Academic journal article Parameters

Our Visual Persuasion Gap

Academic journal article Parameters

Our Visual Persuasion Gap

Article excerpt

Visual media is everywhere. Images, still and moving, have spread across the globe on the wings of new technologies. They bombard us wherever we go, in restaurants, airports, museums, shopping malls, sports arenas, and even in gas stations, no less than at home and in the workplace. Even if we wished, we cannot avoid exposure.

The sheer number of new images produced and communicated is astonishing. YouTube now ingests 20 hours of new video every minute. (1) Its site reaches more than 18 percent of the global Internet audience; by comparison, The New York Times site reaches less than one percent. (2) The photo-sharing site Photobucket contains seven billion images and receives 130 billion searches per month, or more than 50,000 searches per second, yet it is playing catch-up to Facebook, which boasts 15 billion images and 300,000 accesses per second. (3) In addition, cable and satellite television providers have added hundreds of new channels, multiplying content while simultaneously increasing and fragmenting the global television audience.

Such statistics reveal two important trends. Many more images than ever before are available, and many more people are paying a disproportionate amount of attention to them. Quite literally, billions of human beings are seeing the world differently. The wholesale transformation of the media information landscape during the last decade in fact represents the triumph of the image over the printed word.

Today, images frame the discussion of those issues that most deeply stir public opinion. Photos of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib arguably caused greater damage to the US cause in Iraq than any defeat on the battlefield. In June 2009, the legitimacy of the Iranian regime was called into question by mobile phone videos showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman shot by a government sniper in the streets of Tehran. The imagery surrounding her death was so moving and iconic that she became a symbol and rallying point for Iran's reformist opposition. (4)

The persuasive power of the image works in part because we are largely unaware of it. Since the first Bible came off Gutenberg's printing press, we have developed a culture of learning based on reading and writing texts, with no corresponding emphasis on visual literacy. As the visual communications scholar Paul Martin Lester puts it:

   The most powerful, meaningful, and culturally important messages
   are those that combine words and pictures equally and respectfully
   ... and yet, educators never developed a visual grammar for
   photographs in the same way that a verbal grammar was developed for
   words after Gutenberg. People are taught to read words but are
   never taught to read pictures. (5)

Because we are skilled at using textual "rhetoric" to influence teachers, employers, and customers, we are rightly suspicious when it is aimed at us. With visual media, however, the illusion is created that we are gazing out of a window at the real world. Watching Neda Agha-Soltan cast her eyes toward the cell phone camera and take her final breaths of life, we feel like direct witnesses rather than members of a detached and distant audience. We react like witnesses, with sympathy and anger, and find it difficult to remind ourselves that this was only one event, one brief moment, in a political upheaval involving 70 million Iranians.

To the proliferation of image producers and consumers, then, we have to add two compelling facts that define and complicate the transformed global information environment. Visual material is felt far more viscerally than text, and human beings are far less skilled at guarding their judgment against this style of persuasion. (6) One implication is that communicators gifted in the use of visual rhetoric will thus exert enormous influence over target audiences. While some members of the new generation of visual persuaders wish to move audiences to do nothing more than buy one brand of soap over another, others seek to promote causes and ideologies which reject democracy and the rule of law while glorifying violence, crime, and other sinister pursuits. …

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