When I was trying to get into the ad business I quickly learned to be shameless. Wallflowers and polite young people taught to say Mr. and Ms. were at a distinct disadvantage.
So I changed my ways in order to get someone, anyone, with a job in advertising to hire me. A friend of a friend worked for legendary copywriter Tom Messner, pictured at right, who was part of an attempt to reconstitute the Tuesday Team, that group of top shelf ad guys who created the ‘It’s Morning in America‘ campaign in 1984 .
There are a lot of reasons I quit, none of which has any bearing on this week’s subject. What’s caught my eye now that the conventions are over is the sorry state of graphics and imagery in our current politics. Tom, Phil, Hal and the rest must be shaking their heads.
As Glinda said, though, it’s always best to start at the beginning. The classic book on signs was written for children and published in 1959. The illustrated examples are today only seen on the streets of downtowns trying to recreate a bygone era. But the basic premises have not changed. Signs convey information quickly. They tell us what to do, what something is, where something is, why we should remember what something is. Everything else is just some combination of the above.
Too simple? Ok, let’s bring in the French intellectuals. They’re always good for a convoluted phrase and a headache. Ferdinand Mongin de Saussure, a French Swiss to be accurate, was the first name I ever heard associated with the subject of semiotics. Turns out Saussure had a co-conspirator, an American even, but that’s not our focus here. No, here we’re concerned with meaning making.
I’ve already confessed to the headache part so let me butcher the subject upon which many a prestigious academic career has been built. Put far too simply a word, an image even, is its own thing. Cat is a word. The four-footed furball at my ankles is the actual thing the word refers to or designates. In the confounding lingo I was taught ‘cat’ the word is the signifier, Millie the cat is the signified. Got it?
In actual fact I’d argue this is a gussied up commercial idea made pretty for the academy. Go back to my example and substitute the Coke logo for the word cat. That logo isn’t meant to just convey the name of the product or even the soft drink inside. It’s meant to trigger a reminder of all the things–the meanings–we associate with drinking a can of Coke from refreshment to authenticity to belonging.
For either of these examples to work there has to be agreement. Millie’s ancestor wasn’t a cat until someone said it, someone else understood it and then it was used again. Thus is a common understanding formed. Coke wasn’t the real thing until the slogan had been seen and heard millions of times. Repetition, too, works in advertising.
How, then, do we explain the breakdown in any sane approach to creating visual meaning in the political arena? It’s been a given since the DDB work on the 1964 Johnson campaign that politics is selling. So how did we get to the current visual mess?
It starts, I think, with color confusion. The left-right political spectrum has been with us since the French Revolution. The political color scheme has been around since at least 1848, with some recent additions . Yet in the US alone, and only in the last twenty years, the major conservative party has been designated with the color of the left and vice versa for the major liberal party. That’s a way to build meaning: upending convention. But we live in an age of innovation, right?
So let’s look at the campaign graphics. We’ll go in convention order because I’m not taking sides here. Let’s start with the GOP. Their candidate has had a lot to say about immigration, trade deals and a number of other things.
So what was with the first round logo that looked like a Chinese character gone wrong? Despite the red, white and blue it doesn’t quite sing America. I also think it calls a bit too much attention to those leading characters. They do stand for an everyday item we don’t tend to talk about in polite society now that Mr. Whipple is retired. I’m giving them a pass on what reads dangerously close to tuppence, which last I looked suggested triviality.
The campaign has since moved to a more conventional rendering. See it here.
Now to the other team. Doubling down on America’s unique understanding of color we get a sea of blues. The background blue might be lighter than we usually see. Or that could be a trick of the lighter blue being used.
What’s conspicuously missing is red. (I have seen an alternate version with a red arrow. It confirms my sense that the tonal values are not what we’ve seen before.) Check out 4President.org and you’ll see that the only campaign in the last 50 years not to use red, white and blue was Carter-Mondale. That one worked out well; folks are just itching to go back to 1978.
But the trouble goes beyond color. What message is really being sent by that sign?The Democratic candidate has a problem convincing the folks who supported Senator Sanders that she is serious about some of their issues. So is she really well served by an arrow pointing to the right?
Plus, we’ve seen this H and an arrow before, in cities all over the world. It’s a universal designator. So what does the sign say? Is the Clinton-Kaine campaign right? Is it moving to the right? Is the ticket the cure for the nation’s ills? If it’s the latter I worry because that strikes me as tortured logic. Many people will wonder why you’re suggesting we need a hospital.
Almost anyone can rationalize their choice or preference. When I first saw the Democratic art, on Facebook, I asked the same questions raised here. One interlocutor, an ad professional whom I’ve known since I got into the business, said she did not care what the sign looked like, she cared about what it represented.
And so the French intellectuals seem, in part, to have won.
I believe in the democratic process and I don’t believe in telling people what they should do. Do vote. It’s important. And consider looking into things before you do.