Animating Political Messages in 2008

As the U. S. electoral season heats up (and spirals downward), Karl Cohen takes a look at the past and present of political animation.

In this famous

In this famous "Fun with Real Audio" segment, outrageous visuals undercut Bill Clinton's apology for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. © J.J. Sedelmaier Productions.

A fascinating, but rarely discussed form of animation is the work designed to persuade the public to think about political issues. There are different ways to do this, including creating works of propaganda that have specific objectives in mind. As we head towards an important election in November, you might want to know a bit more about how propaganda works. It can be helpful to know some of the "secret" techniques that may be used to try to persuade you how to think and vote.

Propaganda 101

Propaganda has become necessary in a society where people have short attention spans. Propaganda has replaced well-thought-out discussions as a way to deliver a message to the masses. Most people do not want to read long carefully written articles or even to watch serious TV documentaries. Many people seem content to get their information in very short sound bites.

Years ago, a sociology professor explained that if we, or our government, agree with the message, it is "public information." If we see flaws in it, it is "propaganda." I take a broader view in defining the word. If the message is designed to persuade, even if it is presenting our point of view, it is still propaganda. In some parts of the world, including parts of Europe, TV commercials are simply called propaganda.

The oldest examples of animated U.S. propaganda include works made during World War I (Winsor McCay's Sinking of the Lusitania from 1918 is the greatest example) and World War II, and the film Hell-Bent for Election, made in 1944 to help reelect Roosevelt. With the rise of television, the lessons learned making wartime propaganda and radio commercials were employed to persuade the public to buy products, to support charities and, in at least one instance, to tell us who we should vote for -- Ike.

Ike for President

When I lecture on animated propaganda, one of my favorite TV ads to show college students is Ike for President, from 1952. The producer was Roy Disney. Former Disney employees believe it could not have been made without Walt's approval and, since Roy was not known as a producer, Walt may have been involved in the production. If that was the case, Roy might have been given credit for this work so the public could assume Walt was apolitical.

The ad opens with a voice saying, "Higher taxes, lower taxes, unemployment, record employment, peace, war, highest wages..." As the words flash on the screen, a little animated man in the center of the picture says, "I'm still confused. Who's right? What's right? What should I believe? What are the facts?" Then a well-dressed authority appears and tells you, "Well my friend, you're not alone... You've heard the pros and cons and cons and pros. Beyond all the words, beyond all the claims and promises, there's actually only one big thing most people base their final decision on -- the man." At this point the film goes back to animation and we hear a catchy song: "I like Ike, you like Ike, everybody likes Ike, hang out the banners, beat the drums, let's send Ike to Washington..."

The ad starts with a lot of confusing double-talk and concludes that there is only one thing the voter needs to know. You don't need to know the man's qualifications or what he stands for. You certainly will not learn them from this ad. Instead, just hum or sing the "I Like Ike" song. Don't think. Just go along with the crowd and vote for "the man." (Wasn't Adlai Stevenson a man too, even if the Republicans portrayed him as an intellectual egghead?)

Several basic propaganda techniques are used in this ad:

Simplification. Simplification reduces Ike to "the man." That is all you need to know in order to make the right decision.

Musical jingles. Jingles can be a very useful way to have people remember something. Can you recall the jingles for some of the breakfast cereals you ate growing up?

Bandwagon. Another form of propaganda is called the bandwagon technique. Join the parade and be on the winning side. All your friends will be there. The ad even shows a parade of happy people marching behind an elephant pulling a giant drum. The animal is beating it in time to the music with a stick tied to its tail.

Negativity. At one point, the lyrics say, "Adlai goes the other way, but we all go with Ike." The happy, nicely lit crowd marching to the right passes the silhouette of a person on a mule moving to the left. (Get it?) By showing the other major candidate as a faceless dark silhouette, the ad suggests a negative impression of Adlai Stevenson. Negative propaganda discredits the opposition and helps distance the candidates. So who will you vote for in November, Ike or Adlai?

The Sinking of the Lusitania by Winsor McKay represented the high point of World War I animated propaganda films. Courtesy of the Cartoon Art Museum, from the collection of the Glad Family Trust.

