Yes We (Apparently) Can
One aspect of this year's presidential election that is commented upon, but which rarely warrants sufficient analysis, is the matter of style over substance. If it were to turn out that Senator John McCain were to lose the election to Senator Barack Obama, it might be less over their respective qualifications, or even their stands on the issues, than it would be over matters of appearance, a victory of style over substance -- in other words, who does a better selling job.
The differences in how their campaigns are run are a statement in its own right. McCain reflects a passing generation, one which quite frankly has paid little attention to the young voter, the 18 to 25 age group. This could prove his undoing, as that age group has not been this interested in the political process in years. A generation attracted to instantaneous visual imagery is easily attracted to a slick and well-crafted message, one that gains value with repetition. To compound this attraction, Obama makes full use of the electronic media, including tying in supporters through the use of "members only" text messaging.
To the casual and uninformed viewer (and one cannot lay enough stress on this caveat), McCain represents an old and tired face, the same old face, the same old same old. Obama is a fresh face. People like a fresh face. The mainstream news media, which has manipulated this election campaign to an extent unknown in our history, particularly on television, is composed of those whose main qualification is having a fresh face. In Obama, they see one of their own, less for where he is coming from, than for how he got there.
Europeans are watching this presidential election with great interest. In a recent piece in the UK's Guardian, columnist Will Brady discusses Obama's brand strategy, and how it is "rapidly achieving cultural ubiquity."
Obama is, of course, an unprecedented figure in American politics for a number of reasons. Not least, because he is the first presidential candidate to have been promoted in the same way as a trans-media, upmarket consumer brand. The people behind Obama's corporate identity have crafted a meticulous visual strategy that has been seamlessly deployed across an enormous diversity of platforms - from lapel pins to social networking websites, billboards to podcasts, where Obama's publicity has maintained an unrivalled aesthetic cohesion. It's a feat any creative director would be proud of.
There are stories of supporters at rallies having their lovingly handmade "Yes we CAN" signs exchanged by campaign staffers for officially branded materials. Evidently, Obama's marketing team believes that visual consistency matters. They're not wrong. Greater consistency means greater collective impact. That's how brands function - by establishing themselves as culturally ubiquitous, a normal and inevitable part of everyday life. That's how Obama wants to appear - and what his branding is doing for him. The colour scheme is a well-balanced if predictable red white and blue, the logo an innocuously abstract roundel (the sun rising over a ploughed field? or are those just stripes?).
But what really brings everything together is the typography...
Ah, yes, the typography. That the interest of yours truly should be piqued should come as no surprise, having been a professional graphic designer for over thirty years. It was a relief to finally learn the name of the typeface employed by the campaign: Gotham. At first I thought it was the same typeface used in signage and other government material in the 2006 movie V For Vendetta. It looks very similar, but it's not the same. Were it identical, there would have been a message there somewhere.
But the message remains. This election, as with all of them, is about ideas, about substance. It is not about being swept up in a phenomenon for the rush that it brings. It is not about what your friends might think of you if you are not as excited about a unique form of marketing as they are. Those who are simply mesmerized by the aura, the imagery, of a large-scale initiative, should beware lest they throw caution to the wind. This is not the first time in our history that cosmetic forms of persuasion brought a civilization to its knees.
(TOP PHOTO: "Presenting a united font... Supporters of Barack Obama hold up matching banners at a campaign rally." Mel Evans/Associated Press. BOTTOM PHOTO: Group of soldiers walking with Nazi flags, Nuremberg Rally, Nuremberg, Germany, September 1933. © SuperStock, Inc. All images used without permission or shame.)