The Persuasive Effects of Emotive Visual Imagery: Superficial Manipulation or the Product of Passionate Reason?



This study reevaluates the persuasive impact of emotional visual appeals within politics and examines two different explanations for their effects. One possibility is that the effects of emotive visual images are essentially superficial in nature, consistent with the view that feelings aroused by an affective image are transferred somewhat mechanically to a political candidate or cause with which it is paired. This transfer-of-affect explanation suggests that emotional appeals may work best among the least informed voters or those paying the least attention to a persuasive political message. The second possibility is that emotional appeals work via passionate reason, in which affective responses to an emotive image are integrated with, and potentially bias, reasoned thought about the accompanying message. This integrated approach leads to the counterintuitive prediction that individuals who are most highly involved in an issue (and who know the most about it) are most influenced by emotional imagery. This prediction arises from growing evidence that people highly involved in value-laden social issues generate the strongest emotional responses to issue-related persuasive appeals. These two models were tested in a study in which undergraduate students were presented with a picture of a cute or an ugly animal and a flyer from an organization advocating a pro- or anti-environment stance with respect to preserving the animal's habitat. The responses showed that emotive imagery was most persuasive among the most involved environment supporters, providing clear evidence of passionate reasoning.