Signs and symbols in 2020 presidential campaigns


Editor’s note: As the Nov. 3 election draws near, the Daily Universe is exploring different national and local issues impacting voters in a series of stories.

People walk outside the Curb Event Center at Belmont University Oct. 20 as preparations take place for the final presidential debate which is scheduled to take place on Thursday, Oct. 22. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

There’s a lot more to presidential debates and speeches than what candidates say out loud.

“Whether or not we see the influence of symbols, they’re there. We may not be able to articulate that influence, but it certainly plays a part in our own interpretation of political messages,” said BYU communications professor and media scholar Scott Church.

One of Church’s research interests is a field called semiotics. “To someone I’m not teaching I would say (semiotics is) trying to understand what something means to us as an audience. What something means to our politics, to our attitudes, to our values. How language and image can come together to create a certain meaningful message to an audience.”

Church teaches a class called Popular Culture and Media, in which he helps students analyze subliminal messages in pop culture “texts,” which may include everything from fashion and films to shopping malls and architecture, the course syllabus says. Church said it’s also important to pay attention to these messages in politics.

“It’s not just about policy anymore,” Church said, explaining that in today’s era of televised debates, image plays a much greater role than in the day-long, in-person debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Underlying messages used by candidates include clothing, colors and hairstyle, Church said.

“(Former Vice President Joe Biden) is a savvy politician. He knows the power of signs and symbols, and that is most obvious in his masks that he wears,” Church said.

Church also pointed out Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, who could potentially be the first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States, as a semiotic move, as well as Biden’s meme-inspiring dance to “Despacito” during a speech to Latino voters.

The signs and symbols used by President Donald Trump are also important to note, Church said. “He is trying to create himself into an icon, a business and a political icon. That’s why it’s very important for him to maintain that hairstyle.”

Public speaking professor and bestselling author Kurt Mortensen said looking for unspoken messages in the candidates’ behavior can help viewers find deception.

“It takes a lot of mental bandwidth to lie, so you’re going to see in your face that it’s going,” Mortensen said. He said to look for made-up facial expressions in candidates because when someone is pretending to show anger they will often hold the expression too long.

Other signs of possible deception include vocal filters, repetitions, slower sentences or increased blinking, according to Mortensen. He also said when people lie they tend to distance themselves and take up more space. However, he said identifying one of those signs doesn’t prove the politician is lying.

Mortensen said viewers should observe the speaker in a relaxed environment and identify what mannerisms the speaker does naturally. Then, he said, audiences should look for “clusters,” three or four of the abnormal behaviors like avoiding eye contact, increased stuttering or significantly slowing down mid-speech. Even then, Mortensen said it is difficult to detect deception in politicians because, like rule-breaking teenagers, they practice their lies.

“It has to be a question that throws them off, hits an emotional trigger, that’s where you’re going to see a lot of these things come out,” Mortensen said.

Ultimately, Mortensen said the effect of these unspoken messages is limited because most viewers who watch these debates and speeches have already made up their minds.

Political science professor Quin Monson, who does research in public opinion, campaigns, and elections, said debates have a small impact on voting and most people will hear about the debate from friends and family or from after-the-fact news coverage.

Professor Scott Church said semiotics matter when considering the presidential candidates. Church teaches a class called Popular Culture and Media at BYU. (Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo)

Church said it’s important to recognize signs and symbols used by politicians not only to reach a more informed decision on a candidate but also to become more media-literate in general.

“It’s also important as well to try to be mindful of these things and take a step back and understand that they’re persuasive, but also how they’re persuasive,” he said. “And being able to ask those questions can help us do the needed research and be more informed to make the best vote possible.”

The final presidential debate was Oct. 22, 7 p.m. MST.

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