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Six Remarkable Creative Lessons from The Art of Persuasion
Maria Brito --  Contemporary Art Advisor Maria Brito -- Contemporary Art Advisor
New York, NY
Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Six Remarkable Creative Lessons from The Art of Persuasion

Six Remarkable Lessons from the Art of Persuasion


Looking around in these past few months, I couldn't stop thinking about how skilled and persuasive is the entire machinery behind a political party or a candidate, when they are campaigning to win something. The whole thing is amplified to the nth degree when the thing to be won is a four-year lease of the Oval Office. The way in which politicians use culture, emotions, and persuasive tactics to influence voters is second to none. I thought I would look at how these people exercise such influence to find some creative lessons that can be used in the worlds of business and art.




The current definition of propaganda states that it is: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. Well, isn't everything that politicians try to convince us of, always biased? I can't even conceive of a politician who could be neutral or impartial. Why is propaganda such a dirty word? Is propaganda good or bad, right or wrong? And isn't every marketing campaign also propaganda? And what about the work of an artist that wants to sell us what he or she want to say?


The term propaganda became popular in the United States in 1914, when World War I began. But the origins of "propaganda" go back to Europe ca. 1100 when the Catholic church needed back up to support the Crusades. Remember back then there were no politicians who hoarded power, it was either the monarchs or the church. Then, during World War II, the word propaganda started to get negative connotations when Germany started spreading its message through rallies, posters, and songs. Today, every politician and every communications team around him or her uses propaganda to disseminate the message on the basis that propaganda as promotion is a necessary part of political campaigns in democracies. Persuasion is the ultimate goal of any deployment of propaganda with the use of catchy words, images and songs.


Before becoming a celebrated novelist, George Orwell was a phenomenal essayist, who coined and often used the phrase "all art is propaganda" which is also the title of a book that compiles many of his most important essays around this idea. As he rightly states, art is a tool for persuasion and every artist, writer, musician, or creative, has a "message" that he or she wants to disseminate. In 1940 Orwell wrote that Charles Dickens's propaganda was embedded in his novels and succeeded in attacking everyone without antagonizing anyone. In Oliver Twist and Bleak House Dickens criticized English institutions like the parliament and the educational system, in Great Expectations he vilified patronage; in David Copperfield he exposed the horrors of child labor, and in The Scarlet Pimpernel, he condemned the French aristocracy and assured that vengeance was to follow those who abused the system and its privileges. It was all "fiction" after all.


In 1944 Orwell also wrote an essay about Salvador Dali and called him "a draftsman of very exceptional gifts" whose art is a "direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency". But of course, it was, back then. Now that Dali has been gone for 30 years, we know that his work was propaganda aimed at granting him celebrity status for his weirdness, and his unorthodox surrealist compositions. His life too was a performance that preceded his reputation as an artist and was used to gain worldwide influence and notoriety.


Last year I wrote and hosted a TV/Streaming series for PBS's "All Arts" station and one of my guests was artist and activist Hank Willis Thomas in his role as the founder For Freedoms, the largest creative collective that has ever existed in the United States. Four Freedom's mission is to educate people around the country, in a non-partisan way, about their right to vote and to understand what people do when they choose politicians in other offices other than the big one. In our filmed conversation, Hank told me "all art is political" and highlighted that the most influential campaign they rolled out was in 2016 and 2018 using hundreds of giant billboards across 50 United States created by different artists inviting Americans to exercise their voting rights. It was no coincidence that the medium chosen by For Freedoms was the same used by advertisers.





The clear aim of any political campaign is to show the voters, what are the key issues that the candidates stand for, what do they back-up, what do they reject, what's their plan. This has been the contentious terrain of bipartisanship in places like in the United States, where one side has to be the completely opposite of the other to be able to appeal to its constituencies. These extreme polarities have only gotten worse in the past few years and have spread out to other realms including business and art.


Gone are the days where brands could be neutral and not show up certain advocacy for a cause: be it global warming, issues of race, issues of gender, everyone is now telling us what they stand for in the quest for defining identity and finding a match in the pool of consumers who have enormous options to choose from. Going with the neutral seems a no-go. That's why Starbucks has partnered with (RED) for World AIDS Day and Dove was the first big brand to show real women as advocates of their products in their mega-successful "Real Beauty" campaign. Other brands like Warby Parker and Tom's use a "buy one, give one" model that stands as the staple of their brands.


Art also has gotten more political in the past decade, although political art has existed for centuries. Identity, however, is such a part of what artists do, it is hard to believe that a work of art has no message even when there's none on the surface that could be seen as political.  




We live in the era of disinformation. Far from the original intent of their creation, the internet, and social media, have allowed people with twisted intentions to spread the wrong message. Companies, influencers, and celebrities can also disseminate information that is far from accurate. The problem is that they enjoy a platform and an audience that is prone to be tricked because behind a screen and showing their best face forward, people are easier to be deceived than if they were interacting face-to-face.


But political art can also spread disinformation. At the end of the day, artists are only human and have a biased, one-sided approach to their work, and that's why we love to engage with strong art that has a convincing point of view. But art that vilifies a group and generalizes about people, just for the sake of creating shock value is as manipulative and plain wrong as any social media campaign that intends to seed confusion and create chaos.