The Sinking of the Lusitania by Winsor McKay represented the high point of World War I animated propaganda films. Courtesy of the Cartoon Art Museum, from the collection of the Glad Family Trust.

Hell-Bent for Election

The great classic election year animated propaganda film is Hell-Bent for Election. It was made to encourage people to vote and to reelect Roosevelt for his fourth term in 1944. The United Auto Workers produced it and Chuck Jones was the director. At 14 minutes, it comfortably combines facts with humor, drama and music to make its points.

The film is a race to Washington between two trains. One is the streamlined "Win the War Special" and the other is the "Defeatist Limited," an old-fashioned steam locomotive polluting the countryside. The front of each engine is a caricature. The streamlined engine is Roosevelt and the other is a creaky-looking Thomas E. Dewey. The phrase "win the war special" is a glittering generality -- a vague, but highly respected concept -- while "defeatist limited" is name-calling. As you might expect from these two phrases, the Democrats are shown as attractive workers and the lone Republican is an ugly out-of-step businessman/politician wearing an old-fashioned suit (negative stereotyping).

The plot is quite simple. Joe, a railroad worker, has control of a switch and can only let one train get through to Washington on time. The evil Republican tries to lull Joe to sleep so his train can get through. Before he ultimately succeeds, Joe tells him, "We are out to win the war." The infuriated conservative cries out, "War, war, this is Roosevelt's war," and he briefly turns into a caricature of Hitler. (A very effective negative image.) He then plies Joe with "campaign champagne, no proof," a cigar labeled "Phillie Buster," and lots of meaningless doubletalk, similar to the opening sequence in the Ike ad.

After he falls asleep, Joe has a surreal dream that's full of dubious Republican assertions. "Prices haven't risen very much, have they?" We see Joes trying to climb a ladder that keeps getting higher and higher. "Business is entitled to a fair profit. Wages must be frozen. The workers are making too much money for their own good." The dream-like artwork uses a thin white line on a black background.

In the dream, the old smoke-belching locomotive is seen pulling a series of unusual train cars that are sight gags. Right behind the locomotive is a heavy tank car labeled "hot air" and it is floating above the tracks. One flatcar with three outhouses on it is marked "housing for workers." Another flatcar has a businessman holding a fist full of dollars while a laborer struggles under a giant bundle marked "cost of war." The caboose is labeled "Jim Crow car."

The cartoon ends with Joe waking up in time to throw the switch. It then goes into a three- or four-minute jingle urging people to go out and vote.

(Note: Both I Like Ike and Hell-Bent for Election are available on YouTube and other sites, although the picture quality is not the best.)

Additional Propaganda Techniques

It may surprise you to learn that, after the Ike campaign, subsequent twentieth-century political contests apparently avoided the use of animation. Aside from Kennedy presenting a low-cost series of still photos in one commercial, and two or three independent shorts that had limited distribution (e.g., Esculations (1968) by Disney animator Ward Kimball, which is available on YouTube, showing live-action footage of candidates apparently was a more practical and effective way to promote them on TV. Animation was expensive before Flash and it simply took too long to get an ad on the air. In campaigns, the issues being debated can change quickly, so a good idea for a 30-second animated spot may be old news by the time it is ready for broadcast. I suspect that animated propaganda on TV was also suppressed by the complex rules regarding equal time for opposing views and the Fairness Doctrine (eliminated in 1987 from the FCC rules).

In Hollywood the studios avoided political content in animation, except during times of war. In their important book about wartime cartoons, Doing Their Bit (2004, McFarland), Michael Shull and David Wilt devote a very small amount of space to political content between the wars. They mention only films like Betty Boop for President (1932) and Peace on Earth (1939). (Famous Studios also made Olive Oyl for President in 1948.)

Before discussing the reemergence of animated political messages today, there are other basic propaganda techniques you should know about. You may see some of them being used in the coming months and, if you ever try your hand at making your own short political statement, this discussion may help you create a more convincing work.

