Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Can't Decide Who To Vote For? Base It On The Banners

WITH ONLY A FEW days before the March 4 primaries, a substantial percentage of American voters still remain undecided about who to support: Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Last night, both candidates laid out strategies for why he or she deserves your vote, but did that really convince anyone? In fact, if you swing a hanging chad in any direction, you’ll hit someone who thinks he has a well-reasoned opinion about who you should vote for.
But why rely on the bad advice of others? Why concern yourself with platform promises that will go out the window as soon as the new president discovers all the foreign currencies Karl Rove managed to topple while we thought he was buying ties. Forget the texts of debates and speeches; instead, base your decision on the least revised and most honest texts—the campaign logo.

Amidst all the discussion about the qualifications of the candidates—their wit, charm, intelligence, and experience—no one has talked about the visual iconography that frames their candidacy. Think of how often you have seen the t-shirts donned by their posses, the banners draped behind them during speeches, the logos affixed to the podiums, and the placards waved by their supporters. These logos are everywhere. They insinuate themselves into the visual landscape of the campaign more frequently than Tim Russert.

Scientists claim that viewers are affected by one out of every seven advertisements, so it is fair to assume that, whether we know it or not, we probably respond to the semiotics of campaign logos without even knowing it. This begs the question—what, exactly, are we responding to?
Of the two, Clinton’s is the most conservative:

The first thing one notices is the presence of an absence: the last name. At quick glance, this banner could be mistaken for Sir Edmund Hillary swag, but the “for President” and the URL give it away soon enough. Is this a conscious decision to downplay her Clintonness? If so, should the URL be Either way, downplaying the “Clinton” seems the oddest decision, since it would seem her affiliation with Bill would, by simple name recognition alone, do more good than harm.

Speaking of doing no harm, the white traditional font against a deep blue background might soothe, but it doesn’t inspire. To be sure, we are to associate this combination with the blue field and white stars of Old Glory; a smart patriotic move. Indeed, it’s hard to go wrong with blue here; plus, Senator Clinton has to like the associations of blue state (as opposed to red state) when imagining wooing her constituency.

Sadly, politicians refuse to break up with the wind-tossed ribbon. It’s a dysfunctional relationship that may never end. For decades, the wavy ribbon has been a divider between the main message of the logo and some other text, like a slogan or a web address. As in most ads, the ribbon does little work. Is it supposed to be a mini-flag? The entire ad already evokes the stars and stripes. Do we need it again?

And then there is the URL. It’s a tough call about what to print along the bottom: website or slogan. In this case, the Senator from New York probably made the right decision to eschew cliché and foreground technology.

So, how does the logo do as a constructed, value-heavy text? Overall, it’s a relatively flat logo. There is little movement, little panache. But, it is regal, safe, presidential. It won’t get anyone worked up, but it won’t scare anyone either.
Senator Obama, however, goes in a different direction:

More is at work in the Obama logo. More colors, more shades, and more shapes. Where Hillary obfuscates her last name, Obama downplays his first. This is a smart decision because he gets to reinforce his last name with the hallucinogenic “O.” A rainbow “B” would have looked ridiculous, but the O carries many positive associations—a globe, the world, the horizon, the future, unity, circularity, cooperation, a coin, a sno-globe, Life Savers.

I’m not sure what, exactly, the rainbow O is supposed to be, and in truth, I don’t love it. The top does resemble the dome of the earth, and that’s, you know, nice, but the stripes look too much like badly painted roads or railroad tracks. Is the rainbow O supposed to be the future? A bloody future? Is it Captain America’s shield? The world’s most patriotic life preserver? I assume The O with the red road barreling through is designed to symbolize a sunrise over America (promise, hope). But, for me, it’s too vague and evokes too many other possibilities.
Another aspect of the logo that puts me on edge is the azure font. While I love the deep dark blue of “Obama,” the hazy, fuzzy, sky blue of the “’08” and the top of the “O” softens more than it should. It’s too new agey, too wispy. I want more emphasis. On the other hand, I love the gray URL. Here the colors and the font exude confidence and modernity, while Clinton’s “for president” font feels traditional.

I do, however, love the logo’s balance, and unlike Clinton’s it tells a story. Its horizontal sweep takes the eye from the O (the future) to the ’08 (now), suggesting the future is now.

Ultimately, the Obama logo is more edgy, more ambitious, and more creative. It also looks forward, whereas Clinton’s looks back. Worst of all, it shares too much with the Bush-logo of 2000.

We are a visual culture in an increasingly visual society. Those of you who are undecided, trust your visual literacy here, and go with the logo that best embodies the values you want in your president.

Or, just vote for the best t-shirt. After all, you may only get to live with the president for four years, but you can live with that logo t-shirt your whole life.


  1. Dean - great post. I love how you brought up the fact that each candidate is trying to downplay their names with Hillary (Clinton) and (Barack) Obama.

  2. Thanks for your kind words, John. I do wonder why Obama went for the name that sounds like "Osama," when Barack (Ba-Rack the Vote) is potentially much cooler . . .

  3. Yes, there is always that psychological knot that clings itself around our names. The images it evokes in our minds are amazing and a force to reckon with I would say for goodwill or bad air. Read the poem, "That Name" written in iambic tetrameter verses gives insight into this discourse. Go to this link


  4. "Sadly, politicians refuse to break up with the wind-tossed ribbon. It’s a dysfunctional relationship that may never end."

    Amen! It's time for that old dog transfer propaganda to be put down for a spell.

    Another candidate-choosing method to try: vote for the contender based on his/her corresponding Golden Girl.

  5. Love McCain/Petrillo! Very funny. Thanks for the post and the link your page.

    Mmmm . . .ribbon . . .