Saturday, March 01, 2008

Postmodern Presidential Branding

Something I've been thinking about but just never got around to writing about is the use of visual media in these presidential campaigns. Much has already been written about the explosion of internet based communications this cycle, from blogging to user created video. One of things I had looked at early on were the candidates' front page web presence, especially their logos. Now the field has narrowed to 3 remaining candidates so I missed my chance at a grand comparative visual analysis of all the campaign websites.
C'est la vie.

However, Karrie Jackobs does a wonderful job reading the remaining candidates' logos with this essay at, "May the best logo win."

She begins;

Given that branding is our true national pastime -- the swoosh, the golden arches and the mermaid in the green circle are now more ubiquitous, and arguably more potent, than the eagle and the flag -- you would think that a candidate's graphic style would be as strategic as every other piece of his or her message. A strong logo or visual identity should be part of any leading candidate's package.

She then goes on to look at Hillary's logo, which is notably uninspiring and utterly unoriginal. She also mentions George W Bush's "W" logo. In Texas, nearly every oversized $50,000 SUV on the road had the ominous white "W" on a black background smacked on the back bumper.

McCain's logo, as she notes, is unmistakably militaristic. It also works very well in so much as it conveys the message McCain is promoting. The logo leaves no doubt what McCain is about this election cycle. But Obama's logo is the real focus of this article. I found this quote particularly interesting;
Of the current campaigns, Barack Obama's is the best at getting his message across through graphics -- think of all those "Change we can believe in" signs -- and most careful observers see his as the first sophisticated corporate-style identity to emerge from presidential politics.

Now this really caught my attention. The idea of creating a corporate-style identity. Obama inc.
The use of visual imagery in campaigning is certainly nothing new. However, branding in this sense seems to me something a bit unusual. Is this the essence of postmodern politics?

I also liked this analysis by two type designers writing for the Boston Globe;
Obama's type is contemporary, fresh, very polished and professional. The serifs are sharp and pointed; clean pen strokes evoke a well-pressed Armani suit. The ever-present rising sun logo has the feeling of a hot new Internet company. His sans serifs conjure up the clean look of Nike or Sony. This typography is young and cool. Clearly not the old standards of years past.
and about McCain's logo;
Everything about this logo says you can buy a car from this man. From the perfectly centered star to the perfectly spaced type, the entire design looks like a high-end real estate company. McCain has done something no other candidate has done, he uses all blue, no red - not even a dash. If we were to predict the results based on typography and design, we would pick McCain and Obama.

Agreed. But, does the attention to detail also not point to the campaigns themselves? Clearly these campaigns have put a lot of thought into their visual messages. Obama gets all the digital hype, but I recall McCain's campaign in the 2000 primaries was the first to ever do online fund raising.

So the general election (presumably) looks like this.


Imagine you’ve never heard of McCain or Obama. You’ve been tucked away up in the mountains without any connection what so ever to the outside world. But come election day, you hike down into town, walk into the voting booth and grab a ballot. The only thing standing on the ballot are these two logos, no political affiliation, no information, nothing but these two logos. The choice visually in very clear. Black (darkness) vs. White (light), Death vs. Life, War vs. Peace, Authority vs. Inclusion, Determination vs. Hope.

Naturally, this is my own subjective construction of a visual stimulus. And I haven’t been tucked away in the mountains, but rather deeply connected. Something else that comes to mind about McCain's logo, the white letters on black resemble those black and white Vietnam POW posters. I think I picked up on the tubes somewhere that McCain’s font is the same font used on the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington D.C. Clearly not everyone will read these visuals exactly how I have.

I’m not entirely comfortable with using the term branding in democratic political discourse but that is clearly what the Obama campaign has been doing, creating and building the Obama brand. Both McCain’s and Obama’s logos stand head and shoulders above the pack but Obama’s goes much further. The Obama logo, like any really good corporate brand is not only readily identifiable, but also easily duplicated for other strategic branding campaigns. It seems the Obama campaign has incorporated the Obama brand logo into nearly everything under the Obama (apparently) rising sun.

As I mentioned, an effective brand (I have zero marketing training mind you) should be easily duplicated so that it can be readily appropriated by others and into other branding campaigns. Here are some great examples of what I mean.

1. Lefties for Obama

No, not political Lefties, but left-handed people. Obama is a Southpaw.

2. Vermonters for Obama

Here the famous Vermont dairy cow (home of Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream) grazing on Obama’s field of hope.

3. a "user created" logo incorporating the iconic apple logo.

4. Gays and Lesbians for Obama, a rainbow field of hope.

Who can remember any past presidential campaign logo? Furthermore, has a presidential campaign ever carried a logo forward into the presidency? It will be interesting to see how Obama (if elected) carries his visual brand into the White House. Should Obama become elected next president, I wonder if 50 years from now people will still be able to identify that "O" as Obama, the 44th President of the United States?