Does that plant in the meeting background make him look responsible and nurturing? Do the books make him look smart? Does the brick wall make you wonder if he’s the murderer in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”?

You’ve tested your audio and lighting setup. You’ve combed your hair and made sure there’s nothing in your teeth. You changed out of that stained shirt and put on something clean. You made sure your well-thumbed Fifty Shades of Grey paperback and Ayn Rand titles are on a lower bookshelf, out of sight. You’re ready for that Zoom meeting or remote happy hour.

But are you really maximizing your message? Are you missing an opportunity to let your fellow attendees know how you feel about racism, police violence, inclusivity, or firefighters? Luckily, the proliferation of virtual debates this campaign season has offered plenty of examples of how to send out those silent signals.

Let’s start with the mayoral candidates. They’ve had so many debates that they’ve gotten to try out a few different settings. For her KGW appearance October 12, Sarah Iannarone perhaps paid homage to Elizabeth Warren’s Democratic National Convention speech with some rainbow stripes, primary-color cushions, and BLM art—in her case, a Breonna Taylor portrait. (The debate moderator, KGW’s Laural Porter, said Iannarone was in the office of a supporter in Southeast Portland.) Ted Wheeler was also in Southeast, in his case flanked by flags at the firefighters’ union hall in Foster-Powell. For other debates (KATU, City Club/Pamplin Media), they’ve joined from their homes. The little plant on Iannarone’s well-centered bookcase whispers, “Look at this plant I kept alive. I’ll take care of you, too.” Wheeler’s multiple, larger plants say the same, but louder, and are those birch cabinets from Ikea?

If Wheeler’s flags and firefighters are sending out coded messages to lovers of law, order, and Law and Order, city commissioner Chloe Eudaly established a strong connection to another TV show from the ’90s, Twin Peaks, with her backdrop of red drapes in back-to-back October 9 debates hosted by Central City Concern and City Club. If the camera ever zoomed out, would it show the zigzag floor pattern and a dancing Man from Another Place from those wild David Lynch dream sequences? Meanwhile, her opponent in November’s runoff election, Mingus Mapps, opted for translucent white drapes with a mysterious blank wall behind him, save for a campaign sign. What was on that empty picture hook we see that had to be taken down? Hmm.

That “see how I’m too serious to think about camera placement” vibe reappears with Chris Smith, in a City Club/Pamplin Media debate for the candidates for Position 5 on the Metro Council, only his campaign sign is even larger, really dominating what appears to be his home office. I mean, it’s huge. Maybe he stares at it every morning and listens to some transportation planning psych-up music. His runoff opponent, Mary Nolan, either has a very crammed wall or a very empty wall because she's made a point of hanging her only three pieces (including one that's clearly Indigenous art and a painting of Black women on a hillside—stuff she just randomly chose, right?) way too close to each other so they can all be seen in the shot.

Even if you’re not running for office, turn and look behind you. Put yourself in a viewer’s shoes. Can that sex furniture in the background really be passed off as exercise aids? Should those empty tequila bottles still be there for that remote job interview? Do you mean to have that framed Pamela Anderson schoolgirl Playboy cover in view, or did you want your Mötley Crüe album cover to have pride of place instead? As we enter the season of Google Meet-oween, tele-Thanksgiving, and virtual New Year’s ball drops, make good choices and forgive the little fires everywhere in your coworkers’ (and candidates’) backgrounds.

Editor’s note: This has been a long and silly reminder that there are local elections happening along with the national showdown, and there are many online archives where voters can hear from the candidates themselves. Oregon voters must turn in their ballots before 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 3. Find a drop box near you. If you’re mailing your ballot, remember that it must be received by the deadline, not just postmarked. Multnomah County suggests mailing ballots no later than October 25.

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