With the 2012 presidential election just a few days away, all eyes are on President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. While the candidates’ stances on the economy, jobs and civil liberties are what many Americans consider the most divisive issues, there’s an aesthetic element to campaigns that often goes unnoticed.
“Images play a key role in politics,” Rackham student Caitlin Brown said. “Images have the ability to bypass critical thinking and connect to citizens’ emotions. The emotions evoked can be positive or negative.”
Brown, whose studies focus on political communication, noted that art can be a useful form of propaganda.
Politicians spend millions of dollars on advertisement campaigns and, in the case of this unprecedented election, billions — a record-busting $1.7 billion has been spent as of Saturday, thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that allows unlimited donations to technically unaffiliated SuperPACs.
Campaigns hoping to appeal to the greatest variety of voter demographics pore over countless designs for posters, fliers, pamphlets and logos to ensure they’re sending the right message.
The focus group thought Romney’s tie wasn’t patriotic enough? The red didn’t test well with this audience? Back to the drawing board.
As The Michigan Daily reported last Wednesday, even campus political groups feel the pressure to brand themselves. University students are likely familiar with the circle logo of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats — posters and fliers hung across campus boast the image, a blue and maize donkey with its bottom half in the shape of a Block ‘M’. Now, the University’s chapter of the College Republicans plans to overhaul its image in the vein of the opposing party.
“Democrats have a great brand name,” LSA senior and chair of the College Republicans Rachel Jankowski told the Daily. “When you see their stuff, you know it’s the College Democrats. That is what the College Republicans have been focusing on and it’s what we’re pushing.”
Images through history
Advertisement campaigns are nothing new. From the 1840 election’s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” to the iconic “Hope” poster from the 2008 presidential election, politicians have used images for centuries to disseminate their message.
Rebecca Zurier, an associate history of art professor, said politicians believe art and images will make a difference in their campaigns, because they tend to stay with people longer than something written or spoken.
“Images can get to people in a direct way, or can propose things that aren’t there in the literal words,” Zurier said. “It can make possibilities imaginable with people.”
Zurier said one of the most prominent examples of the power of imagery occurred in the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate in 1960 — the first ever televised debate. Because television was a brand new medium, the campaigns had no precedent to follow to prepare their candidates for the focus on their appearance. In the end, this proved disastrous for Nixon.
Today, candidates are more familiar with how various images play on TV or in print and are able to manipulate their image in a positive way.
Looking at how candidates pose and what props they use, such as the American flag, is an aspect of politics that has always interested Zurier. And then there’s always the question of what a president or politician “should” look like.
“They all face that ‘looking presidential’ thing, don’t they?” Zurier mused. “We saw plenty of that in the presidential debates and then the pundits went right for it, ‘Who looks more presidential?’ ”
Even something as seemingly unobtrusive as a pin can make a world of difference.
When then-candidate Obama didn’t wear an American flag pin on his lapel during the 2008 election, voters noticed, and were not pleased.
After major backlash, Obama began to wear the pin because, as a presidential hopeful, he had to conform to what a candidate “should” look like, Zurier explained.
“Would people have to learn more (without images)? Maybe not because we have soundbites, slogans,” Zurier said. “But the complicated process through which an image helps you imagine something is possible, (like) ‘This guy could be a leader.’ ”
Zurier illustrated her point with mailings encouraging her to vote against certain ballot proposals in this year’s election. She said a particularly bizarre image of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam made her take a second look at the mailing, but didn’t sway her opinion on the issue.
“Somebody’s putting thought into creative use of imagery in an effort to get Michigan voters to take these initiatives seriously enough to vote on them,” Zurier said. “Whether it persuades people or not, I don’t know.”
She said the one use of art that may have made an impact in U.S. politics was the federally funded art program during FDR’s New Deal, when artists were paid to create murals across the country. But, as Zurier pointed out, the murals weren’t endorsing a candidate or promoting a certain agenda.
