McCain in Michigan:
A Study of Nonverbal Persuasive Techniques
The goal of John McCain’ campaign strategy in Michigan as portrayed by the video, is to present the candidate as an ‘everyman’—as well as a ‘doer.’ McCain strategists hope to establish an appeal based on, among other things, a rapport with the unemployed, the underemployed—the former automotive factory worker. Using the methods and models described by Larson (2007), the following analysis demonstrates how the McCain presidential campaign utilized several methods of nonverbal communication in an attempt to persuade Michigan voters — particularly targeting those with union interests as well as ‘baby boomers’—that voting for McCain is in their best interests.
Firstly, the McCain video opens up on a bright, warm golden-rod colored title shot—an indication of positivity, happiness and hope. There’s also a revolving light that resembles a beacon (of hope) or even a searchlight. Michigan is searching for someone with the answers—someone to come and help them and can get ‘the job done.’ The opening of the video suggests that Michigan has found its savior in the figure of John McCain.
The lettering on the golden title shot is arranged atypically—not in a formal left-to-right linear pattern. The message is that McCain is not your typical Washington ‘insider’—he is not a standard politician. McCain’s is a new voice, a new approach—with new answers. He looks at things differently than those who have come before–and those currently running against–him. Following the title shot, the scene immediately cuts to what seems like McCain’s ‘response’ to Michigan’s symbolic search or beckoning—as he arrives at an airport looking ‘pumped’ and ready to get down to work.
McCain, dressed in a neat, conservative blue suit, looks very much like a businessman. No liberal, ‘soft’ answers here—it’s all about getting down to the business of getting the factories resurrected and moving and getting people jobs. McCain, wearing what Murray calls “corporate dress” (p. 236) appears as a twenty-first century Jimmy Hoffa ready to do battle with the corporate boys on a level playing field.
The serious, intense facial expression of McCain signifies that of determination as classified by Knapp and Hall (p.224); however, McCain did smile at appropriate times—such as during a moment of levity onstage (at being referred to as a “kid”) and when speaking one on one with people. Further, McCain’s use of kinesics defines power. He holds himself “relaxed but erect” (p. 225). He gestures purposely—accentuating his verbal points with the downbeat of an extended arm.
McCain utilizes all forms of proxemic space as identified by Hall (p.226)—and all to his persuasive advantage. In particular, his use of “personal or informal distance” (p.226) (especially when integrated with the black and white photography and handheld camera) reveals McCain as a common, down-to- earth guy.
One detriment to the suggestion of McCain as a powerful leader is his voice—it’s not very strong. McCain is actually a rather soft-spoken man; however, he does enunciate clearly and distinctly—and he does attempt to speak with an inflection of both firmness and resolve. Of course, in the tradition of the American politician—the video displays McCain involved in a fair amount of shaking hands—demonstrating his identification and rapport with the people of Michigan
The use of black and white photography delivered via an almost shaky hand-held camera during the aforementioned times when McCain is ‘working the crowd’ makes for a natural—almost familial setting. The realism created by the somewhat grainy black and white mixed with the amateurish handheld camera movements evoke memories of both old home movies and classic 1950’s TV sitcoms—both of which are nostalgic iconography, especially for the ‘baby boomer’ set. McCain is the ‘everyman’ who will get America back to the ‘basics.’
Most of the camera shots are, as aforesaid, handheld; this allows for lots of movement—creating an energetic presence and an active purposeful element to McCain’s visit to Michigan. The handheld—along with swift cuts and movements—also denotes the presence of a lot of supporters. Further, some of the video imagery is purposefully grainy. It occasionally pulses with a sequence of vibrating colors that— along with a background of the aforementioned hard-driving rock music, quick camera cuts and a split-screen— its suggestive of a rock video is, therefore, appealing to McCain’s target audience: Baby boomers who are old enough to either have worked in the automobile plants—or had parents or grandparents who worked in, and were perhaps laid-off by, them.
The video is filled with red, white and blue confetti and flags, flags and more flags—with an obvious patriotic message that needs not be expounded upon. A large American flag serves as the background whenever McCain is speaking—flanked by, well-dressed young men (representative of masculine energy, optimism). At some point in the video, little flags waved by the crowd essentially frame a camera shot of McCain onstage: McCain as the focal-point—the center of American patriotic strength.
There is also an effective shot of the silhouette of McCain (along with his wife) behind one of the huge American flags (probably achieved by backlighting them against the flag). The silhouette of McCain behind the flag shows that he literally stands behind the American flag, i.e. American values, principles, etc. His shadow/silhouette symbolizes the faceless ‘everyman’: The true, unrecognized (particularly male) American who is the stalwart support of all that is American.
The camera shots also seem to pointedly focus upon the presence of a lot of photographers in action—clicking away at McCain as he arrives, at both he and the massive crowd as he speaks, and as he interacts face-to-face with people. All of these scenes–filled with a constant barrage of popping flashes and eager photographers—serve to demonstrate McCain’s importance as well as his popularity—thereby displaying his credibility.
At one point in the video, the camera pans the crowd and then zooms in on the dominant figure of McCain on an elevated stage (indicative of command and authority). McCain is both object of desire and symbol of control for a seemingly large mass of people. Also, when McCain speaks about the jobless situation in Michigan (probably the most vital issue for its people)—the music actually ceases, the handheld camera steadies and moves in for a personal shot—emphasizing the importance, the weight, of McCain’s words; McCain’s strategists wanted no ‘noise’ or distraction to detract from this particular moment.
The video ends in another infusion of warmth and hope. There is an orange background with what appears to be a quick flash of the sun… a new day is dawning. John McCain represents new possibilities–a new beginning for all Americans.
The message behind McCain’s Michigan video is geared towards the hard-working, blue-collar and middle-class American. The implication is one of hope—that with McCain’s presence in the White House, things will ‘get done.’ There will be changes—the factories and cities of Michigan (and all of America) will be running again. Generally, McCain and strategists achieved their goal and successfully delivered their intended communication; however, there are a few weak areas worth mentioning. In a few scenes, it would have served McCain well to just appear in a sweater and casual pants. The “corporate suit” initially served its purpose—but after a while it left McCain looking a bit too formal (and therefore, somewhat unapproachable). Also, as aforementioned, McCain’s soft voice does little to indicate true firmness of purpose. Lastly, the rock video feel seems a little incongruous with the elderly appearance of McCain; therefore, the hard-driving presentation sometimes feels contrived.
Larson, C.U. (2007). Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility (11th ed.). Belmont:
McCain in Michigan Video. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from