Forty-Four for Four More
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The following post will feature an unapologetic bias towards Barack Obama. The 44th President of the United States, who had been re-elected on November 7th, 2012, had won both the popular and electoral college vote in a close race against his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Even though I am not an American citizen, I remained nonetheless fascinated and fixated in the days approaching E-Day.
The root of my interest is three-fold. As a social media user, the first part stems from the extent of the election’s global traditional and digital outreach since the first surge during the 2008 campaign. The second tugs at the heartstrings of my profession, because the interspersing of design and politics during the two Obama campaigns has paved the way for a number artists in gaining their own platform of creative expression. Lastly, the third satisfies my generally liberal-leaning ways, because I agree with a lot of the values fostered by their Democratic Party. (A quick aside: a friend of mine recently prompted me to take the political quiz through iSideWith. Imagine my surprise to learn that after answering a series of social, education, science, immigration, foreign policy, and domestic policy questions, I am theoretically a Green — though, according to the website, Democrat was a very close second.)
But I am not what this post is about.
Digital Since 2008
The 2008 race between then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain is seen as the first election greatly discussed by internet users across a wide array of online channels. In fact, part of the reason behind Obama’s success four years ago is his campaign team’s awareness of the fact. Riding along with the rise of social media, Obama reached toward the American people, and closed the gap that has long been established between the citizens and the so-called “untouchable” public figure. (McCain himself decided not to follow suit for his own campaign, and limited his internet use.)
His strapline of “Hope” and “Change” propelled across the digital ether, with excellent recall. Obama’s accessible mannerisms and middle-class-hero image has served to his advantage in fostering a relationship with the youth, who are often dismissed as apathetic towards politics. The use of Facebook and MySpace in his campaign tore down the ageist preconceived notion, and he raked in strong support from the 18-29 age demographic that was instrumental to his election.
Who would know that four years later, President Barack Obama would extend his digital presence to Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, and form his own community page when Facebook would shed its previous incarnation as a closed-circuit college-only social networking website. When the 2012 elections were looming in the horizon, those involved in the re-election had the good sense to re-hash the same technique for this year’s campaign. However, with the rapid developments going on in the realm of social media and digital strategy, the team had to be equipped with a far better understanding of the turf.
The year of the first digital election triggered the incumbent to come up with a tagline that acknowledges a substantial past of good change, and sets hopes for the future. (See what I did there?) The result is consistent with his previous platform, and marries the hallmarks of his current term with the intention to do just as well — or even better — in the coming four years: Forward.
To some, it may seem synonymous to a military command, but it contains clever wordplay pointed towards the Democratic Party’s stance of liberalism and progress. The single-word slogan is both simple and effective, allowing much of those aware of Obama to make the association relatively quickly. In its branding, the design team carefully tucks Obama’s flagship symbol as the second letter, and adds a full-stop at the end to mark its strength.
It is apparent that the use and circulation of media throughout all the verified social media websites was clever on the part of the dedicated digital team. Those who signed up for email updates on the official website have been subjected to the multitude of electronic direct mails signed by various members of the administration, and other notable personalities. Many of my contemporaries complained about bloated inboxes, but beneath each appeal to donate and vote is a meticulous content plan, ready to adapt to the whatever direction the campaign would go.
Tying together Obama’s 2012 platform are the milestones of the candidate’s presidential career. Functioning as a mini-campaign, beautifully illustrated accolades of the Obama administration were posted as an album on the official Facebook page, shortly before the elections. The post, named “Share With A Friend the Accomplishment that Means Most to You”, assumes the objective of re-hashing awareness, and encourages users to feel a personal connection with the President by laying out which achievement resonates most with them.
The community of over 33 million fans experienced over 100,000 “Like”-s, and more than 13,000 “Share”-s as of mid-November, and some of which may not have been from within the population statistic. Spirited debates happen in the comments of the album and individual photos,and Googling the album title also yielded results outside of Facebook. Some Google+ users have placed it on their pages, and a blog post written by someone who disagrees with Obama used each illustration to provide counter-arguments. But, regardless of the resulting sentiment, people got the message, and the conversation persevered. People are still talking.
Crowdsourcing: Designers for Obama
Obama has successfully engaged crowds, and used crowdsourcing to enhance his campaign back in 2008. Thanks to the even easier access to the internet, it is now a popular means of getting people more literally and emotionally invested. However, this has allowed some organisations some leeway from normal political processes, and if gone about incorrectly, can cost some well-meaning volunteers due credit, and fair compensation for their time. As a professional designer who opposes speculative work, I see this as a very valid concern, and did not agree with the decision made regarding the treatment of designers for the Obama “Jobs” poster art. The famously anti-spec-work American Institute of Graphic Arts were very vocal about their disapproval, as well.
Not all designers may echo my sentiment, and it is imperative for there to be a solution where both persuasions can be met. So, when designers Aaron Perry-Zucker and Adam Meyer launched Design for Obama in 2008 within the comfort of their college dorm room, it gave creatives control over their volunteering choice and recognition for their work.
