Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Visual Rhetoric & Affective Images: Part 1

While the research so far has taught, what not to do in framing and message design there are also some great recommendations for what should be done. One of these recommendations is the use of images and as discussed above metaphor, analogy and concrete description. “Research attention has recently focused on the role of affective imagery in risk perception.

Affect refers to the specific quality of “goodness” or “badness” experienced as a feeling state (with or without conscious awareness) or the positive or negative quality of a stimulus. Imagery refers to all forms of mental representation or cognitive content. ‘Images’ include both perceptual representations (pictures, sounds, smells) and symbolic representations (words, numbers, symbols)…In this sense, “image” refers to more than just visually based mental representations. Affective images thus include ‘sights, sounds, smells, ideas, and words, to which positive and negative affect or feeling states have become attached through learning and experience’”(Moser & Dilling, 2007, p. 46).

When surveyed, researchers found that people were more concerned about the effects of climate change on far away people and places. The researchers concluded that people had high concern regarding climate change but action did not take place as a result of their concern. The conclusion was that the most dominant and common images of global warming were melting polar icecaps and non-human nature suffering and that these commonly used images had no affect on people’s feelings of urgency to act on their own behalf. People cared about the far away people and places but this negative feeling state was not strong enough to encourage action. What are needed are climate change images that are vivid, concrete, and personally relevant. As the McAllister Opinion Poll research found “…the goal of any serious communications campaign is to deliver ‘mental imagery’ that activates audience emotions and drives home a message” (McAllister Opinion Research, 2006, p. 6).

Two of the top findings from the McAllister Opinion Poll were that

1. Images help to communicate the meaning of sustainability better than the word. While over eight in ten Canadians are baffled by the word sustainability, nine in ten get the concept if presented with pictures

2. The use of images is also key to communicating issues related to complex concepts like urban sprawl and global warming. (McAllister Opinion Research, 2006 ,p.13).

These findings about visual images were consistent through the research. “Photographs may be powerful, rhetorical statements and, as DeLuca and Demo (2000) argued, they can constitute a context for understanding and judgment. Especially when accompanied by captions that encourage a particular meaning, photos can embody a range of symbolic resources that sustain or challenge prevailing viewpoints…‘[s]ometimes pictures have a chance to change history by creating a larger understanding of a subject, thus enlightening the public and bringing greater awareness to an issue’…”(Cox, 2006, p. 65).

Photographs and visuals can be so powerful that in some cases they have been banned from public display. Cox uses Subhankar Banerjee’s scenes of Alaskan wildlife and the controversy his collection created at the Smithsonian as a good example of this in the United States. Cox explains that this controversial collection of photographs depicting the wildlife and landscape of an area of Alaska that was slated for oil exploration and drilling was pulled from the Smithsonian exhibit after charges that his photographs were too political. His photos show the effects of oil and gas drilling on the wildlife of the area. His work has now garnered international attention including an award from the United Nations Environment Programme. The photographs and captions can be viewed at this website

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