Transfer. By simply showing a candidate standing next to an American flag, having the Capitol building in the background, or putting a portrait of a political hero on a desk or a wall (Kennedy, Washington, Reagan, etc.), you are saying this man is patriotic, etc. Showing images of the candidate next to or shaking hands with a political hero is also a reinforcement of his image. (Of course the interpretation of the message can change, as it did with the series of Elvis photos taken with Richard M. Nixon.)

Testimonial. These films show somebody believable speaking as the voice of authority. For example, Fred Flintstone endorsed cigarettes on TV and Captain Crunch sold a product named after him.

Patriotic symbol. Put a National Park Service ranger's hat on a bear and you have Smokey the Bear. The National Rifle Association selected as their mascot for their gun safety campaign an American bald eagle. Eddie Eagle has appeared in several animated propaganda pieces. The bird tells kids not to go near a gun unless an adult is present. He isn't encouraging kids to avoid guns; he is encouraging them to have an adult teach you to shoot and to handle the gun in a safe way. The NRA knows that people who learn to shoot when they are young are more likely to want to own guns as adults. Adults who were not into guns as kids are less likely to want to buy a gun later in life. The NRA supports gun commerce.

Card stacking. Stacking (as in "stacking the deck") is organizing information to give the most favorable or negative image possible. If you are observant, you will notice how one-sided stacked messages are, but most people don't pay attention to this simple manipulation trick. Good examples of stacking can be seen in recent works about the life of Walt Disney. Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince is so full of misinformation and fabrications that the book is basically fiction. On the other hand, Walt and El Grupo, a new feature-length documentary on Walt's trip to South America in 1941, is so trivialized that the trip comes across as a pleasurable vacation rather than what it was: a serious government-sponsored trip to help improve our nation's image in neutral countries just before we entered into WWII.

Political ads are of course "true," until the other side cries foul and the ad is taken off the air. So the first lesson is to accept what the CIA tells their recruits, that propaganda can be black, gray or white. In other words it can be lies, half-truths or the truth. The main thing the creator of the message needs to do is to deliver it so well that people will believe it even if it is a pack of lies.

Larry King interviews Ross Perot in the first

Larry King interviews Ross Perot in the first "Saturday TV Funhouse." A dozen years later, the cartoon's designer Barry Blitt would achieve notoriety for his New Yorker cover of Barack and Michelle Obama. © J.J. Sedelmaier Productions.

The Rise of New Forms of Political Animation

In the 1990s several animated shows appeared on TV that included mild forms of propaganda. These are not viewed as subversive or heavy-handed propaganda shows by most people, although some specific groups in our society have been critical of individual episodes. Wondering what shows I'm talking about? The Simpsons and South Park, to name two.

A show that on occasion is more outspoken and controversial is Saturday Night Live (SNL). Since 1996, their animated "Saturday TV Funhouse" segments have been poking fun at politicians. They are written by Robert Smigel and the series was created by Smigel and J.J. Sedelmaier. Some episodes are as outrageous as the original acts or statements that provided the inspiration for the skit. One my favorites is a "Fun with Real Audio" segment that uses Bill Clinton's actual apology to the nation about his questionable sexual conduct while he was in office (September, 1998). What we see is a series of fictional animated outtakes. Each time he starts to say he didn't have sex with Monica, something funny happens that suggests he did. Sedelmaier and Dave Wachtenheim directed this wickedly funny episode.

The very first "Saturday TV Funhouse" that Sedelmaier did in 1996 was on Ross Perot. The episode was designed by Barry Blitt, who also created the controversial July 2008 New Yorker cover that showed Barak Obama and his wife dressed as Muslim terrorists. Many who saw that cover misunderstood the intent of the image. J.J. told me that one of the issues he has to deal with is avoiding humor that inadvertently runs the risk of supporting the opposition party by its intent not being perfectly clear.

Other episodes of "Funhouse" have taken on Saddam, Osama bin Laden, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, Richard Nixon, Ken Starr, Al Gore and other famous people in the news. A recent episode, "The Obama Files" (not animated by Sedelmaier), has Barack Obama trying to distance himself from Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton by sending them on wild goose chases around the world.

