A Critique of Aesthetics in Political Advertising




But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the 
essence,…illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.

-Feuerbach, Preface to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity[1]

Imagine hearing your favorite song being played at a much different speed than it was recorded in. Not only does a difference in tempo affect the message and/or coherence of the original music, the mystique and subject matter become skewed as well. The speed at which a message is read is only in conflict with the agent carrying the message when it is read out of step with the speed of the agent’s delivery. Quickness or slowness are not necessarily determined by the will of the individual receiving information, nor is the tempo always dictated by the medium through which the message is being processed. In order for the communication to be consistent with the intended idea there must be some agreement between the agent and the medium, the agent and the external individual, or the individual and the medium. Implicit is the notion of the community. The agent never solely controls her language: information acquires a sense meaning only in reference to public experience of the world.[2] There are no isolated incidents.

This means that when something is looked at with a different attention to ‘tempo’, the original is not being fully negated; it is only being dissected into separate pieces. This article is a critique of the language of aesthetics used by politicians. The practice of critique involves exploring an object’s limits; ironically, the selfsame limits must be suspended to unlock a new set of values for exploration.[3] For this reason, taste will not be addressed. Taste is not a factor that introduces concepts, but is dependent upon dialect and not the message, e.g., why Romney uses two shades of blue, or the significance of Obama adding serifs to his iconic font. Rather, the aim is to demythologize the highly designed portrayals of politicians in their “art” (i.e. propaganda). Critique is not about making judgments – the difference between Obama and Romney’s foreign policy is not at stake. Both candidates are lumped together as the hegemony.  The culture and language they were born into are inarguably the ones they must work with. Given this culture and this language, what are the possibilities for handling them? To what degree does a culture’s economic base organize mundane interactions such as an election’s visual elements?

Signs and symbols differ in that signs are less arbitrary: a sign’s potential limits are demarked by immediate referents; materials or environments do not necessarily bind symbols. The tempo of reading a political sign (ads, slogans, hooks) is expected to be almost instantaneous. It is as if these signs were not to be read with any care or deliberateness at all, but subsumed and directly processed into one’s short-term social imagination.

By branding themselves, political parties take advantage of the public’s consumer mentality and layer the conversation with mythology. These mythologies serve doubly: Public and Party unite around the spectacle observed between them, and inversely, Public from Party are distanced by the use-value of the now objectified Other. Is this not the technique used in all facets of capitalism? Embedding a ‘need’ by introducing a perceived lack is what makes something desirable, marketable, and profitable. The public is made of multitudes of agents whose desires and symbolic imaginations shape the terrain of the cultural environment. (This is why a brand that amplifies popular myth, rather than holding to a single person or product, is the one most sought after).  Decisions are publicly agreed upon through complex historical actions of cultural evolution – the “uncovering” of the rational background of various autonomous but interdependent niches of the cultural imagination at large. The separation between peoples or imaginations is part of their unity. By interrogating the tempo, the song reveals:

What are political signs telling us?

 Something we already know but cannot tell ourselves.

What do we supposedly lack?

The heart of what is being signified – utopia: the American Dream.

A humorous example of candidates utilizing signs to exploit ‘myths’ of the opposition and the micro-community being addressed are the placards placed on the podium wherever the speeches are being given. In almost ping-pong fashion, the placards continually swapped slogans to deliver a proper return to the specific audience: ranging from, “A Better America Starts Tonight”, “Repeal and Replace ObamaCare”, and simply, “Forward” (as if we had another option). The slogans, compounded with their use of the contemporary visual aesthetic that recalls a “live simply” attitude, all hint that as a people, we have been sidestepping a clearly marked walk towards Freedom. Fundamentally, the slogans serve as an anchor-point for commercial advertising. For an audience member who stopped paying attention, or for a photograph that pauses the “song” for the future, the slogan bears the essence of the event’s meaning.

Though meant to disarm the opponent, the slogans uncover the candidates’ harmony. Glorifying the ‘as if…’ quality of life as sacred, the signs communicate that, “if we truly believed, we would already be enjoying these promises.” Paradoxically, we are sitting secure in the promises, albeit their underside. The sign reigns supreme: the capitalist market is a clearer gauge than representative democracy for measuring the community’s will. Accordingly, the most affective political action is not voting for the candidate of choice, the control lies in the purchasing power of the consumer: the more the public backs the myth, the more the general ethos will normalize it (no wonder that Pepsi and Wal-Mart revamped their logos with remarkable aesthetic resemblances to Obama’s 2008 campaign shortly after he was named “marketer of the year”[4]).  It is not a process of uncovering the lost belief in America; it is the reconstruction of the pieces that lay scattered for all to see.