Playing with people's emotions are tools that artists have used for centuries to elicit responses in their patrons and audiences and to gain influence over them. And this is exactly what good marketers, businesspeople, advertisers, celebrities, and politicians know well: people are often reduced to their emotions. Humans are motivated by whatever makes them feel good or whatever they fear. This is the core of persuasion.


A lot of political art falls flat on its face. To be really effective, political art can't just point out at the mistakes and grievances it's looking to denounce, it has to highlight the perils of the situation and move us so much that we can't emotionally forget what we saw. To get there, an artist, must be ardently invested and sincerely affected by what they are trying to portray.  At the end of the day most humans are equipped with a radar for BS, can tell when something is a gimmick, or see through the real intention.


Who got there as an artist? Many did and continue to do so but one of the most striking examples is Picasso's Guernica for its importance and influence. Picasso was living in Paris in January 1937 when the Spanish Republican Government commissioned him a mural for the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris World's Fair. He had reluctantly accepted the project and wasn't very excited about completing it. But when four months later he learned of the bombings in the civilian town of Guernica, which had been ordered by General Francisco Franco, the leader of the rebellion against the Spanish Republic, Picasso got so emotional, so angry and sad at the same time, that he switched gears and started preparatory drawings for Guernica. Once finished, Guernica became a sensation and toured venues around the world raising funds for the Spanish war relief and bringing worldwide attention to  the Spanish Civil War in a way no other medium had been able to do before. Guernica is not only one of Picasso's masterpieces but also one of the most important paintings in art history.  He used not only his emotions but was able to trigger those of the whole world.




People tend to romanticize the past and dream about going back to times when life was better. That's why we had Barack Obama telling us that "Yes, We Can" and we had Donald Trump telling us that he could "Make America Great Again". Hal Riney was the ad exec behind Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign "Morning in America", complete with TV ads showing a nostalgic take on Americans quietly at work or getting out of a taxi in a big city, a paperboy delivering newspapers in the suburbs, everything is idyllic and the voiceover stresses the benefits of re-electing Regan: "Americans work hard and with low interest rates more families will buy more houses and with low inflation, the future looks so bright, why go back to what it was four years ago?"


The power of nostalgia is why Coca-Cola keeps digging into its archives to bring vintage images enhanced and adapted to the present, or to reintroduce an old bottle as a limited edition. And artists can do the same. Katherine Bernhardt, one of my favorite contemporary artists, started painting characters of our childhood in her vibrant and saturated canvases: Pac-Man, the Pink Panther, ET, Garfield. These paintings fly off the walls of her shows and the art fairs where her galleries take them, because they evoke a natural reaction in collectors who think: 1) I know this character and 2) it reminds me of my past but she has given it a new twist that feels fresh today. And that's the trick of nostalgia in politics, business and art: we don't bring 1983 back with faded colors and low-fi images. We bring nostalgia powered-up by new technologies, new ways of communication and giving it our own spin.




And how do politicians disseminate the message and expand influence? By mixing it up with culture.


A nephew of Sigmund Freud born in Austria called Edward Bernays had come to the United States and built a business in communications that he did so spectacularly well, everyone considers him to be the father of PR. In 1924, the campaign team on President Calvin Coolidge's side, had heard of him and knowing that Coolidge's path to re-election would be less than smooth, hired Bernays to help. The first thing that Bernays noted was that Coolidge was known for being aloof and taciturn. Bernays insisted on creating a halo of warmth and invented something called "breakfast with pancakes" at the White House. He invited the biggest entertainers that were associated with humanness and extroversion to the event. The breakfast was a success, and everyone ended up singing songs in the White House's big lawn including Coolidge and the First Lady. The next day every news outlet reported of the breakfast and by association, people started seeing Coolidge as a more approachable human being. This breakfast is considered the first overt publicity stunt for a US President. Remember, this was 1924 and people could be tricked way easier than today. Bernays kept working on softening Coolidge's appearance and Coolidge won again.


Reagan had no problem recruiting celebrities, having been a Hollywood actor himself. But one of his biggest supporters was the most influential personality of the time, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra donated $4 million to Reagan's campaign and sponsored the initial fundraising campaign in the northeast, raising over $250,000 in Boston. Sinatra arranged Reagan's Presidential gala, and making appearances and singing alongside the candidate, then president.


In the spring of 1992, Democratic contender Bill Clinton needed something special to set him apart from his opponent president George H.W. Bush. So what did the Democratic campaign team did? Booked him in The Arsenio Hall Show, to chat with the host and wail on his sax for soulful renditions of "Heartbreak Hotel". People felt that they had discovered a new facet of Clinton's life and that he was way cooler and more relatable than Bush. The rest is history.


Using culture to influence is why brands like Balenciaga partner with Cardi B. and plaster her face in glossy ads and billboards all over the world. And that is also why Louis Vuitton can pay any artist they decide to partner with to launch ambitious collaborations with Yayoi Kusama, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and hundreds of others.


Politicians, brands, and artists use the same creative tactics to persuade. We can try them on for size and figure out which of these lessons can be applied to serve our objectives better. Culture has become a powerful vehicle for influence but also have mission-driven enterprises, and individual branding, regardless of who uses it and why. Watch out for how you are being persuaded and influenced. Beware of the media maxim that "if it bleeds, it leads,": the most scandalous or shocking story would lead the newscast or be printed on the front page (even if it wasn't the most relevant to the audience). 



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