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Graphics are not Leaders

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Mr. Obama’s campaign for President has had the benefit of excellent graphic design. Good graphics help sell products. But packaging is not the product itself. Once people try the product, the graphics have done their primary job, and only a genuinely good or satisfying product can sustain the brand built by advertising.

Here’s Virginia Postrel on Obama’s campaign graphics:

If Obama is elected president, however, the man in the pictures is no longer a symbol of identity and aspiration. He's the boss, "Leader of the Free World." He has power. Ubiquitous images of his face take on a creepy Dear Leader quality, implicitly commanding obedience. As Kaelan Smith wrote in an article about Shepard Fairey's famous Obama posters:

“Can anyone think of a time,” I asked, “when a presidential candidate used an image of himself as a primary campaign logo?” None of us had been alive during the Great Depression or the subsequent Great War, so we agreed unanimously that we hadn’t. Then a woman at the table said, “I suppose you see pictures like that of Castro in Cuba.” That reminded me of a trip I’d taken recently to Jordan. When I walked across the border from Israel I’d seen the huge, benevolent faces of King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II. In fact, they had been everywhere, from the small, goat-herding villages along the highway, in Petra on a wall near my hotel, and in every shop throughout Amman.

In the United States there are not laudatory images of Bush hanging in stores or in living rooms, at bus stops or on billboards. But if Obama gets elected in November, thanks to Shepard Fairey’s efforts, his face will already be a ubiquitous, public image; I hesitate to, but must say, like the monarchs of the Middle East and the dictators of the remaining autocracies.

In an interview Fairey assured Smith that his imagery “anti-propaganda propaganda” that, he suggested, is “coming from a position of moral integrity.” In other words, he believes it, or at least believes it's in a good cause. The Obama posters were, of course, based on the famous propaganda image of Che Guevara. John McCain may suggest that Obama is a socialist. Fairey, a man of the left, literally paints Obama as a communist—which may involve much wishful projection as the belief in other quarters that the candidate is a secret free-trader.

Although campaign posters are surely a form of propaganda, the Obama imagery is so empty of specific exhortation that we do better to think of it as a manifestation of the candidate's glamour—a seductive illusion in which the audience sees whatever they themselves desire. Glamour is manipulative, but not coercive. It requires the audience to suspend its skepticism and the object to maintain his mystery, a tacit form of cooperation. Give the object the power to compel devotion, and glamour is suddenly neither sustainable nor necessary.