Blog: The Post-Election Genius of Strategic Informality

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The above image is Facebook’s most “liked” picture of all time. It is also Twitter’s most tweeted picture of all time. Posted to the Obama Facebook page on November 6 when he had been declared the winner of the presidential election, it is the image that millions of people conjure up in their minds when they think of the reelection of President Obama in 2012.

But for all its recognition, it is an unlikely candidate for this type of political popularity because it doesn’t include the “necessary” accessories of a political photo. There is no American flag, no podium, no crowds, no cheering people holding up signs in the background. It is, in fact, the complete opposite of the image posted to the Romney Facebook page that same night, which was a photo that thanked his supporters.

The Obama “Four More Years” photo, as it is known by its caption, is a simple picture of a simple emotion. And the fact that this picture has gained such immense popularity teaches us something about social media. Even though the platform is technical, it’s the human element that matters most.

This is something that the Obama campaign did right from beginning to end. They consistently published behind-the-scenes photos of the president in action that appealed to average Americans and captured unscripted, informal moments that allowed people to make an emotional connection with the President.

If you peruse the social media sites of Romney and Obama, this distinction stands out. Romney’s images look staged, never a hair out of place or a button undone. Until now. the most recent photo posted on the Romney Facebook page is of Mitt looking like a regular guy, hugging his wife (image below). The image is a stark contrast to all of the other photos posted on his Facebook page throughout the campaign, which did not humanize him like Obama’s many photos did. This humanizing image released after the election emphasizes the personal side of Romney. It allows people to connect with him in a way they were not able to during the campaign, which makes one wonder why his campaign didn’t post more of these kinds of photos when it mattered most.

In addition to choosing the right pictures, the captions that accompanied the Obama campaign pictures were genius in their own right. In general, they did not use one to explain the other, but rather used one to emphasize the other. In so doing, the Obama campaign invoked the tried and true marketing techniques of enthymematic and synecdochic communication. Enthymematic communication is interactive because it demands the mental involvement of the receiver of the information. By not directly stating the premise or conclusion of the information, enthymematic media requires the receiver to use reason to fill in the blanks. A great example is the image of the President and Vice President posted to the Obama Tumblr page, with the simple caption of “These two.” By saying nothing more, the receiver of the information has to immediately become mentally involved and try to reason what exactly “These two” means. This leads the receiver to make a mental, maybe even emotional, connection to the image and the subject of the image, President Obama.

Synecdochic communication also involves the mental interaction of the receiver by letting a verbal or visual heuristic stand in for the whole idea. On November 6, the Obama social media team posted an image on his Facebook page of the president “fist bumping” a custodian at the White House, accompanied by the caption, “Young people made history in 2008—tell your friends to do it again.” Here, the action of the president, an action that is associated with “cool” and “young,” is a visual stand-in for those ideas. It helps the receiver of the information associate the president as a cool, youthful person without explicitly saying he is, and the caption supports this association also without explicitly saying it.

Many of the images from Obama’s social media campaign have gone viral and they all have shared a powerful emotional element. From the pizzeria hug to the back of Obama’s chair—an allusion to the Clint Eastwood speech at the Republican National Convention—the humor, emotion and informal attitude of many of the Obama campaign’s social media posts helped to carry their candidate over the finish line.

It was this mix of formal strategy—driven by data and sound marketing techniques—paired with an informal end product that is the genius behind the Obama social media campaign. In our technical world, where every mistake lives in infamy, politicians often stunt their own political growth by living in fear of imperfection. But it is these imperfect moments that people most easily relate to, and that the Obama social media team decided to highlight. In a time where all political maneuvers are based on calculated strategy, it pays off to keep the formality behind the scenes and the humanity up front and center.

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Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.