewers with the illusion that they had watched Bill Clinton’s strategists at work in his first presidential campaign. The film was made to feel like you, the viewer, were there when decisions were being made. There were conversations invented between Clinton’s people that, although never actually happened, people took to be what actually happened.
The next trait required for an image to be accepted is believability; this doesn’t mean that it has to entail truth. For publics, plausibility can sometimes equate to believability or truth. If I can get you to believe something is true, that is all that matters.
President Reagan was someone who exemplified this trait. He was known as a great storyteller and many times his stories functioned as reason even though they may not have actually been so. Reagan filled his narratives with events that came from movies or fictional events as if they were historical events. This was compelling because he actually believed in them. An example of this was a story he told of a World War II pilot. The story was based on a plot from a historical fiction movie that focused on a pilot who sited the enemy and dropped a bomb on them. The plane he was flying was then hit on the way back to base and he lost control. The pilot’s crew member ended up being pinned in the back of the aircraft and when the pilot attempted to help break him free and couldn’t, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take this ride together.”
Clearly, there is no way to know what the pilot said to the crew member or what events transpired, as both the pilot and the crew member died in the crash. When this was pointed out as suspicious, Reagan’s response was, “But it could have happened. Oh, well.” People went on repeating the story as though it were fact.
The third trait in creating an image is that it must be vivid and concrete. Vivid images are touchable, colorful, or striking in some way. There must be a texture, shape, form. Or something that gets our attention. This could be color contrast, tone, exaggeration, and so on. Think about a political cartoon. Obama cartoons would exaggerate his ears and hair line, Nixon’s beard and jowls are exaggerated. There is something striking about these images that let us know WHO these people are.
The fourth trait is that images simplify the complex. A huge example of this is a company’s logo being more important that the name itself. McDonald’s Coca-cola, Nike, Apple, Starbucks, etc are all examples of how an image can simplify the complex. One of the biggest examples of why this matters is the BP oil spill. After the spill, people would see the BP logo and associate that company with the monstrosities that occurred during the oil spill. BP decided to take a negative symbol and recast it as a positive. They completely let go of their old logo and created a new one. The new logo looked like a sun or a flower and the correlation to those things made BP seem like they really cared about the environment instead of destroyed it.
The final trait that is used to create images is that they are ambiguous. Although this seems contradictory to the idea that images simplify the complex, it is not. In image making, ambiguity is often intentional to allow for multiple interpretations. The trouble with this can be that sometimes, the ambiguity can be both positive and negative. Although the goal is to serve multiple, unforeseen purposes, it is open to interpretation by diverse audiences in carried contexts.
An example of this would be the Confederate flag. There was a football game in the 1980’s South Carolina between the Citadel and South Carolina State University. The Citadel’s fight song is Dixie. At the half-time show, the Citadel performed this song under the confederate flag. SCU is a predominately black university, whereas the Citadel is a predominately white, military academy. The Citadel saw tradition in performing under the confederate flag, USC saw a reminder of being enslaved and the ideal of the old south. Riots ensued and there were brawls the remainder of the night.
Although not all five traits have to be in place for an image to be accepted, it is important in the media age for us to know what is being put out and how images are manipulating us.
How can we overcome the manipulation of image construction in a media culture?
Have you ever fallen victim to a false image portrayed in the media? What was it? How did you find out it was false?