Candidates Can Improve Their Visual Game and Stand Out in the 2020 Campaign

With social media, they can position themselves to be seen how they want to be viewed

Images of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris
Political candidates need to impart a significant amount of informational and emotional content. Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Allen Murabayashi

While soundbites provide the ubiquitous “gotcha” moment in politics, visual content remains the bread and butter for campaigns that are trying to position their candidates as approachable and authentic. From website hero images to Instagram selfies, visuals transcend the fickleness of the news cycle and provide a curated way for candidates to control the narrative and shape how the public views their personality.

It’s become commonplace for campaigns from city council seats to the presidency hire professional photographers to provide both traditional marketing images (e.g., a smiling portrait) and more photojournalistic-style stump photos. Part of the reason is practical; many news outlets and freelance photojournalists are reluctant to commercially license their images for politics because of the perception of bias in a profession that strives for neutrality.

A dedicated photographer has the opportunity to build trust and rapport with a candidate, which can lead to more intimate and authentic photography. One need look no further than Pete Souza, former President Obama’s photographer, to understand the value of a great photographer with unfettered access. Souza’s images, combined with the revolutionary idea to distribute them via Flickr, made the Obama presidency the most visually-driven in history. And the trend toward visuals continues today. 

A dedicated photographer has the opportunity to build trust and rapport with a candidate, which can lead to more intimate and authentic photography.

Hero images 

In an app-dominant world, a website might seem a bit anachronistic. But for fundraising and policy details, not to mention SEO, websites still provide the best mechanism for many important types of information.

The state of website photography during the 2016 presidential election cycle was abysmal. Low-quality images combined with a lack of competent photo editors led to laughable selections like Bernie Sanders’ overly softened skin or dust spots on Mike Huckabee’s photos. Fortunately, candidates seem to be more photo savvy in the age of Instagram.

Hero images provide the ultimate contrast, falling into two camps: either a smiling head and shoulders portrait or a stump photo with a crowd. This typically transcends party lines, although older, male Republicans tend to shy away from a full smile, which makes President Trump’s reelection campaign’s homepage photo selection all the more anomalous. It’s a major departure from the hero image from his 2016 campaign, which was taken by a student and used for free.

As with traditional advertising, aligning consumers’ expectations with brand values is important. Trump portrays himself as a tell-it-like-it-is, military-supporting commander in chief, and his hero image reflects that. Similarly, Pete Buttigieg’s campaign leverages his relative youth and representation for millennials, so it’s not surprising that his hero image looks like something out of a Warby Parker campaign, a mustard yellow background and an overall color scheme that eschews the red, white and blues of an older generation.

Social media persona 

While websites represent a more traditional portrayal of candidates, social media teams are adopting the conventions of specific platforms and the typically younger audience they attract. For example, Elizabeth Warren has leveraged the selfie as a form of audience engagement and approachability, often posing for hours with supporters. The photos and the moments around them like telling girls that she’s running for president because “that’s what girls do” have amplified her social media presence while countering her reputation as an out-of-touch policy wonk.

Most candidates use a mix of photos, photo carousels, video with open captions and IGTV previews on their Instagram with varying levels of success. In contrast to the typical Instagram influencer, candidates tend to shy away from technically perfect photography, often using images taken with phones. Although technical quality doesn’t seem to adversely affect engagement, composition and content does. Compare Bernie Sanders’ photo with rapper Cardi B to Joe Biden’s lunch photo. Nearly 10% of Sanders’ 3.4 million followers liked his photo, while about 1% of Biden’s 1.4 million followers liked his.

Although candidates strive to publish photos of themselves alongside “average Americans,” the strategy doesn’t yield high engagement. Social media feeds tend to be filled with opportunistic “of the moment” visuals, but campaigns might drive better engagement by using an editorial calendar approach that lines up celebrity- and issues-based content.

Unlike President Trump, many of the Democrats have relatively low public recognition, and the campaigns use photography to bolster approachability and appeal. President Trump, by contrast, more frequently uses short video soundbites or photos that show him in front of large crowds. Engagement with his 14 million followers is low compared to his Democratic counterparts, but this is arguably a reflection of the demographics of his base, which tends to be older and thus more likely to be on Facebook. In fact, the campaign is pouring millions of dollars into ad spend on Facebook, far outpacing the Democratic rivals.

Marketing is multichannel and multitouch. As with any advertising campaign, visuals support an overall message and help establish a look and feel. Political candidates need to impart a significant amount of informational and emotional content, and visuals will help create a visceral connection between candidate and constituency this election season.

Allen Murabayashi is the chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.