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The Emphasis on Visual Imagery

Jim Schnell, Ph.D.
Professor, Ohio Dominican University
Colonel, USAFR (retired)
Senior Research Analyst, Urban Warfare Analysis Center
Senior Research Fellow, Air University


This article offers suggestions for addressing the increased emphasis on visual imagery over aural messages. As we proceed through stages of the Information Age there has been an increased emphasis on visual messages at the expense of aural messages. For instance, the Internet technologies are more visual than aural and this has refashioned our rhetorical grammar in subtle ways. These changes do not occur suddenly without warning. Rather, they fade into a reality, little by little, day by day. One can periodically assess the progression of various phenomena and see commensurate developments related to this increased emphasis on the visual, the decreased relevance of the aural and a series of side effects related to this evolution.

  • Citation
  • Author
Schnell, J. (2008). Suggestions for Addressing the Increased Emphasis on Visual Imagery over Aural Messages. Media Psychology Review. Vol. 1(1)
Jim SchnellJim Schnell, Professor of Communication Studies, has been on the Ohio Dominican University faculty since 1989. He was tenured in 1992 and promoted to full professor in 1999. Prior to coming to Ohio Dominican he had faculty appointments at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio University and Miami University. During 2005-2006, he served as a Fulbright Senior Specialist at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where he assisted with the development of the new Cambodia Communication Institute and the training of a new generation of journalists whose predecessors were killed or fled during the Khmer Rouge genocide and subsequent civil strife. Schnell is a sustaining member of the National Communication Association and has presented research findings each year since 1983 at their annual meeting. He has functioned as a paid political analyst on television and radio. His primary area of research focuses on U.S.-China political rhetoric. He has served as a visiting professor at Northern Jiaotong University in Beijing on numerous occasions since his initial assignment there in 1987. Schnell is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve where he is assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency as a political/cultural analyst. Previous assignments include duty with Joint Special Operations University, Special Operations Command/Pacific, Commander-in-Chief/Pacific, National Security Agency, National Air Intelligence Center, and USAF Security Service. He is a graduate of Air War College, Air Command & Staff College, and Squadron Officer School, and has completed over 25 military courses of instruction. He earned the Defense Meritorious Service Medal in 2004 and has held a Top Secret security clearance since entering active duty in 1977.

The increased emphasis on visual imagery is clearly manifested in presidential campaigns. My primary observation regarding this phenomenon is that candidates are able to present rhetorical claims via visual images that are not substantiated by fact or sound/narrative. Such meanings can be conveyed at abstract visual levels and consumers will receive the meanings as intended to varying degrees but there is minimal accountability required because claims are not explicitly defined in verbal terms. These morphed representations are one step beyond the diluted political meanings conveyed via verbal sound bites. Thus, truth in such political representations becomes less and less of a standard for evaluation by the consumer of such messages.

Whether it is a visual of George W. Bush standing among the remains of the World Trade Center or a visual of John Kerry standing with his Navy comrades from the Vietnam era, there is a meaning conveyed in each case that goes beyond what words can describe in a short amount of time. The same holds true for visual representations, that don’t even include the candidates, whereby values are alluded to via the visual claims that are conveyed. As such, impressions are made but the literal imprint is not vivid enough to be rationally analyzed.

Similarly, the role of visual images have had a growing impact on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy. In the early 1990s the visual depictions of dead U.S. military personnel, who’d been killed by bands of militants in Somolia, being dragged (practically naked) through the streets among cheering crowds had a vivid impact on the U.S. public mind. The damage was swift, broad and deep. A reticence regarding U.S. intervention in the region was quickly manifested at numerous levels of U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives.

The revelations presented in the photographs of the interrogation techniques used in Iraq by U.S. military personnel in 2004 underscores the potent impact of visual images in impacting the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Rhetorical meanings are presented on a variety of levels (logical, emotional, spiritual, etc.) that are subject to interpretation, with varying degrees of intensity, by the world community. There are high degrees of political representation in this phenomenon, and corresponding high degrees of relevance, in that the negativity of such visual images can easily be interpreted by all segments of the world community without regard for interpretive sophistication. Again, the damage is swift, broad and deep.

For instance, most Americans were sickened by what was depicted in the photographs of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi soldiers and private citizens. Photographs of a U.S. military female dragging a naked Iraqi male around on the floor with a dog chain attached to his neck almost goes beyond what one can conjure regarding high degrees of cruelty with psychological and physical abuse. As troubling as the photographs are to the U.S. audience, one should consider the cross-cultural interpretation of such depictions in that region of the world where the male is dominant and nudity (even among same sexed individuals) is far more restricted than in the U.S. The image of Americans as decadent infidels is reinforced and expounded upon in vivid ways regardless of the explanations and trials that prosecute the abusers.

One can observe many examples of such images that have lasting negative impressions on the world stage but, at the same time, there are neutral and positive images that are conveyed as well. For instance, the affluence reflected in the U.S. standard of living is a common “soft” message that is consistently perceived visually around the world. The consumer of such messages may be looking at an advertisement for American toothpaste but the lifestyle of those Americans (and their station in life) is interpreted as well. These are subtle visual images. Nothing needs to be explained.

The aforementioned phenomena are more common and more vivid as we experience continued growth of the new communication technologies via the growth of the internet (which is a visual platform for meaning conveyance often at the expense of our aural sense). The explosive growth of internet mediums have further underscored the increased relevance of the visual messages in comparison to audible messages (that is the internet, in its present form, is primarily a visual domain). It is an advanced illustration of how “the eyes have it.”