Other network shows have used limited amounts of political animation. Sedelmaier's "Midterm Elections" for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart uses the style of Schoolhouse Rock to explain the futility of this particular election process.

The Internet

Before the great Internet crash of 2000, all kinds of strange animation was appearing online, including work by a few political cartoonists. These shows went further than TV could in depicting negative images of our society. They tried to be humorous and sometimes succeeded. Although the artistic, propaganda and entertainment values of many of the early Web cartoons were questionable, the better ones made the viewer think about the subject matter at hand.

Don Asmussen created the series Like News for Mondo Media. The episodes of "political and celebrity news that's like, totally irreverent" are anchored by Skeeter Dubois, a spaced-out teen slacker. Three of the shows -- "Hillary Clinton," "Election 2000 Debate" and "Israel World" -- are specifically political. The last features a Jew and an Arab who disagree on everything. The show's humor, somewhat crude and outrageous, can still be seen on Mondo's website MondoMiniShows.com.

Mondo also hired Aubrey Ankrum to create 10 interactive episodes of The God and the Devil Show, in which God and a lady devil interview celebrities and the viewer gets to decide whether to send the guest to heaven or hell. The political guests were the Clintons and George W. Bush. The humor is quite irreverent.

Today Happy Tree Friends is Mondo's main product. They still syndicate their old shows, and outrageous works that once appeared on other sites. Aubrey Ankrum went from The God and the Devil Show to become involved with Happy Tree Friends. Don Asmussen has gone back to drawing cartoons that have appeared in Time, the New Yorker and other publications. He currently does The Bad Reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. The unconventional strip tells "the lies behind the truth, and the truth behind those lies that are behind that truth."

Masters of Political Internet Animation

The political cartoonist/animator who rose above all others on the Web is Mark Fiore. In 2000, Fiore taught himself Flash, found two customers and started to turn out Flash cartoons. Then the "dream job" he had always wanted was offered to him. The San Jose Mercury News hired him as their political cartoonist. Being on their staff was great until he discovered that his editor was under tremendous pressure to keep circulation and ad revenues up. Mark says, "It was awful." He lasted six months with the paper due to their restrictive editorial policy. Since leaving the paper in 2001, he has been syndicating his weekly animated cartoons online.

His work has earned high praise. The Wall Street Journal calls him "the undisputed guru of the form." He has received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and other honors. His work is syndicated weekly to numerous websites run by newspapers and other organizations, and it is seen regularly by millions of people.

Fiore's cartoons are extremely well-produced, with excellent voice work, music and animation. More importantly, he is free to say what he wants. He says he gets his ideas from the daily media, and whatever upsets him the most often becomes the subject of his cartoons. He dares to make fun of the conservative giants in Washington, the presidential hopefuls, the oil industry ("Lord Petro," 6/11/08 and "President Petro," 3/15/08), Blackwater ("The Blackwater Business School," 5/14/08), and any other topic that interests him (Bush, torture, Bush, Hillary, Bush, "Insta-Scandal!," Bush...)

One brilliant Fiore cartoon, "What If..." (6/25/08), suggests what might happen if a third candidate were to enter the present presidential race. The piece is a negative hit piece attacking the candidate's ethics, patriotism, and much more: "He has never once been seen wearing a flag pin and he has spent years studying at a religious school in the Middle East. Some call him a hero for the injuries he sustained under torture, yet he would sit down and talk with those who would harm us. His tax plan amounts to making the rich poor..." At the end of the piece we find out the candidate's name -- "Jesus Christ, not the change we want."

Another of Mark's impressive shorts is "Buy America!" (1/22/08). It isn't suggesting that you buy American products; it is an even bigger sale -- the country. "How much would you pay for an economy like this? It comes with the world's largest collection of consumer credit cards... and one of the cutest small bank interest rates you'll ever see..." You can see all of his work at markfiore.com.

