Styling the presidential candidates
Image experts advise each candidate how to improve public perception
Published : Oct 31, 2012 - 18:15
Updated : Nov 1, 2012 - 09:56

It is said a person’s style reflects his or her character. In that case, all three of Korea’s major presidential candidates must be modest, neutral and even a little dull.

As if by unanimous agreement, all three ― Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, and independent Ahn Cheol-soo ― appear to prefer achromatic tones as opposed to statement pieces when dressing themselves.

To advisers’ recommendation that they consider sprucing up their style, their univocal response is said to be, “I’ll just go as naturally as possible.”

The three also have something in common in the way they speak, with their monotonous elocution style, a reserved sense of humor and forced or minimal gestures.

Image experts point out that style is more than just fashion. It is something that can make or break a candidate by defining his or her image.

Style played a major role in the first nationally-televised U.S. presidential debate between then-senator John F. Kennedy and then-vice president Richard Nixon in 1960. Kennedy’s dark blue suit against Nixon’s tepid gray projected a young and strapping image, and put him into the lead in the race. Kennedy held on to become the United States’ 35th president.

According to Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology, UCLA, 55 percent of a person’s message is received and processed based on the speaker’s body language, and 38 percent on tone of voice. Only 7 percent is based on the content of the words.

“We voters have no way of knowing the candidates’ inner thoughts. Because of that, we can only rely on the politician’s accomplishments, their pasts, looks, expressions, speech patterns and gestures when making our judgment,” said Jung Yun-ah, president of image consulting firm Imagetech Institute.

Because of Korea’s traditionally conservative nature stemming from Confucianism, it is still considered virtuous to appear modest and avoid aggression as much as possible, she explained. Considering this election’s key phrase is “self-reflection on politics,” the mood is even more somber.

Having a sophisticated sense of humor can also help, said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.

“The two axes of the 21st century’s emotional politics are ‘tears’ and ‘humor.’ While Korea has seen a lot of tear-jerking politics, it is difficult to find witty politics,” he said.

“While Park, Moon and Ahn are likable with their looks, it is hard to find a tasteful or elegant sense of humor in them.” He suggested “fun leadership” as an alternative to negative offensives and in dealing with politically charged issues to better appeal to voters.

Jung suggested the candidates step outside the box.

“I am sure the candidates put much consideration into their styles. But it would be helpful to remember that what they believe is their image may not be what other people perceive.”

Park Geun-hye

Park, 60, favors neutral-colored trouser suits like dark olive and blue, usually with stiff collars and black or grey heels. On special occasions, she wears brighter red, the emblematic color of the Saenuri Party. Her most signature look is her up-do, reminiscent of the 1960s and her mother and former first lady Yook Young-soo. As an accessory, she rarely wears anything bold, but sticks to a wristwatch, a brooch, or a thin gold necklace.

Until last year when she headed the Saenuri Party’s emergency committee, Park was rarely seen wearing trousers but instead a long and flowy skirt. Anytime she wore trousers, it was during a crisis period of her leadership to maximize her epicene image. But since announcing her presidential bid in July, she has only worn a skirt a couple of times, mostly on her tributary visits to the gravesites of her mother or former presidents. Her willingness to wear jeans to approach the younger voters even made headlines.

She is said to be frugal and recycles her wardrobe that she relies on with the help of a long-time local tailor.

Because Park has been under the spotlight since she was a teenager as the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, she tends to be cautious and restrained in her body language.

Rather than speaking in lengthy eloquent words, Park tends to give short remarks and answers. Experts say while such a pattern may depict her as trustworthy, it could expose her vulnerability in longer debates. Her habit of using “um” and “uh” in sentences also depreciates her message. The presidential frontrunner obviously tries hard to tell jokes, but they usually feel rehearsed or awkward.

“In order to give off a softer image away from the dictator-like image (associated with her father), she would look good in bright colors like eggshell or white. It would also go well with her up-do that she refuses to change,” said Jung.

