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Behind the Bumper Sticker

Arts & Culture | October 29, 2012

America is a brand with many logos: the eagle, the statue of liberty, the slice of apple pie, the good ol’ red, white, and blue. It is a brand that sells everything from the promise of change to the ultimate attainment of the American dream. America wants people to buy in bulk—to buy, and to believe in what they are buying. But what price does America want us to pay for the prize of hope, liberty, democracy, or freedom? There are many answers to this, but with the current energy of the presidential election, the most powerful currency with which we contribute to the American brand is our vote. Political campaigns are competing brands within the larger American corporation. And what is a brand without its characteristic artwork? Disney would be a boring animation company without Mickey Mouse, McDonalds just another burger place without its golden arches. The role of political campaign artwork and branding is imperative in achieving America’s goal of selling the American dream. In the same way that Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam help Americans choose their cereal, campaign artwork helps Americans choose the kind of American dream they want.

Even separated from the platforms that the candidates represent, the branding of the campaigns in this demonstrates the kinds of goals the candidates are selling. Mitt Romney’s logo features three red, white, and blue “R”s coming together as one, perhaps representing the desire for people with different political viewpoints striving to make a change in the country. The shape of the “R”s themselves suggests a pull to the right—a pull forward, or away from the policy of the current president. The slogan, “Believe in America,” again reflects the traditional, value-centric brand conservatives want Americans to continue to buy. Mitt Romney’s logo evokes solidarity and a belief in traditional American principles. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s logo is a single word, “Forward,” with the symbol for the Obama campaign in the “O.” Obama’s branding is so effective that the logo does not even need to contain the word “Obama.” The capitalized block letters evoke the loud cry for hope that dominated the campaign strategy of his last election. The one-word slogan itself echoes the powerful themes of hope and change from the last election. Obama’s graphics highlight a continuation of forward movement while Romney’s try to emphasize that his product of the American dream will be better than the latest version.

While many voters do not explicitly analyze the aesthetic structure of a candidate’s logo in order to make a decision about which candidate to vote for, a logo can subconsciously influence a voter. Campaign art is effective because the effect of art is both visceral and universal. You do not have to have prior knowledge or be a particular type of individual in order for artwork to have an effect on you. Graphic designers use techniques to render specific design choices into unconscious reactions. For example, Shepard Fairey’s iconic 2008 Hope poster appeals to an audience that does not have to be informed about health care policy or foreign affairs. Obama’s strong outward gaze and the inclusion of both red and blue to signify bipartisan solidarity would appeal to any voter. Campaign branding is thus both a gift and a curse to the American who believes in progress. It makes politics more accessible, but this access extends to people using branding as the sole basis for making a decision to vote. Political branding lies in the fine line between artwork and propaganda. The role of the voter thus becomes finding an effective balance between consumer and citizen.

Political candidates have always used branding to appeal to as many voters as possible. The slanted type of the Bush/Cheney logo of 2004 shares some similarities with the logo of their Republican counterpart in 2008. The Bush and Cheney type in italics proposes a move forward and the American flag linked to Bush’s name suggests the same type of solidarity evoked in the Romney logo of the 2012 campaign. The unity expressed in the Bush/Cheney logo was especially poignant to an America torn apart after the events of September 11, 2001. Thirty-three years earlier, Robert Kennedy’s iconic campaign poster for the 1968 presidential election utilized a similar capitalization on the events of the time. The caricature of the candidate in the middle of the poster with yellow, fluid writing atop a purple and green backdrop stating, “Bobby is my choice in ’68” was designed to appeal to young voters amidst the counterculture movement of the late sixties. Robert Kennedy’s poster resonated with youth jaded by the policies of running mate Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.

However, most people tend not to remember campaign artwork of the distant past. The artwork itself does not become iconic, but the brand lingers in the minds of Americans. We likely do not remember the posters distributed by Eisenhower, Reagan, Lincoln, or Carter. We do, however remember slogans like, “I like Ike” or “Not just peanuts.” Additionally, we are able to identify the stoic portraits of Reagan or Lincoln. Political campaign art is a vessel through which a candidate establishes a brand, and it is this brand that becomes iconic.

Whatever the time period, a candidate’s use of effective aesthetic techniques in his political campaign artwork can help him progress from being just another name on the ballot to becoming a brand for Americans to believe in. Art and politics are inextricably linked. (Art, after all, is the medium that popularized the timeless “Uncle Sam wants you” image.) But does the success or failure of a candidate’s campaign depend solely on the colors accentuated on his bumper stickers or the witty lines employed in his slogans? Probably not. Perhaps it would be too harsh to equate the citizen’s most important right and responsibility to the choice between Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. However, it is important to remember that branding can create a fog over the reality of the product. Though a logo can easily evoke comfort or inspiration through key words or visual attractiveness, it is up to the American citizen to evaluate the quality of the product she is buying from a presidential candidate—the future of America.