Sunday, October 19, 2008

Road Trip Report, Part 5 (The Poster Boys)

Reinventing wheels
in political postering

Who's on First?
Of course, it's America!

“Country First” – nothing new about John McCain’s slogan.

Warren Harding used a similar one in 1920: “America First.”

Who would have guessed? Well, if you’re keeping up with the work of Steve Seidman, you’d see the poster politics of 2008 in a whole new (or old) light. Seidman – Dr. Steven A. Seidman – is associate professor and chair of the Department of Strategic Communication at Ithaca College.

And in a bit of wonderful timing, his four years of research produced just a month ago his book: “Posters, Propaganda, and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History.”

While the book doesn’t quite make it to 2008, Seidman looked at the current campaign in a presentation this weekend on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va., at the annual conference of the International Visual Literacy Association (

There really isn’t much new when it comes to the art of political postering – for example, the use of “gazing into the future” poses by both the McCain and Barack Obama camps.

Seidman compared an Obama “gazing” pose, powerfully angled from below in front of a flag background of red, white and blue, to the pose of President Gerald Ford on a black/dark background for his (doomed) 1976 campaign. Ford’s face was the only color in his poster; Obama’s face, though not brought up by Seidman, was in shades of black and white against a U.S. flag background.

At the bottom of the poster was the colorful Obama campaign logo, built on circles with a blue ‘O’ for Obama and a rising ‘O’ sun at its center – suggestive, Seidman says, of “a better tomorrow” and a symbol similarly used in election posters in many nations.

There is also an array of “guerilla marketing” posters springing up, sometimes illegally plastered atop others’ posters, around the nation – and being marketed by their creators. Among them is the popular “Abraham Obama” design by painter Ron English, combining the features of Abe and Barack and easily found online.

“The last time artists became so enthusiastic for a candidate was 36 years ago for [George] McGovern,” Seidman observed.

Among the images Seidman displayed in his PowerPoint presentation was a side-by-side comparison of an Obama poster for his July appearance in Berlin and a 1933 poster supporting the Social Democratic Party of Holland – both in what the professor said was the Bauhaus style.

“These styles always reemerge,” he said.

Seidman noted a recent story in the New York Times on campaign typography, and showed the McCAIN/PALIN poster design you see on lawn signs, bumper stickers, T-shirts and buttons. Its font, he said, is Optima bold – and described in the NYT article as “classic, elite and old-fashioned.”

The font is also used in the national Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Seidman said, “a strong, tough typeface.” And he pointed out the “very military” presence in of a gold star and braiding in the campaign design.

As for “America First,” the Warren Harding poster showed the 55-year old Republican in front of a billowing Old Glory with his right hand in a powerfully tight fist, and his left hand with thumb and two forefingers outstretched in what has become a recognized peace symbol (this campaign coming soon after the Great War). The slogan appears to the lower left.

Harding won, but died of a heart attack two and a half years after taking office and was succeeded by another, to put it gently, lightly-regarded president, Calvin Coolidge.

I noticed in checking out Warren G. Harding online that he seems not to have made much use of his middle name – Gamaliel. That’s a tough one. Hussein is a lot easier on the tongue.

For more on the art and design of political posters and propaganda, check out Steve Seidman’s blog at:

His book is available in paperback ($33.95) and hardcover ($109.95) from Peter Lang Publishing USA (phone 212-647-7706), or through Amazon where the paperback can be had a few bucks cheaper.

Tomorrow: Healing after campus tragedies

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