The Visual Subtext of the Statue of Liberty Fly-by Photo

One image alone was released from the expensive photo op that terrified New Yorkers last month. Out of God only knows how many images taken during the mission, only one was chosen. It speaks powerfully to the American public -- in symbolic language.

The ominous and imposing aircraft dominates the scene in such a way that, in gestalt parlance, no one could mistake the figure for the ground.  The figure is an aircraft that serves as Air Force One, representing the Messianic omnipotence of the Obama presidency.  Below it, part of the background -- a small and less relevant thing in comparison to the aircraft -- stands the Statue of Liberty, representing the individual freedoms that Americans have come to treasure and enjoy.

The message and its purpose could not be clearer: we must reset our priorities.  Now that the democracy is at last headed by this magnificent and elegant man, we must put the federal government and its needs ahead of our paltry individual freedoms.  Of what value, after all, is the property Americans have spent their lifetimes to acquire, or one's right to defend oneself with a firearm, or even the privilege of living in an upwardly mobile society that used to be the envy of the rest of the world, in comparison to the Leader's magnificently powerful icon, glistening like a phoenix in the sun?

The question is whether, in the absence of any mainstream reporting as to the symbolic purpose of the photo, its wide dissemination will actually have the originally-intended effect?  In psychology, this is referred to as the "perpiheral route to persuasion."  It refers to the phenomenon whereby an audience is more affected by symbols in a message than by the logic of the message itself.  It is most effective when the audience is passive, such as the state of mind of the average television viewer.  It is a technique that is commonly used in advertising (for example, when the man running on the beach throwing a Frisbee to his dog is shown as the announcer recites a drug's perilous side effects). 

In the case of "Air Farce One" the President's communications people may have reversed their former position to withhold the photo from public release under the logic that the peripheral persuasiveness of the photograph would ultimately prevail over the cognitive reasoning that the thing was a waste of taxpayer money.  And, given this president's success with peripheral persuasion, they may very well be right.  The passive and apolitical television viewer will likely see the photo, take in its symbolic value, and go away thinking the whole thing was nothing more than another Washington gotcha game.

The peripheral route to persuasion became the dominant communication mode in politics after the 1960 presidential election, when it was revealed that radio listeners thought Nixon had gotten the better of Kennedy in the debates, whereas television viewers thought Kennedy the victor.  Since then, the sordid annals of political image-making have been filled with examples of mixed messages, in which the symbolic imagery conveys one thing while the policies reflect another.

These days, we have gone so far beyond mere Orwellian double entendre that it staggers the imagination.  Bald, unabashed political patronage is "stimulus."  A job at Americorps servitude is "volunteerism."  Confiscatory taxation is "paying one's fair share."  One yearns to be living in an Ayn Rand or Tom Wolfe novel in order to escape the much harsher absurdities of modern day existence. 

To be "conservative" today means being a mere relativist or postmodernist.  One yearns for the days when existentialism was the dominant paradigm because at least it had some uncertainty to it.  The current crop of true believers is certain that life begins sometime after birth, that capitalism is perilously flawed, that America is not and should not be exceptional, that central planning is our salvation.  And they have the money and Hollywood-inspired tools to present that message in a powerful, near-subliminal manner.

If the President and his minions were interested in truth in advertising perhaps they should have wrapped the Statue of Liberty in a burkha and placed a "Mission Accomplished" banner in front of it.  But then the subtlety would be gone and we would be left to debate the truth about this administration and its agenda for the American people.

Victor J. Massad, Ph.D. is a semi-retired professor of marketing and owner of  He is a regular contributor at the political forum
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