Monday, November 5, 2012

Obama vs. Romney: Presidential Campaign Branding

Branding undoubtedly plays a role in influencing voter perceptions of Presidential candidates. Ultimately, voter reactions to campaign images is subjective. That being said, if the election was solely based on image and branding, then President Barack Obama, is clearly winning.

Mitt Romney's camp is incredibly lacking in artistic or mind-blowing campaign posters (my search for iconic Romney art didn't go well). Rather, many of the images associated with Romney's campaign have typically been mashups, created by satirists and pretty much anyone with a sense of humor and Photoshop. In this way, Romney's campaign has been its own worst enemy and despite six years of preparing to run for the office of the Presidency, Team Romney still can't seem to inspire an image that is anywhere near as rhetorically powerful as this:

 coulda been 
a tramp stamp

Even when reproduced as a tattoo on a random appendage for some (probably drunken) reason, it is instantly recognizable as a rendition of the "Hope" poster designed by artist Shepard Fairey. Fairey's poster was adopted by Team Obama after the independently produced stencil portrait became viral. At the same time, to Conservatives, elements of Obama's branding, including the Fairey stencil, confirmed their perceptions of Obama being communistic and even a messianic figure of sorts to the political left wing.

The 2008 election set a high bar for image and branding excellency, as the most viral presidential candidate was also the one who got elected. In fact, Obama's election brought on a period of extreme "Baracksploitation," in which the President's image was applied to pretty much anything, from sushi, to t-shirts, to action figures, to hash bricks. The 2012 election was already going to be an uphill battle for anyone running against our resident Presidential icon.

However, whether or not a candidate's campaign "get it right" with their branding, candidates of both parties adopt rhetoric that draws from ubiquitous American national myths concerning 'God and country' to appeal to the electorate, as crafting a clear moral agenda is also a major aspect of Presidential branding. The national myths invoked by the previous four presidents reflects the complex historic and nationalistic, yet pseudo-religious identity of America.


The candidates and Manifest Destiny

These myths have broadly been referred to as "Manifest Destiny." Manifest Destiny encompasses the many foundational American myths, of which some have been particularly dominant in Presidential discourse.  According to Wade Clark Roof,  the "Chosen Nation," "Millennial Nation," and "Nature's Nation," are the preeminent myths that Presidents since Reagan have used to communicate what they believe is America's moral place in the world:
The myth of a Chosen Nation arises out of the Hebrew Bible and suggests
that Americans are exceptional in having a covenant with God: they are the New
Israel in the language of the early Puritans. A second myth of origin—Nature’s
Nation, emerging out of the Enlightenment and Deism—gave rise to the notion
that the United States arose out of the natural order, and that the country reflects
the way God had intended things to be from the beginning of time. Building
upon both of these foundational myths, the Millennial Nation myth implies that
God chose America to bless the nations of the world with the unfolding of a
golden age. The last two are obviously complimentary: one looking to the begin-
ning of time, the other looking to the end of time.
While there has been a long history of Presidential candidates alluding to the Biblical whilst engaging in civil-religious discourse, (looking at you FDR), the election of Jimmy Carter, a "born again" Christian and Democrat, in 1976, coincided with the emergence of "terms and images that had seldom been a part of presidential politics," that went beyond the Sermon on the Mount. These included references to sin, salvation, specific New Testament teachings, Christ, and the "Bible as the word of God." Scholars including Roof and Medhurst, agree that a distinct change in Presidential rhetoric has been evident since Reagan first ran for office (Medhurst):
When Ronald Reagan captured the Republican nomination in 1980, he married the language of evangelical Christianity, which Carter had introduced, with appeals based on civil-religious concepts ("a shining city on a hill") and used them to forge a powerful alliance with conservative evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox Jews, a coalition that came to be called the New Religious Right. And presidential campaigns have never been the same since.
It would, however, be a mistake to assume that this recourse to a more particularistic, evangelical style of discourse was limited to conservative Republicans. Certainly, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were practitioners, to greater or lesser degrees, of this kind of discourse. But so, too, were Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman and Barack Obama.
Indeed, both Republicans and Democrats have engaged in this kind of discourse, mixing and matching elements of these three dominant American myths to varying levels of success. The failure of a candidate to clearly articulate America's moral place in the world using this new pseudo-evangelical language can ultimately spell disaster for a campaign as Medhurst points out:
Not all presidential candidates have been adept at using religious rhetoric, whether of the older civil-religious variety or the newer evangelical style. Candidates such as Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and John McCain never seemed comfortable speaking about religious or moral topics in any kind of language, and each paid an electoral price for failing to connect his visions and values with those of the voting public. Indeed, one scholar has pointed to the fact that since 1976 every presidential election has been won by the candidate who was most comfortable speaking the language of faith, morals and religion.
Roof notes that Republicans, in particular, have been more prone to using the "chosen nation" myth, in which a Manichean worldview is elaborated upon. At the heart of the "chosen nation" myth is the notion that the people of the US are picked by God, above all others, to deliver to the world freedom and peace. Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, have all spoken of an America whose struggles against its enemies are framed as a fight for freedom and of good versus evil. Reagan was adept at using "popular morals and common sense" to position himself as a likable hero. He was also known for using stories and anecdotes to establish his divine "chosen nation" version of America's identity. Take for example, these excerpts from a speech Reagan delivered at a campaign event in 1984:
In Year of Decision, 1846, Bernard DeVoto explained what drove our ancestors to conquer the West, create a nation, and open up a continent. If you take away the dream, you take away the power of the spirit. If you take away the belief in a greater future, you cannot explain America -- that we're a people who believed there was a promised land; we were a people who believed we were chosen by God to create a greater world.
And in those moments when we grow tired, when our struggle seems hard, remember what Eric Liddell, Scotland's Olympic champion runner, said in Chariots of Fire: "So where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. God made me for a purpose, and I will run for His pleasure."
If we trust in Him, keep His word, and live our lives for His pleasure, He'll give us the power we need -- power to fight the good fight, to finish the race and to keep the faith.
President George W. Bush, was of course, comparatively much more well known for his ability to mangle English, but nonetheless, Bush went a step further than Reagan by further  declaring God  had chosen him to be President.

