Man of a thousand faces

There’s an interesting experiment described in the National Geographic science book, “Brain — The Complete Mind.”

In an experiment, photographs of political candidates were digitally morphed to incorporate some features from the faces of test subjects who were asked their reactions to the candidates. The photos, which included 60% of the politicians’ faces and 40% of the respondents’ faces, received favorable reviews. When combined with detailed demographic databases that can personalize appeals for money and votes, morphed images are predicted to have an increased role in political advertising.

For instance, Democratic organizations sending out campaign donation requests to South Central Los Angeles could say, “Hmmm, that’s a heavily black neighborhood, let’s make Obama’s skin in this picture a shade darker.” Or, Republicans targeting Irish districts in Boston might try and make Sarah Palin appear more “Irish” (perhaps by using Photoshop to place discarded bottles of whiskey in her lap.)

As time goes on, things could get even more nefarious. Political operatives sending advertising to a specific person — let’s say, Bob Jones of Long Beach, California — might spider the web looking for pictures of Bob, then subtly morph some of Bob’s features into the picture of their candidate. Bob would receive the advertising and on a subconscious level think, “I like the looks of this guy.”

On one hand, there’s something decidedly undemocratic about the idea that we consider a candidate’s looks — and particularly how similar their looks are to ours — when weighing political decisions. On the other hand, I think we’ve suspected this all along. In a way, this helps explain the success of Barack Obama. His ethnicity is a bit vague; we know he’s half black, but he could pass for being half Indian, or half Arab, or even half Latino. Like Michael Jackson and Prince, his looks are generic enough to give him a wide kind of appeal. If people vote for candidates who look a bit like them, Obama casts a wide net.

I think there’s another factor at work here. Let’s use the term “vibrancy” to encompass the attributes of general health, charisma, sex appeal and intellectual vigor. Certainly Obama was more vibrant than McCain, who had a bad arm, what I believe is a cancer scar on his face, and a kind of frozen demeanor.

How does this vibrancy theory hold up in previous elections?

Bush/Kerry — I think Bush comes out ahead here. Kerry had a stilted presence (I think Mickey Kaus once referred to him as an “animatronic Abraham Lincoln.”) and he looked like Ichabod Crane.

Bush/Gore — This one’s a little tough to call, as was the election itself. Bush was more of your “buddy,” whereas Gore was more of an “idea man.”

Clinton/Dole — Not even close. Dole has been a member of the walking undead since the 80s.

Clinton/Bush Sr. — Again, I’m going to give it to Clinton. Bush was pretty vibrant for his age, but he couldn’t compete with Clinton’s Southern charm.

Reagan/Dukakis, Carter, or pretty much anybody — Reagan, with his matinee idol past and easy smile, was almost the definition of vibrant.

Carter/Ford — Well, Carter wasn’t especially vibrant, but the bar’s pretty low when you’re running up against Ford.

So, as I think you can see, my vibrancy theory holds up pretty well. If anyone from either the Republican or Democratic National Committees would like to contact me for some consulting work, you know where to find me.

(Note: I am not saying looks, and looks similar to our own, are the only things that matter. I doubt your average black person would vote for someone who looked like Barack Obama but advocated the policies of Adolf Hitler. Looks are one factor in a complex web of factors.)

1 Response to “Man of a thousand faces”


  1. John Saleeby

    The Big Catchphrase from Obama’s pitiful speech last night has turned out to be “Turn The Page” so we should do a wacky Song Parody combining the terrible Bob Segar song with an Obama impression vocal. Only instead of being about a Rock Star whining about Life on The Road it would be about a pussy President trying to scam the Voters into believing he has a clue about what to do about Iraq. Yeah, have the Writers work on that this afternoon and bring it into the Studio tomorrow morning. I’m going home.