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Politics of Fear in Presidential Elections: 1984

October 26, 2012

by Amy Davis

"There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear? If there is a bear."

Almost every modern presidential campaign has used fear and other emotive tactics to attempt to persuade voters.  The last post on this blog highlighted the fear-mongering of the LBJ camp against Goldwater in the 1964 election.  Democrats are not solely guilty of utilizing this method, however.  Republicans have used fear in political advertisements as well, as seen in the Reagan campaign of 1984.

Reagan’s campaign slogan for 1984 was “Morning in America.”  Most of the televised campaign ads endorsed by the Republicans were upbeat, optimistic, detailing a strong economy and gains on the Cold War front.  One ad, however, was noted for its exploitation of American fear of the Soviets.  The ad was simply called “Bear” and can be viewed here.  The ad opens with a calm, serene narrator speaking about a bear in the woods.  As the commercial progresses, it becomes obvious, through the usage of ominous music and a loud heart-beat sound recording, that the bear is a threat.  Most Americans came to the conclusion that the threat the bear symbolized was the USSR, although the ad never directly stated this.

This ad has been analyzed for its subliminal affect on viewers.  The ominous music coupled with close-up shots of the beast evokes a sense of dread.  Additionally, the heart-beat sound works to intensify feelings of fear.  Notice, as you watch the commercial again and again, how your own heart beat begins to mimic the sound-over.  Further, the fact that the viewer would almost inevitably conclude that the bear symbolizes the Soviets, despite the fact that this only indirectly implied by the commercial, effectively manipulates a person’s ability to jump to his/her own conclusions via inductive reasoning.  Reagan’s landslide victory may not be directly attributable to his lone ad.  However, it demonstrated how masterfully he and his advisers were able to use television to persuade.

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