Yet, the major party candidates also accept the assumptions of the "nature's nation" myth, which has also been helpful in justifying certain foreign policy positions. This myth presupposes that America is somehow above the plane of history, having been founded on the high ideals of freedom and democracy, and is therefore, uniquely innocent in the world. America is viewed as a country whose possibilities are endless because it only continues to evolve towards greater perfection. Thus, the very notions of  freedom, capitalism and prosperity are "rooted in the natural order and should be yearned for by all mankind ... " Inherent is the notion that people in countries without freedom and free enterprise want what America has, and would happily embrace these values when given the opportunity.

The "nature's nation" myth strongly corresponds with the "millennial" foundational myth, which Democrat, Bill Clinton drew heavily from. (Although, he did go the chosen nation route during the Kosovo conflict). Clinton's America was one of great responsibility, both at home, to improve domestic social institutions, and abroad. Roof notes that Clinton's expression of the millennial vision was particularly strong, justifying America's mission of responsibility to help spread democratic values abroad and to help the suffering. And of course, it is  believed that the people America helps abroad will respond positively to a "more democratic" natural order, an assumption of the "nature's nation," myth.  Any way you slice the "manifest destiny" myths, there remains a strand of continuity that lends justification to American exceptionalism and its moral obligation to intervene in the affairs of non-democratic countries.

A novel way to brand a Presidential candidate

The 2008 election offered the Democrats an opportunity to craft their own moral agenda, distinct from that of the Bush era, in which political and religious goals were heavy-handedly intertwined.
From the very outset, Obama's campaign had a firm grasp of the power of combining sacred symbols with mythic themes. Announcing his candidacy at the very building President Abraham Lincoln had in 1858, Obama shared his millennial vision of America in a similar fashion to Clinton's "softer" and less arrogant style. Obama, like Clinton, spoke of a more humble and imperfect America, one that strives to live up to its Democratic values, but is still much respected on the world's stage. Candidate Obama also did not shy away from using Evangelical terminology to reassure the electorate of his Christianness: (Medhurst)
In the 2008 presidential contest, Obama repeatedly spoke of his Christian commitment, telling one campaign audience, "There's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth -- that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper. ... My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work." The language is almost purely evangelical in orientation, references to awakening, truth, an allusion to scripture, mention of his personal faith, fulfilling God's will, and seeking to do the Lord's work.   
And of course, the mantras "hope" and "change" provided useful in challenging Americans to think of who they were and who they wanted to be. His campaign was able to visualize his values and implied moral agenda with a totally unique logo, which became a pivotal part of Obama's branding: the synonymous 'O'.

