Political cartoons reflect public sentiment around high-profile scandals

Jul 18, 2011

Political party campaigners and public relations pros should take note.

Context, it turns out, is everything when it comes to politicians’ sex scandals and the impact of editorial cartoons that reflect the public’s reaction to them. A recent study from Simon Fraser University shows that political cartoons – pervasive in newspapers and increasingly social media channels such as blogs and YouTube – serve as a reflection of public sentiment in the wake of such scandals. They can be a valuable source of information to those who direct and manage individual political brands and guide their campaigns and careers. As a gauge of public reaction, they are for better or worse influenced by the unique circumstances of each scandal.

The new research, entitled “Not so sexy: public opinion of political sex scandals as reflected in political cartoons,” was published recently in the Journal of Public Affairs, and was authored by SFU Beedie School of Business researcher Leyland Pitt, along with researchers at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden.

There is nothing new about illustrations that have lampooned the behaviors of politicians and other leaders in society. Cartoons, it turns out, have been around since pre-Roman times. Even today, when printed media seem to be dying, and the Internet has made everything visual and video, online cartoons, especially in the form of spoof videos, are extremely popular.

According to Pitt, there are two theories on the impact of cartoons. A strong theory says that cartoons influence how society thinks, by highlighting simply, but succinctly, what the critical issues of the day are. A weak theory says that cartoons serve as an effective record of society’s thinking at a particular point in time by reflecting what the most pertinent issues were at that particular juncture.

In order to test the weaker theory, the researchers content-analyzed cartoons concerning three well-known recent political sex scandals from the United States.

Their work looked at 230 cartoons featuring Eliot Spitzer and the Emperor’s Club, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and John Edwards and Rielle Hunter, and used the criteria of narrative (what was the “story”?), location (where is the cartoon located?), binary struggle (who are the opposing forces?) and normative transfer (who is the “loser” in the story?) as an analysis framework. Their findings suggest that depending on these criteria, some politicians emerge relatively unscathed from these scandals (Bill Clinton), others are seriously condemned and almost always permanently damaged (John Edwards), and yet others are merely obscured or have their roles changed substantially (Eliot Spitzer).

“It would seem that public reaction and sentiment toward politicians’ involvement in a scandal depends on what the scandal was about, where it occurred and what happened there, who the protagonists in the conflict were, and, very importantly, who the “loser” in the story was,” explains Pitt.

The researchers note that as a reflection of public sentiment, cartoons “show that individuals (and by extension institutions, organizations and brands) do not experience scandals or calamities in the same way and that they are not equally affected. Although they may portend the futures of those they target, they do so in a non‐violent way that entertains the rest of us.”

Tags: , , , ,