Far less controversial is the delightful website Jib Jab. Jib Jab avoids controversy by giving presidential hopefuls equal time to be picked on. Some of their slick productions have had their world premieres on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Although the company run by Evan and Gregg Spiridellis was founded in Brooklyn, NY in 1999 (before moving to Venice, CA), the company's first real success didn't come until the 2004 U. S. presidential election, when their short with George Bush and John Kerry singing "This Land is Your Land" became an overnight hit. It was written up in the national press and was seen by millions. Today they have a fair-sized staff and produce and sell all kinds of products, including individualized eCards and humorous videos.

Their "Election 2008: Time for Some Campaignin'" premiered on Jay Leno's show on July 15, 2008 with a great deal of coverage by the national press. It is a handsome production with a cast of thousands and a great soundtrack. By clicking on a button, you can insert a photo of your face or someone else's into the video. There is lots more to explore at jibjab.com.

Walt Handelsman is another political cartoonist doing animated Web cartoons, whose work appears on Newsday.com. At the same time, he continues to do cartoons that are nationally syndicated to over 200 newspapers around the world, appearing in Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He has won every major journalism award for cartooning, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

Xeth Feinberg's

Xeth Feinberg's "Political Quickie: How to Be a Media Pundit" presents a crash course in mindless commentary. Courtesy of Xeth Feinberg.

In early 2006 Walt taught himself Flash animation. He produces one or two cartoons a month and his work, like the work of Mark Fiore, has an ironic bite to it. Some of Walt's animated cartoons from 2008 take on Hillary and Barack's secret meeting, "McCain vs. Obama: The Summer Olympics" and the high price of gas. In "Those Were the Days," George Bush and Dick Cheney are at the piano singing about the good old days. The second verse of this All in the Family parody begins with George singing, "We went to war with faulty facts..." Cheney continues, "Now were bogged down in Iraq..." Both: "Should have had an exit plan instead of just an attack... Those were the days."

Illustrator Steve Brodner has been doing a series of short films with a limited amount of animation in them for the New Yorker's website (newyorker.com). His series is called The Naked Campaign, and in it he draws (quick sketches) while sharing his intelligent observations about the election process. Asterisk, run by Brian O'Connell and Richard O'Connor, provides the animation.

Xeth Feinberg, who has been active since the turn of the century creating Flash cartoons for the Internet, wrote and animated "Political Quickie: How to Be a Media Pundit." The cartoon was run this year by the Huffington Post and is on xeth.com. He says we shall be seeing "Political Quickie: How to Be a Conservative" and other cartoons in this series on the Internet "before the election." He also animated American Migraine, created by Simpsons writer Tim Long, for the Huffington Post.

Internet animation for political purposes has also been used by at least one well-known politician. Arnold Schwarzenegger used an animated cartoon in 2005 to explain his Proposition 75 -- which required unions to get members' permission before using their dues money for political purposes -- to voters. The three-minute ad was novel enough for National Public Radio to do a news story on it.

How to Make Money on the Internet

A friend told me he pitched political projects to Internet sites, but he found the pay isn't worth it. He told me, "Billions for politics in this country and nothing for the poor dumb animator dudes. Not to mention limited placement and promotion... so it all went on the back burner."

Yet one can make a living doing Internet animation. Mark Fiore makes his living by selling his work on a non-exclusive basis to several newspapers each week for around $300 a show per site. He has an excellent reputation and, by selling the same item through syndication, he lives comfortably.

His production costs are low as he is basically a one-person production company. He writes, animates and produces each show. He does many of the voices and has three actors he calls upon when he needs a voice he can't do convincingly. For sound effects, he uses stock sounds from a CD library he bought years ago. He pays "very reasonable" royalty fees to a music library. They meet all his needs and it is a convenient system to use.

He says YouTube.com has indirectly helped his business. As more and more websites offer links to YouTube, the professional sites (newspapers, magazines, etc.) feel the pressure to offer the public higher-quality videos not available on YouTube. His online customers include the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and CBS News.

Political Animation and the 2008 Election

Will a new generation of artists use the Internet to express their views on the coming election? While we will be checking to see what Mark Fiore, Walt Handelsman and other animators mentioned in this article are up to, we should all be on the lookout for new faces on the Internet or TV. It promises to be an interesting couple of months.

Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.

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