The source of much Conservative jealousy and freakout.
The 'O's' simultaneous conjuring of Obama, the candidate, and of a sunrise symbolically "dawning a new day in American politics," as lead designer Sol Sender explained, made it a powerful icon. Moreover, the 'O' has become the official logo of the Obama administration (the first known to do so) and has reappeared in various forms for the current election.

Obama's competitor campaigns looked old fashioned in comparison. Hillary Clinton simply reused the existing logo from her Senate campaign, while McCain's logo, a Navy Star set in front of a tapered gold line, denoted his Military ethos, but failed to lend itself to any deeper connotations about his vision for America. Romney's 2008 campaign, on the other hand, went with an innovative swooshy eagle design that clearly landed him nowhere, and also bore some (probably unintended) resemblance to the USPS eagle. 

The power of the Obama 'O' cannot be underestimated. The logo became so distinctive, that his campaign team (lead by David Axelrod and David Plouffe) became comfortable enough using the image alone without including Obama's name. The logo was also easily altered to appeal to various audiences, without altering perceptions of Obama's brand, such as substituting rainbow colors to denote the candidate's solidarity with LGBT voters and their issues. Obama could represent change and a presidency of the people, a message of inclusivity, while catering to the individual.

Team Obama also had an edge in understanding how youth voters communicated to one another and capitalized on 'new media' in a bottom-up strategy that has become legendary amongst the nerd-herd of journos, political scientists, analysts, strategists, and news junkies who pick presidential elections apart. Rather than run a traditional top-down campaign, Obama's communications team enthusiastically encouraged a creative movement: (Schuller, Gerlinde)
During the last lap of the election campaign, Obama’s message could no longer be disregarded, no matter how superficially it may have been conveyed. The interaction between the branding of Obama, the contributions by individual supporters and the response in the media overwhelmed us with a flood of messages in the form of slogans, gestures, icons, graphics, and photos. Anyone who wanted to make a political commentary – in whatever form – could find a forum. ‘Obamania’ turned into a creative movement.
Obama's online presence on 16 different social networking sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, as well as allowing the campaign website to function as a networking tool for volunteers, gave nearly anyone the ability to chip in and participate through various means of access: (Schuller)
The complex network structure to which supporters were incessantly exposed suggested the personal omnipresence and transparency of the candidate. The formulation of his profile texts, SMS and email messages sounded as if they were written by the presidential candidate himself. Emails and SMS messages were signed with Barack. The impression was constantly made as if one were an insider and stood in personal exchange with the individual ‘Barack Obama’. The short and direct connection to the population proved to be the most effective means to establish ‘community activism’. Obama’s electoral program was conveyed to the voters by the efficient networking structure that triggered thousands of chain reactions. These communities helped recruit an army of volunteers and increase the willingness to make donations.
These were all things that the competition failed to achieve as effectively as Obama's campaign. Four years later, Obamaniacs are still mixing and remixing Obama's messages, although the moment for political propaganda being its most hip, has seemingly waned this time around. Obama has had no Democratic competition, and no need to unleash the genius that gave us 1984. hasn't won an Emmy, and Kumar, easily one of the best known stoners of that college generation, isn't that cool anymore. The synonymous 'O' has stayed the same, but "Yes we can" has been replaced with the decidedly less punchy "Forward!" With the election coming to its bittersweet end, it is just brand "O" versus brand ... Aquafresh? Joking. But seriously.

  Obama vs. Romney: may the best brand win

Romney's iconography has fared little better this time around. His campaign team abandoned the 2008 swooshy eagle for a triple-R design incorporated into his last name, which also bears a strong (and probably unintended) resemblance to toothpaste. Given that all potential contenders for the presidency knew well in advance how vital iconography was in 2008, it is actually shocking how uninspired Romney's 2012 logo is. It simply reflects nothing about his brand and moral vision for America.

I see ... Aquafresh and the French flag. Go figure.
Especially among the Republican candidates, Romney has had to address the questions surrounding his Mormon religion (even when he hasn't wanted to) and reassure his Christian values voter base that his values are theirs. The conflicted Romney campaign has also had to reflect (despite the RNC platform hoopla) the overall direction of the GOP, a party that's had to re-brand itself all the while relying on rhetoric that's trapped in the Bush era. Lacking a strong visual reference to unite his brand and verbal rhetoric, Romney has had to rely more on his words, ads, retail politicking, and as his various surrogates to establish his narrative and communicate with voters.