Under this preconception of ‘successful’ communication, political signs and symbols are, and will continue to be, second-hand: the imagery is a constant recalling of the past without tightening the slack for the future beyond selfish means/ends. There is no generative creation; maintaining the tempo is key. When a song’s speed is abruptly altered, the ear registers it offensive. Obama’s 2008 design team did not revolutionize political campaigning in any substantially “new” way, they simply adhered to what the public had already been profitably responding to (American Apparel, de-clawed versions of revolutionary heroes, the internet, etc.); they took what was marketable and co-opted the technique. That is not to deny that the telling of history that was sourced was a somewhat “new” way for politicians to publicly acknowledge.

Previously, politicians had never officially denied Obama’s historical perspective; perhaps it was cast aside, but only to a separate market; the Public was not naïve to the information. Romney’s method also applies a particular telling of history. In his version, the American people are encouraged to enter utopia not through “change”, but via the flags of the timelessly epitomized American legacy. Both tellings of history are additive elements that complicate the audience’s ego; they convince the U.S. that we are the best because we are, or can be, anything and everything. In a round about way, then, the political signs are telling the public to vote for themselves. It is the post-modern idea that what one wears or how one appears to be on the surface actually is a dominant part of ones identity. By their own approved publicity, Romney and Obama agree with the foundational principle that “every man is…recommended to his own care; he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is…right that it should be so.”[5]

Now, the evenly tempo-ed visions of a future utopia become problematic (“Believe in America”, “Forward”). Not only do the messages conflict with one another, in that they agree, (a characteristic of developing new market territory, e.g. McDonald’s providing healthy options), they suggest that: A) the U.S. has quit the so-called American Dream; and, B) a utopian future is not only attainable, but can become a static reality. There are issues with both lines of thought: A) conveniently forgotten is the possibility that the American Dream’s trajectory is somehow at fault; and, B) that capitalism is the mandatory structure that must house a utopian future; dystopia lurks behind any other system.

Is this not the impetus for political U.S. campaigns in the recent past?[6] By using the cultural symbolic norms as speech, political parties tie themselves to the historical process of exchanging myths over against actual movement. When looked at from this angle, it becomes very clear that any originality inherent in a sign is completely reliant upon the culture and language from which it is born, and can only properly function within the limited temporal culture. The advertisements begin to unveil themselves as being bound by what they pretend to transcend: time and newness. They serve their masters – chrono- and cultural-centrism – well.

The Poet once said that, “art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.”[7] If one considers political design “art”, the Poet had better put down the hammer and the mirror to make room for a shovel – a shovel that will dig deeper the pit of excess. Now that the speed of recognition has been altered, the “art” is seen feeding itself with its own self-dignified excrement. The political form sounds curiously similar to an equally desperate, but more honest, product advertisement: an off-brand soda company developed ads for convenience stores that depict a variety of sodas with a caption reading, “Flavor Matters!” To which the only reply, if looked at for more than an instant, would be, “…Of course it does. If it didn’t, soda probably wouldn’t even exist.”

[1] As quoted in: Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Black & Red, 2000), 1.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (3rd Edition), 3rd ed. (New York: Pearson, 1973), 256-271.

[3] This notion of critique is found in Judith Butler’s, What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue in: David Ingram, ed., The Political: Blackwell Readings in Continental Philosophy (Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 212-226.

[4] http://adage.com/article/moy-2008/obama-wins-ad-age-s-marketer-year/131810/

[5] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Empire Books, 2011), 201.

[6] http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/ 1952, “Ike for President”; 1956, “Taxidriver and Dog”, “The Man From Libertyville”; 1964, “Icecream”; 1976, “Rose”, “Pearl Bailey”; 1996, “Surgeon”; 2004, “International Man of Mystery”, 2008, “No Maverick”, etc.

[7] Both Vladimir Mayakovsky (Andrew Samuels, The Political Psyche [London: Routledge, 1993], 9.) and Bertolt Brecht (Peter Leonard and Peter McLaren, eds., Paulo Freire: a Critical Encounter[New York: Routledge, 1993], 80.) are cited as being the originator of this quote.


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