Though it’s difficult to point to any one image as profoundly impactful, images and politics continue to go hand in hand.
Josh Neufeld, a narrative cartoonist and a current Knight-Wallace fellow at the University, calls art a provocative, personal format that can illicit strong reactions from observers.
“Art is a subjective interpretation of reality, and the artist intends for it to have an effect, create an emotional response,” Neufeld said.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Neufeld produced a graphic novel titled “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” detailing the aftermath of the disaster. Though not intended to be political, the book was critical of the government’s response in a way that people were able to relate to and understand.
In this way, he explained, art will always play a role in politics.
“I think there’s still something special about a demonstration or a hand-held sign that’s sort of pretty similar now as it was 100 years ago,” he said.
Neufeld noted that comic strips, such as “Doonesbury,” are often placed on the editorial pages of newspapers because of their underlying political commentary.
Public Policy senior Natalie Berkus, a member of the Ann Arbor Obama campaign team, also pointed to the power of political cartoons to connect to audiences.
“When you see a drawing of a gnarled George Bush on a flaming background with the words ‘READ MY APOCALIPS’ in the center, that has an impact, distinguishable or not,” Berkus wrote in an e-mail in reference to a critical poster of the former president by Robbie Conal, an American guerrilla poster artist.
“I think that it is an interesting juxtaposition: art and politics,” she continued. “While both things seem to come from completely different worlds, it’s interesting to note the close symbiotic relationship that both things share.”
Rebranding with new media
Today, most campaigns and political groups have moved away from physical mediums like posters, to online messaging.
“Effective design has become an essential part of campaigning and Obama’s 2008 campaign truly changed the landscape because of how good the design was,” said Business sophomore Kyle Smith, a member of the College Republicans.
Smith said art and graphic design have become intrinsic parts of campaigns, citing President Obama’s first campaign as the precedent for subsequent efforts.
“In campaigns — and the evolution of social media and other methods of image sharing — graphic design can play a big part in a candidate’s success,” Smith said. “The way people are getting information is moving to the virtual world and our attention spans are shrinking.
Smith said the current election hasn’t produced a campaign — on either side — that used arts and graphics as well as in 2008. As a result, both candidates are suffering.
“I can guarantee you that the next presidential campaign to match or exceed how effectively Obama used imagery to help create his theme will win by as much of a landslide as he did in 2008,” Smith said.
Public Policy senior Tessa Wick, fellow member of Obama’s Ann Arbor campaign team, wrote in an e-mail that much of the president’s ability to connect to the younger generation is a direct result of his campaign’s ability to weave art, media and technology together in a refreshing way.
“He has used art to create a style and finesse in all aspects of his campaign that have differentiated it from any other presidential campaign I know of,” Wick wrote. “His use of art and his commitment to detail in his emails, website and in the overall look of the campaign, have created an unparalleled visual experience for his followers.”
At the University, both the College Democrats and Republicans hope to create a similar cohesive campaign.
LSA junior Alexandra Brill, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrats, said the group’s logo has made it easier for other students to approach the organization with questions about important issues.
Brill has received e-mails about voter registration from unaffiliated individuals who recognize the group as a resource.
Jankowski said the College Republicans are seeking a “unified look” on the club’s clothing, posters and other materials, similar to College Democrats.
“We’re working hard to put together that look about us,” Jankowski told the Daily. “We’re trying to really build a presence on campus, and build a solid look about us so that you know, when you see an advertisement, that’s the College Republicans and not a different club.”
Smith said the College Republicans hope their image becomes synonymous with a more inclusive GOP.
“Our brand is pretty strong as of now I think,” Smith said. “(But) we may begin using infographics on our Facebook page or through posters and handouts at events explaining how the notion that Republicans are anti-women is ludicrous and emphasizing that the (College Republicans) welcome all people, LGBT or otherwise, to our club.”
If history is any indication, a well-executed campaign aesthetic can only help.