The end result has been an inability of the Romney campaign to offer a comprehensive brand with a story that is understandable and relatable, one that is distinct and different enough from Obama's vision and the Bushites that preceded him.  However, even while Romney's messaging has often been muddled (his campaign's bizarre press releases and his well known flip-flops contributing to this), his moral vision of America has remained incredibly consistent. Romney, too, has derived his American vision from the "chosen nation" myth, a future that he calls a "new American century," another not-so-subtle echo of the neoconservative Bush administration (a sure freak out for the conspiracy theorist demographic). He has also stuck to his talking points on economic policy, using his business acumen as his perceived strength.

Yet, neglecting to create a brand geared for a tech savvy, brand literate generation and a political identity that has wide appeal to voters, has truly been the biggest downfalls of the Romney campaign strategy. It has meant eschewing the youth vote and having the large void that Romney's message should fill, replaced by literally goooogles of mockery (from Big Bird, to woman-binders, to etch-a-sketches, to the lazy 47%). The campaign's apparent lack of a grasp of web strategy, humor and cultural relevancy, has made it exceedingly easy to poke fun at, as it was after all, the last left standing after a lengthy process of GOP mudslinging and attrition. Not only did that painful period of stupid in American politics add fuel to the Mitt-the-flip-flopper fire, the campaign has continued to fall prey to numerous (and totally avoidable) gaffes and schoolboy spelling and graphing errors, unintentionally spawning a million memes.

Without this mastery of new media and grassroots political brand building, Romney's campaign has been unable to establish that critical emotional connection with voters in several key demographics, including youth voters, women, Hispanics and African Americans, all groups where Obama has some edge. Even in the closing hours of the campaign, Team Romney have been incapable of really spelling out what Romney policies would mean for voters of all walks of life, and his messaging has been shaped to appeal to an increasingly smaller niche voter base, doing so by unprecedentedly cutting off press pool access to fundraisers, using rhetoric that appeals to the Tea Party, and avoiding major media appearances in the last several weeks (even as Bill O'Reilly begs for his presence). A natural by-product of this has been the appearance that Romney is unoriginal and disingenuous, issues he has struggled with throughout the campaign. 

The Romney message has simply not been able to truly compete on the same level with Obama's sophisticated operation, which is still using a bottom-up approach to encourage volunteer peer-to-peer sharing, strong imagery and a consistent and unifying, emotional message. He has no symbol or emblem that is instantaneously recognized as his. His campaign has no snappy or inspiring catchphrases. "Believe in America," for example, is far less memorable than McCain's pointed, and much repeated, "Country First" slogan. While the more recent "We Built It" slogan has also failed to boost Romney's brand after practically dying out after the RNC, possibly because this particular subversion and usage of an Obama soundbite came off as petulant, not masterful.

While Romney's campaign was figuring out how to correctly chart a Venn Diagram, Obama's campaign had delivered Julia, a detailed interactive infographic (a new phenomenon in this election), that showed how Obama's social policies would positively affect every American woman at every stage of life. While Romney's campaign has been using zingers and ending up with gaffes, Obama's been using Romney's gaffes as his new zingers. For this very last leg of the election, the contrast could not be more drastic for those paying attention: Obama's brand still has the "cool" factor (who didn't watch his recent Daily Show appearance?)

GOP still pissed they didn't think to do it first.
Romney's campaign has come up short on making that essential emotional appeal to voters, the one that makes him likable and desirable as the new figurehead and political brand of America, and not just the guy you vote for if you hate Obama and Democrats. At the end of the day, whatever the outcome of today's vote, presidential campaign branding and logos are no longer just for elections. A successful Presidential brand is expected to have viral qualities, powerful images and logos, an articulate moral vision of America's role in the world that incorporates pseudo-religious mythic elements, and having multiple modes of communicating with the public (and supporters) in an individualized manner. The Obama communications team have been trail blazers in presidential campaign branding tactics, and in the world of twitter, zingers, gaffes, glittering generalities, conspicuous consumption and mediated politics, any candidate running in 2016 will have their precedent to stand against.

Unless Romney wins. Then we'll all just look at toothpaste (or the French flag) and hope for change.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No to the Status Quo! News and Opinion Blogs

Blogger Widgets