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I've always wondered about why there sometimes a crowd is visible behind a public speaker such as a politician. It seems to be a predominantly American thing, especially noticeable during campaign rallies and such.

I am not talking about security staff, advisors or family members. The crowd often seems to be made up of ordinary people that are approving of what the person speaking is saying by showcasing supportive signs and apparel.

See this photo for example: enter image description here

Possible reasons that come to mind:

  • Seating or standing arrangement: The speaker is in the middle of the crowd, people behind him just happen to be in the picture.
  • Theory from reddit: The approving nod of people in the background will make the viewer more likely to agree with the speaker.

So, what is the reason for the crowd in the background?

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    I doubt there is a verifiable answer, so any answer will just be opinions and guesses. For example, my best guess is that this setup is designed entirely for anyone watching on TV: to show that the speaker is speaking to a crowd of real people(i.e., speaking to people like 'you') and they aren't just using a soundboard of fake cheering. – Giter Feb 6 '18 at 16:12
  • @Giter Since it is done on a regular basis, and often involves high-ranking officials I doubt that there is no real reason for it. Taking the example of a speech given by the POTUS, I can imagine having people all around him makes matters more complicated from a security point of view. So if there was no real, meaningful reason for it, I doubt would they take the risk. The thing about TV viewers sounds plausible though. – pat3d3r Feb 6 '18 at 20:11
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    Just make sure you don't choose Buzz Aldrin to fill that spot. – Federico Poloni Feb 6 '18 at 21:43
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    It's not just the US. On reading the title I was immediately reminded of the Nuremberg rallies and another view from the back. As best I can tell, the backdrop crowd in these cases was largely miiltary but included party officials. – Chris H Feb 7 '18 at 9:49
  • It's a show. It conveys the image of a man from the people/for the people/... – Trilarion Feb 7 '18 at 11:02
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As a resident of a college town in Iowa, of presidential primary caucus fame, I have attended more than my fair share of political rallies. From my perspective as an audience member, there are a few things going on with the folks seated on the stage (obviously this answer is US-centric):

First, remember that the live audience is often the main target of a rally, even if a soundbite or photo op might make it into the wider media. Although a few events are televised in their entirety, most of them are not. And even most of the events that are televised rely on an enthusiastic live audience. So some of the staging is for the benefit of the people who are actually present at the event.

  1. The people selected to sit behind the speaker are generally drawn from the front of the line of spectators.
    • This provides a bit of an incentive to show up early, which helps with the whole sense of urgency and importance that these events want to generate.
    • It also helps the events to feel more democratic (little d), given that there is also usually a VIP section whose members generally get better views, more access to the candidate/speaker, etc.
    • Hopefully (for the rally organizers) this also puts some of the most enthusiastic supporters front and center.
  2. Having audience all the way around the speaker helps create a greater sense of energy and solidarity.
    • Between the audience and the speaker: the speaker is literally surrounded by supporters. If you've ever attended a theatre-in-the-round, think about how much more immediate the action seems than with the traditional separation between stage and audience of a proscenium theatre.
    • Among the audience: everywhere an audience member looks they see (theoretically) like-minded individuals. If the on-stage audience members are responding the way the rally organizers hope, some of the "approving nod" effect you posit might work here, similar to a sitcom laugh-track.
    • One caveat: I'm not sure how this carries over to enormous stadium-style rallies, as I haven't attended anything with an audience larger than a couple thousand.

Having said that, there is definitely some staging going on for the benefit of whatever cameras might be present. This is pretty clear as rally organizers will generally do some "grooming" of the on-stage audience before the event starts.

  1. Even though the on-stage audience is largely determined on a first-come, first-served basis, some folks are a little more likely to be picked (and may even be added later, after most of the on-stage audience has been seated for a while).
    • The camera likes kids. Being near the front of the line AND having a kid or two in tow will almost guarantee you a seat on stage, and probably very near to the center of the bleachers.
    • Depending on the rally, other demographic issues might lead to folks being shifted to be more or less directly in the camera's viewfinder. At one rally I attended, it seemed that there was some concern about how many guys wearing Cubs hats were on-camera. I have also seen audience members in a certain age group approached to squeeze into the on-stage seating.
  2. The on-screen audience may be adjusted to be more visually supportive of the cause.
    • Rally organizers will often have pre-made signs and other swag (like buttons and stickers) to hand out to audience members; they especially concentrate their efforts on the on-stage audience.
    • Folks wearing slogan-emblazoned shirts and hats may be re-arranged to be more concentrated right behind the speaker.
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Like you said, it's not a technique used only by politicians. It's something you see at many speaking events (at least in the United States).

Depending on the particular purpose of each event, the backdrop of people can mean different things. But here are a few purposes common to many of these events:

  • a show of support (e.g., to suggest that a candidate has many supporters)
  • a show of strength (e.g., to suggest that a movement can't be stopped)
  • a show of solidarity ("we're all in this together")
  • to show a natural bond with the audience ("I'm one of you")

Bottom line, it's a method of persuasion. Whether it works or not is another question.

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    It does appear to be somewhat US specific though, doesn't it? I've not looked into this on a real basis, but it's my impression that you'll usually find speakers in European countries in front of some plain background, maybe with a flag, claim or logo, but rarely with people behind them. – janh Feb 6 '18 at 16:56
  • Are there any written guidelines about this technique? – pat3d3r Feb 6 '18 at 20:16
  • Not that I have seen. It would make sense that political campaigns, unions and other organizations set guidelines for their presentations. But that information is likely for internal use only. – Michael_B Feb 6 '18 at 20:20
  • @janh I don't think this is specific to the US. Esp. the picture with Trump reminds me of life-talk-show format where the camera captures a participant in front and the studio audience in the background. Such shows may have originated in the US but you can find them e.g. also in France. – Drux Feb 7 '18 at 6:51
  • @Drux: It's common in talk shows in France to have the public in a wide arc around the stage, with the guests on stage. The host, on the contrary, will have its back to the backstage (with no public). I think this is due to a desire of having a discussion between guests (and host), which is more easily carried out if they face each other... which by necessity puts the public at their back. For a political picture, the 2017 first round debate has a somewhat similar configuration. I can't recall seeing when a single politician speaks though. – Matthieu M. Feb 7 '18 at 7:43

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