Media Training: Corn Dogs And Bad Photo Ops
Ever since the Iowa State Fair earlier this month, we’ve been assaulted by graphic photos showing presidential candidates eating food on a stick.
Yes, that once-every-four-years ritual of politicians eating fried butter on a stick and fried Twinkies on a stick has come around again, and with it comes the inevitable photos of politicians sticking a giant Phallus into their mouths.
I recognize that this article may seem like a cheap excuse to run sordid photos. But there’s a serious point here: If politicians give the media excuses to run unflattering photos, they will.
It’s a tough decision for these politicians. On one hand, they don’t want to star in these shots. But on the other hand, the “food on a stick” culture is an integral part of state fairs. If they reject these silly food offerings, will the locals take it out on them at the voting booth?
Even if the answer is yes, I would do everything possible to avoid these shots – pass food off to an aide, have an aide “accidentally” stand in front of the cameras, or simply avoid those booths altogether.
Those photos, as embarrassing as they may be, aren’t likely to seriously hurt a candidate – but campaigns have been similarly sloppy at managing photo ops in past years.
In 2004, John Kerry learned a tough lesson when he allowed this photo to be snapped during his tour of NASA, which led to weeks of ridicule.
More infamously, there was this picture of 1988’s eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. The photo of Mr. Dukakis wearing an over-sized helmet in a tank may look innocuous now – but at the time, it reinforced the narrative that he was too weak to lead. He got walloped by George H.W. Bush that November.
I regularly see PR pros, politicians, and executives focusing intensively on their talking points and speeches, but never giving a moment’s thought to the visuals. They should. A bad photo can be all it takes to undermine their message – or destroy their career.
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I think there was an even worse shot of Dukakis in the tank. It made him look like Snoopy (as the Red Baron).
Also, the Donna Rice photo isn’t in the same category as the other pix. Hart didn’t want that photo taken to be shown to voters.
I do agree with your point, however, that the potential downside of a corndog picture (really, any food eating picture) outweighs any benefit.
I believe the Hart picture was obtained, not taken, by the Herald. It serves as more of a precautionary tale about the perils of “private” snapshots that are of course even less likely to remain private today.
David and Kent – Thank you both for your comments.
You’re both completely right about the Gary Hart photo, and I removed the reference from this story. I included it to make a different point – that photos can have a devstating effect on a campaign – but you’re right that it distracted from the post. Thank you for flagging that.
David – there are a few different Dukakis photos. After some further digging, I updated the post to include a close up photo rather than the wide shot version.
Thanks for reading the blog!
Two good lessons – don’t do anything that looks awful when taken out of context, and never, ever eat corndogs on the campaign trail! This post made me think of a video equivalent – the “Dean Scream” of a few years back. When you watched the entire video, Howard Dean was just getting the audience pumped up, and in context, it wasn’t that bad. But out of context, he looked like a raving madman. Same idea here – in context, there’s nothing wrong with wearing goofy protective gear, or eating a corndog at a state fair, but in the out of context photo – terrible!
John – great points, and I think your analogy to the “Dean Scream” is spot on.
As a Navy Journalist and Photographer – there are two simple rules:
NEVER take a photo of someone drinking – no matter what it is – it could be perceived as alcohol, and
NEVER take a photo of someone eating. No one ever looks good eating.
Terry – I’ve never heard those rules before – I’m glad you left them on the blog! Seems like the Navy is well ahead of the political world by implementing those two straightforward rules.
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