This movement received “an avalanche” of submissions, and instances of attention from The New York Times to a nod from actor and director Spike Lee. Due to its success, the 2008 gallery was then consolidated into a book, which was published the year after. Design for Obama. Posters for Change: A Grassroots Anthology is currently available on the Taschen Books website.
Even with his extent of fame, Obama still needed to invest in an extra springboard to drive visitors to his many digital assets. On one summer day, the campaign team called banner specialist Al Rotches, after catching wind of one of his self-promotion banner ads appear on one of the targeted corners of the internet. For this year’s election, Rotches has churned more than seventy animated banner ads in support of Obama.
A designer by profession, Rotches works with the basic process of being provided the raw materials, call-to-action, and tried-and-test copy from the Obama campaign team, before making his own calls on the aesthetics. The results are plentiful, yet united in their creative use of serif and sans serif fonts, adherence to the established “Barack Obama 2012” trademark of Instagram-esque filters, strong image choices, and all-American design elements. A couple days after Obama’s second win, Rotches was interviewed by Advertising Age about his experience designing Presidential banners. It is an excellent read for those curious about the processes that take place in digital art direction.
Rebuked by some as lacking in elegance, capturing a targeting audience through unconventional and humourous methods adds lightness to what is otherwise a serious matter. Not to say that’s it’s exclusively crafted for them, but fun campaigns have enticed the youth vote by catering to their everyday realities.
To confront political indecision, American convenience store franchise 7-Eleven conducted “7-Election”, a poll of their own by releasing cups to predict the outcome of the presidential race: blue cups for Obama, and red for Romney. When patrons order beverages from the store, the cups sit by the dispensers, enticing them to pick the drink container of their choice. The entire campaign serves to show consumers that each of their votes have a bearing on the national outcome of the elections… and conversations can be struck when enjoying a Slurpee.
The exercise yielded a win for Obama at 59%, over Romney’s 41% — about 7% off from the actual national vote count. Accompanying the in-store mock elections is another operation called the “Mobile Oval Tour”. A political bus containing a reproduction of the Oval Office has made its way through 7-Eleven stores scattered throughout twenty-one cities. Customers are pushed to purchase a drink served in either a blue or red cup, and invited to sit behind a re-make of the Oval Office desk. Notable satire newspaper The Onion provides the video advertising for this thirst-quenching cause.
Mock races take a chewy turn with the Gum Election. The art project by creatives James Cooper and Stefan Haverkamp started small in 2008, as a means of coursing gum litter away from under subway seats and walls of public toilets, in order to achieve a cleaner New York. The group conducted a second round in 2011 for two telecommunications providers, and later, they enlisted the help of Hedvig Astrom during the 2012 elections for a state-wide reach.
The mechanics are different, and bubble gum loving participants are required to stick their gum on the mugs of the candidate they favour the least. With the help of an instructional video, the fellows appealed for people to participate by going to the website, downloading then printing a copy of the provided poster, mounting it on walls around the city, and wait for people to vocalise with their gum. Poll results are then captured and uploaded via Instagram, using an assigned hashtag. The 2012 Gum Election became such a hit that various publications — including CNN — wanted to capture the drive behind their idea.
Below are some articles I’ve found when scouring online, each with individual takes regarding the impact of creative work in politics. This mitigating factor has long been hidden in plain view, and often dismissed as secondary. But, with thanks to the last two elections, the art and design communities have gained accessibility and their own voice.
- “U.S. Election, We Decide” – This truly interesting article was strategically posted a day before the elections. Ben Moss examines the presidential potential of each candidate, based on the quality of their digital assets. Issues of usability, execution, and creative quality are conjured as each political party’s branding, merchandise, official website, art, and external marketing methods are scrutinised and held against their core values. No trash talk, just honesty revealed through design.
- “2012 Design Debate: Romney vs. Obama” – Another good read that covers the strategies used by Obama’s and Romney’s design teams. Kim Volk takes on the perspective of viewing each candidate as a brand, and conducts a fair design critique of their supporting material. From the kerning issues in the Romney-Ryan logo, the inclusive qualities of Obama-centric yard signs, the perceived distance between candidate and supporter through the visual language of their respective official websites, to name a few, Volk makes sound points.
- “Obama’s Art Army” – It’s no surprise that art has been used to convey political statements. Well-written by Jonathan Jones, this article tackles the recent elections and the “progressive impulse” of art with the academic seriousness of critical essay. Keeping the nation’s pressing issues in mind, he analyses the values depicted in various works of art by homegrown names like Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and even the late Jackson Pollock, proving that the creative class is inherently a liberal landscape.
So, What’s Next?
The evolution of creative involvement in the campaigns to come will be an exciting sight to behold. So, (Hillary) Clinton-Biden 2016? Or, Biden-Clinton 2016?
(All images are credited to their respective owners. Click on any image to go to its source.)