This opens the door for usage of sophisticated rhetorical devices to be used via new forms of visual grammar. However, such usage (or representation) can only be applied by political constituencies that have the financial means to pursue such ends. This leads to an under-representation of significant segments of our society. The Ben Franklin adage still applies: “Freedom of the press only applies if you own a press.”

The impact of the visual nature of the new communication technologies, and subsequent new channels of communication, in turn affects historically basic channels of communication. With the increased emphasis on visual imaging within the proliferation of new communication technologies, and corresponding new channels of communication, there is an impact on our more historic basic channels of communication that have existed since the beginning of humanity (that is, basic use of our five senses). Mass media theorist Marshall McLuhan warned of this when he described how forms of mass media convey meaning in and of themselves aside from the explicit meanings that senders seek to present. As the rhetorical means of communication are modified then, in turn, what it means to be human is ultimately modified.

Many areas of life are going through redefinition with these rapid technological developments we are living through. I am focusing on mass media but there are many other parallels. For instance, the mass production of Viagra (to enhance sexual performance) is serving to redefine the sexual experience for a significant segment of our population. Until recent times, the decrease of sexual relations among most aging people was observed to be a natural (even expected) phenomenon but in the future, because of the development of such sexual enhancing drugs, the sexual experience will be seen as something involving chemical enhancement. It will improve the experience for many but it will concurrently change the experience and redefine our societal understanding of that experience.

These types of developments are not necessarily cause for concern but they are landmarks that should be noted and recognized for what they are. It seems that every technological gain also involves the potential for a corresponding loss. To not acknowledge these gains and losses, and what they mean for us as individuals and as a society, leaves us at the mercy of larger forces that can derail our quality of life (on small and large scales).

Thus, in returning to my initial premise, as we have an accelerated emphasis on visual culture we will have a corresponding emphasis on visual aspects of the human condition. Life will become more and more of a visual experience. Sight, as one of the human senses, will have dominance over the other senses. The implications of this will continue to unfold into our individual lives and societal existence. Political processes and the entire nature of representation will be changed by this. Standards for the depiction of truth and fact will go through modification. We see shortcomings in this regard now but, if society demands more accountability, we will most likely see that accountability evolve with the next generation of technological invention.

What I offer in this writing is not a message of despair. Rather, it is encouragement that we go through these evolutions with our eyes open in a way that allows us to impact the direction of the road we are taking, not be victims of the technologies we have created (and will continue to create). Technological developments, and subsequent impacts with modification, are part of the history of the world.

We, as consumers of mass mediated messages, are not helpless in this evolution. With the increased emphasis on visual images, at the expense of aural messages, there is less of a standard for truth because subtle visual images are more seductive in their claims. They don’t explicitly make claims as happens with aural spoken messages. Thus, we are more challenged in this regard in that we need to engage our critical thinking skills without any prompting from the senders of such visual images.

For instance, if a person contacts me and states “Please vote for candidate X on election day,” I am prompted into critically analyzing the request and asking myself varied questions. “Who is the candidate? What are his/her positions on major issues?” However, when visual images are conveyed in our direction there usually is nothing alerting us that we are being influenced. The influence process is far more subtle. Thus, we need to get into the habit of instinctively alerting ourselves so we (as individuals) critically analyze such visual images & their overall context, speculate on the desired aims of the image sender, decide if those aims are commensurate with our individual value systems and then respond accordingly.

We can do this with commercial images, political images and other forms of contextual images that we are exposed to. For instance, when I see a visual advertisement on the internet sometimes I feel myself particularly focused on the human models used and less on the product. I will observe unique types of posture, expressions, graphics and colors. I can see I’m being influenced not only by the overt request to buy a product but am also being influenced by the subtle visual claims that I, as a consumer, can also be like the character depicted in the advertisement if I use the product (in ways totally unrelated to the product usage).

When I observe a photo collage of John McCain as a former prisoner of war, shaking hands with Ronald Reagan, posing with his family, speaking to the U.S. Senate and standing among a collection of U.S. flags I will understandably experience influence resulting from the visual image conveyance that “John McCain is a dedicated American who is appealing as a war hero, family man, politician and visionary.” It is at that point I need to instinctively prompt myself with the questions “What claims are being made and are they legitimate? Would they stand up to scrutiny if they were verbally stated?”

When my son was nearing school age I researched various internet websites of school districts in our area. One district in particular stood out as being excellent and we moved to a community in that school district. During that process I stopped to question my motives for the move and to critically analyze my data for the decision. I found I had been unduly swayed by the impressive visual appeal conveyed on the school district website showing new school buildings with matching Georgian brick and an abundance of white wooden fences. It was incredibly appealing visually but it was irrational to necessarily equate such things with excellence in education. We eventually did make the move to that community but not until after I took the time to study more rational data linked to the school district regarding philosophy and approach.

Thus, we need to learn to consistently see ourselves as consumers of images we are exposed to via mass mediated channels. Mere exposure is enough in this regard. We don’t have to be specifically targeted by the image source. Anytime we feel ourselves being influenced we should instinctively query ourselves regarding what influence we are feeling, how that influence is occurring and ask if the claims we are digesting are rational.

The more we engage in this process the more we can be startled by the findings from such analysis and this can act as reinforcement for developing the habit to view visual images in such a manner. Although this practice addresses new communication technologies the perspective being stressed grows out of an emphasis on standard critical thinking orientations. It is from this contention that I believe such practices by individuals, as consumers of images, can be instinctively embraced. We are used to emphasizing critical thinking in other areas of our lives and this application is an extension of that framework.