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Political advertising and identity construction

Political campaigning is a specific form within the genre of advertising through which political parties market their ideas and their candidates as non-product ads (Cook 2001: 15). Voters exchange their votes for the party’s or candidate’s promise, often on the basis of identifying themselves with the ideology propounded. Political discourse, in many of its forms, relies closely on the construction of the social actors’ positive public image and the marketing of their political ideas, with the purpose of achieving legitimization of their goals and purposes (cf. van Leeuwen 2007). This is the task of professional teams of public relations and advertising agencies. Clearly, language takes a central role in this process, since images and statements can be projected through various strategies (e.g. referential, predicational, multi-modal, etc., cf. Reisigl and Wodak 2001, Wodak and Reisigl 2003, Wodak 2009). Politicians construct their public “personas” through explicit messages as well as implicit communication that depends on the co-construction of the preferred meaning by the recipients through inference.

Political advertising can be approached as an instance of manipulative discourse. Van Dijk (2006) notes that the latter uses various semantic strategies that lead to preferred meanings, such as: “(de-)topicalization of meanings, [...] specific speech acts, more or less precise or specific local meanings, manipulating explicit vs implicit information, lexicalization, metaphors and other rhetorical figures, as well as specific expression and realization (intonation, volume, speed; text layout, letter type, photos, etc.)” (van Dijk 2006: 376). However, since meanings are dynamic, recipients can also arrive at dispreferred meanings-ones that may not have been intended by the authors of the messages.

By projecting images of themselves through various channels of political advertising, politicians construct their public identities, i.e., who they are to others (cf. Benwell and Stokoe 2006: 6). Identities are not some fixed entities, but have a performative element to them. As Joseph (2004: 20) argues, “an identity exists by virtue of the assertions of it that people make”. A person’s identity exists both as a social construct, relying on an implicit consensus within a community, as well as a situational enactment when an individual performs his or her identity in actual practice. Identity constructions can be explicit, i.e. realized through more or less direct assertions and categorizations (e.g. “I’m not a racist”), as well as implicit, i.e. performed through one’s actions on the basis of which an individual is co-categorized with some group on account of how well he or she conforms to the stereotype associated with a particular identity. Explicit declarations and implicit identity constructions may be in conflict-in the case of racist discourse, such a conflict may be intentional, since an explicit declaration of one’s identity as a racist is not socially acceptable (cf. van Dijk’s (1992a) move of “apparent denial”).

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