Are You Offended by This Picture?

Are you offended by the picture below? Perhaps not but many people are.   It violates  a variety of moral foundations with respect to the interpretation of political messages  (see a review here).


The photo is of an American soldier hugging a Muslim woman in a niqab. It is an actual ad inspired by a real couple. At first glance it looks like a political statement with respect to American forces and their concern for local citizens in Iraq or Afghanistan. But the billboard is an ad for a throat spray that is supposed to help people stop snoring and thus keep them “together.” The ad does successfully pass the first rule of advertising which is to capture attention. But for some people this togetherness is too soon after 9/11, and for others it is shoving political correctness down our throats. Others find the ad endearing.

Some research did reveal that the soldier is real and one question that can be asked is why is an American soldier in uniform doing an ad for a commercial company? Well, that’s a good question but not what I’m interested in. It’s more interesting to examine the various responses to the ad and why some find it loving and inclusive and others distasteful and offensive. How you respond seems to be a matter of what sort of moral issues you are concerned with.

Jonathan Haidt of course in his book Moral Foundations Theory ( has explained how liberals and conservatives differ with respect to which moral systems they respond to. Haidt identifies six moral foundations and they are briefly: care/harm, liberty/suppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. I won’t elaborate on them all for space considerations but a few insights are worthy.

The care/harm distinction evolved from the need to care for children and is now stimulated by messages about suffering in distress. Compassion is a strong emotion here. For conservatives, however, that compassion is more associated with members of your own group than an outgroup. Conservatives are more likely to help members of an ingroup rather than an outgroup. For liberals, care and compassion are more universal and might be triggered by anyone suffering. There is a subtle element of this in the photograph as the soldier seems to be caring for the woman. Liberals who are more responsive to universal care are more likely to accept the photograph and find it less troublesome.

The sanctity/degradation continuum is also particularly important to those with a conservative ideology. Early in our evolutionary history there was a survival advantage to avoiding human waste, decaying food, and health threats of all types. Haidt argues that many objects as a consequence became sacred and we wanted to protect them against desecration, thus setting into motion “sacred” images, flags, and words. American conservatives tend to bestow sanctity quite easily on objects such as flags, ideologies such as capitalism, and desecration on the other things such as homosexuality and foreign objects. The image of the Muslim has become contaminated and clearly by many with strong conservative ideologies seen as a threat and something to be avoided. The most conservative viewers of the photograph are the most “put off” because they see the sanctity of the American soldier being degraded by contact with an impure other.

We respond to things not only according to our economic interests our moral ones. The argument that we have evolved these moral standards over time and as a result of evolutionary needs does seem to be defensible enough. A few of these moral standards such as “caring,” “fairness,” and “sanctity,” are clearly the divides that separate moral reasoning. A strong liberal will be more supportive of using government to level the playing field and achieve a sense of fairness; whereas, a conservative who is consistent with conservative values will defend traditions and infuse some objects and ideas with “sanctity.”

The soldier in the photograph is more sanctified than the woman and that’s why we immediately perceive his threat and express suspicion about her. So what you see and how you interpreted is certainly not an objective processing of an image, but an interpretive act that includes the interaction of your political predispositions with the object of interest.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 2, 2013, in Media and politics, Political Conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Don,
    First, you know that this liberal alum sees the pic as cool, inclusive and a tad provocative. Thus, I found that snoring reference kinda odd.
    But I remembered it was an ad. Maybe that’s the point. You know that old mass/comm canard — the one about the cleverest of ads which no one can remember what they’re actually, well, advertising. “Orphans” in the vernacular.
    I’d argue that strictly viewed as an advertisement, this image works. And while other factors may/must be at play, the ad did hit the proper nerve. Thus will be recalled, effectively. Which is all it intended to do, no?

    • It’s true that the ad succeeds only in gaining attention. Other than that it’s pretty silly. The image does work as an advertisement to capture your attention for this snoring remedy. But there was a group of people that complained. Most Americans of course not bothered by this sort of thing but it is an indicator of Jonathan Haidt’s theories, which I suggest you take a look at. There’s a link in the text that can start you out if you are interested.

  2. I am a conservative and am not offended in any way by the billboard. How do think a billboard showing a Muslim hugging a Christian (such as a nun) would go over in a middle eastern country?

    • There is no question that the ad would be highly contentious in a Muslim Middle Eastern country. You would not see it. But that just makes my point that some moral foundations are based on sanctity that leads to excessive conservatism. You can’t compare your sort of financial business conservatism to the religious conservatism of a Muslim country. By their standards you are a raving liberal. And, moreover, you’re not that much of a social conservative.

  3. Politics: black hole of ideas

    Entrepreneurs, scientists and technologists treasure ideas and innovation as the lifeblood of prosperity. Leading music creators, designers and football coaches poke everywhere to find a ray of new light to combine with the tried and true. Creative companies know that ideas are sparked or squelched by factors as humdrum as the work environment, so they work to create new and better work forums.
    Meanwhile the political system works its hardest to kill all ideas. What impels this losing game? …

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