She could go as far as to show the scar on her chin, which she hides under make-up, to highlight her political history, Jung suggested. Park was cut with a knife by an attacker on the campaign trail in 2006.

Experts also suggest Park add emotional touches to her speeches to better engage the audience.

“Today, people respond better to warmness rather than strong charisma like in the past,” Jung added.

Park’s refined manner, meanwhile, is deemed to show her principled nature. 

Moon Jae-in

Moon, 59, likes to emphasize his enthusiasm by rolling up his sleeves on the campaign trail. The former presidential chief of staff refuses to dye his signature salt-and-pepper hair despite his aides’ recommendation as a way of looking younger.

The most drastic change he made in his style recently was to change his glasses from a square frame to a circular one for a milder image.

Moon likes to wear olive green-colored neckties on special occasions to represent his camp’s symbol, ivy.

Because of his hair color, Moon tends to stay away from wearing gray suits, instead prefering dark ones. He also started wearing wider neckties to enhance his leadership image. His suits are domestic brands like Cambridge Members or Manstar.

Sometimes, he wears jeans to appear more liberal, such as for his meeting with college students at Kookmin University last week.

In speeches, Moon is usually serious but lacks dramatic effect, experts say. Despite his capacity to memorize lines, Moon relies on reading off prepared speech notes. Due to extensive dental implants he had done during his days at Cheong Wa Dae, his pronunciation sounds a little muffled.

Moon is more skilled at a defensive speaking style, rather than an offensive one like his former boss, the late President Roh Moo-hyun. While he tries to gesture more during his speeches, it needs to become more natural, experts say.

“Because his image is still very much associated with him having been the chief secretary (rather than a leader), he could better achieve an image of a strong leader if he was to color his hair to dark brown, or even style it more neatly,” Jung said.

“He also tends to wear his necktie lower than recommended by around 5 to 7 centimeters, which can make him look outdated. It is good to wear the tie so that the tip touches the bottom line of a belt buckle,” she suggested.

In terms of speaking, Moon should raise his speech volume a notch as well as his tone, experts suggest.

“He tends to shift his eyes about when he speaks. While looking at the spectators one by one is desirable, it is better that he spends at least five seconds at each spot to add more weight to his speech,” Jung said.

Observers point out that Moon generally has a friendly and approachable image and gives off an intellectual vibe as a former attorney.

Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn, 50, has a young and scholastic image. His carefully parted hairstyle shows he is sensitive and prudent, but his semi-formal suit depicts him as young and progressive.

Ahn rarely wore ties but started doing more so upon his presidential bid announcement in September. The former software mogul sometimes attempts a bolder color, such as by wearing a bright necktie or wearing a green jacket with an orange sweater, depending on the formality of the event he is attending.

He often carries around a Northface backpack, and wears his blue Ungaro jacket on the campaign trail. His dark suits that he has been wearing for years are said to be by Georgio Armani or a domestic brand.

Although he has been teaching students for years, he still appears shy and tense when giving speeches, with his voice trembling at times.

Ahn also tends to use the so-called “sit-down” speech, or conversational language, where he addresses the audience more casually.

“He seems to wear toned-down colors for the sake of better identifying with the older electorate,” Jung said. But the experts advised wearing bolder colors to give off more trustworthy and charismatic vibe.

While the no-tie look showed his liberal image appealing to younger voters, he would appear more aggressive by wearing blue shirts as his signature look with ties of sophisticated colors like burnt orange, Jung suggested.

Observers say Ahn’s speeches are more like lectures.

“His speech style is also too weak and toned down,” Jung said.

“A leader must move a huge number of people. It would be helpful to benchmark gestures of prominent politicians such as U.S. President Barak Obama.”

Observers also point to the former professor’s use of English terms during his meetings with ordinary citizens. For instance, in his visit to a cucumber farm in North Chungcheong Province earlier this month, Ahn used such words as “best practice” or “agflation” in English in his conversation with the farmers, many of whom were apparently left baffled.

Ahn, instead, is seen to excel in giving emotionally ringing speeches, benefitting from his untainted and fresh image.

By Lee Joo-hee