[If you’d like to watch this article in all it’s Afterburnery video glory, you can find it here.]
I’d like to take just a few moments to talk about the power of Iconography. If you happen to be a high-level Republican strategist, you’re probably saying, “the power of Ica-what-now?” If you’re a high-level Democratic strategist, you might be thinking, “Aw, crap! He’s onto us!”
See this lovely steak dinner? Appetizing, isn’t it? Of course, if you put this in a blender and hit Puree, it comes out looking like this…
Exact same content. Different packaging. I believe the conservative message is, on balance, the most nutritious philosophical meal ever devised. But the packaging of that message has been an unmitigated disaster.
Here’s the stage from last year’s Republican National Convention. Wow. It probably took a good half hour to design, an maybe double that to build. It’s a giant square plank poking you right in the eye. Now look at last years DNC stage…
It looks like the entrance to Tomorrowland at Disney World. Look at how it’s lit! Look at those curving screens, leading the eye right up to heaven. It’s inviting, it’s warm, it’s new and exciting. If you don’t think this matters, I’m sorry to say you’re wrong. All of these elements have a profound impact on how people perceive the message. Even the choice of colors.
Now let’s just look at the power of simple shapes. Let’s take the tale of two classically simple pieces of iconography.
One line drawing conjures up a completely different set of emotions and expectations than the other one does… doesn’t it? Look at these two masterpieces of iconography. Look how simple they are. Can you begin to see how something this simple can conjure up so many images and feelings from your own childhood? The power of an icon is in its ability to evoke a subconscious emotional response. Advertising has a term for this. It’s called branding.
During the campaign season, it’s common to try and get an icon to stand for a candidate. George W. Bush used the “W” in his two presidential runs… the W off-setting him from his father’s same-name presidency. It’s not bad. But the application of it was strictly on lawn signs and bumper-stickers. Amateur hour, by today’s standards.
Now we come to the gold standard. From a pure design standpoint, I’ve always found this to be a little infantile. But the fact is, it’s a classic: plowed fields of grain, under the sunrise of a new tomorrow… all in the shpe of the “O.” “O” for Obama, of course. But also “O” for The One. The circle. Complete and self-contained. Sunrise and prosperity within the circle of life, and outside it nothing but barren emptiness. In terms of what it evokes it is a masterpiece, and the way the Obama team used it, and continues to use it, is absolutely brilliant.
Look at this image. It’s from the official Obama website. Notice how all of the traditional American iconography – the eagle, the stars, the flag, the motto: “e PLURIBUS UNUM – all are slowly fading out into a diffuse, heavenly glow, receding into the mists of memory, leaving only the glowing sun, the “O” pulling your eye into the future. And there are some very subtle and disturbing things here, as well. The American eagle isn’t perched, to remain here forever, but rather seems to be on the verge of flying away. The flag is falling. The stars are dissipating into the void. Our national motto: E PLURIBUS UNUM – “Out of many, One” is virtually unreadable.. . more like letters stamped in soft sand.
The only thing that is sharp and well-defined is the circle, the One, the “O.” That is what is permanent and immovable. Everything else is fading away. You think this is an accident? Think again.
Now when George Bush was elected, the W logo was put away for four years until it was dragged out again for his second campaign. But the Obama logo is still with us. At MyBarackObama dot com, we see images of a diverse group of citizens being called to “Organize for America.” Men and women of various ages and ethnicities.
What do they have in common? Go look carefully for yourself: they’re branded.
Mybarackobama.com is run by the Democratic National Committee. The new Democratic party logo is this:
…which is great by the way, dynamic and energetic, and a far cry from this stodgy, uninspired, static, child-like thing:
But this – pardon the expression – “kickin’” Democratic party logo appears nowhere on Mybarackobama.com. However, the Obama logo is everywhere. Everywhere.
It’s everywhere. They even tell you flat out it’s everywhere:
To the best of my knowledge, this is – again, pardon the expression – unprecedented. I believe it is unique in the American experience to brand an individual leader. The President of the United States has a logo. Here it is:
It’s a pretty exclusive club:. Barack Obama is one of only 43 people in the history of the world authorized to use this logo. (Grover Cleveland technically being both President number 22 and 24).
The fact that we see the Obama logo attached to health care proposals means that we are seeing an individual brand – that of Barack Obama – being used alongside and in many cases in place of the logo of the President of the United States. That is interesting and I don’t like it.
The man won the election and the right to use the Seal of the President of the United States. The fact that we continue to see the Obama logo used by the Democratic National Committee tells me that this is a perpetual campaign and that what they are branding is in fact an ideology centered around a Cult of Personality. We have seen in the past the dangers of branding an ideology with an icon. The two great totalitarian ideologies of the early 20th century both used powerful icons to represent their ideas. I will not show those here because it would be obscene to compare them and the horror they generated – 150 million dead, no less – to what is going on here, today. That was mass murder. This is merely advertising. We’ve just never seen this kind of thing before, in America.
The Obama logo has been powerful, but there is a weakness imbedded in that power of identity. If this logo is shorthand for all of the positives President Obama wants to project, then it can also be used as a shorthand for his negatives as well.
Lately, there has been an avalanche of anti-Obama merchandise…. Most of it centering around the ubiquitous “O”. Here in Los Angeles we have for years seen an iconic image by an artist named Shepard Fairey. A charming guy, one of whom’s collections is entitled E PLURIBUS VENOM.
We’ve seen his famous “OBEY” poster plastered all over LA for many years. The face is based on the wrestler Andre the Giant. It’s a powerful image. Shepard’s latest work is, of course, this:
…which is so striking that it immediately became the unofficial Barack Obama poster and rapidly produced any number of parodies.
But the worm is turning. Here’s Fairey’s work turned on itself. Not bad work.
And this has been getting a lot of attention lately:
It appeared pasted on a remote pillar in essentially the middle of nowhere. Of course, LA Weekly called it an abomination, a call to a lynching, adding “all that’s missing is the noose.”
However, this image, published in Vanity Fair – not on a remote overpass by some unknown street artist, but rather by the editor of a major national magazine – was, on the other hand, hailed as brilliant satire and a remarkable statement on the sad state of American affairs.
The Obama/Joker is an excellent photoshop job, but as propaganda it could use some work. The Joker’s signature line was “Why so serious?” If you had done this…
… you would have had a masterpiece. This image works because of the fake smile hiding sinister intent. Many people are starting to get that impression of this President. This image has real power.
People obsessed with their own image expect some opposition. But there is one thing the true narcissist cannot tolerate…
This is the killer ap. I wouldn’t worry about the Joker poster so much, Mr. President. But if this catches on, and your policies are reduced to three-letter ridicule… well, sir, then you are in real trouble.