Commentary Magazine


The Great Brander

One of the most impressive aspects of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was its meticulous branding.  Beyond the stunning “O” insignia, there was the ubiquitous slogan of “change”; the splotchy Obama-looking-yonder-hopefully headshots; the prevalent use of “Gotham” font; and the navy-fading-to-sky-blue backgrounds, which were used to create a distinctly messianic effect.  Much like an advertising campaign for a brand of toothpaste or fast-food chain, it seemed as though every aspect of Obama’s presidential run was market-tested so as to be instantly recognizable to the average consumer (i.e., voters).

Naturally, the expectation was that this obsessive marketing would end following the campaign.  After all, the American presidency is one of the most recognizable brands in the world: the office comes with a full array of institutions, insignias, and a theme song already in place – all of which are far more symbolically potent than anything that a campaign could possibly produce.  Yet the typically impatient Obama team refuses to wait until January 20th, and has thus stylized every aspect of the presidential transition with its usual corporate touch.

Perhaps the most odious feature of ObamaTM is the transition team’s press conference podium, which bears a sign reading “Office of the President Elect.”  Naturally, the sign’s color matches the Obama campaign’s hope-inducing sky-blue backgrounds – consistency is, after all, critical to effective marketing.  But the sign is notable for a second reason: namely, there is no such thing as the “Office of the President-Elect” – the Obama team has totally invented this concept solely for the purpose of pushing the Obama brand!  Indeed, former presidents-elect – recognizing that they were neither on the campaign trail, nor in office just yet – generally spoke from blank podiums.

Other aspects of this seemingly endless ObamaTM-branding are, perhaps, subtler.  There’s the $30 Obama-Biden victory t-shirt, which calls to mind to the similarly overpriced apparel that championship baseball teams typically sell.  There are the virtual commercials that the Obama transition team has produced for some of its major policy areas, which set a new standard for premature overuse of the presidential seal.  And there’s this “American Moment” page, which solicits voters’ personal stories in a manner eerily similar to this page on Coca-Cola’s website.  (Meanwhile, private companies are apparently trying to latch onto the ObamaTM brand: check out STA Travel’s package deals to the presidential inauguration.)

One wonders whether the mainstream media will eventually catch on.  After all, for the past eight years they’ve complained that the Bush administration was too tight-lipped – too few press conferences with the president, too little transparency.  Now they have an incoming administration that promises an all-access backstage pass, but instead offers a masterfully crafted advertising campaign.  Indeed, the Obama team might be using new media to promote a new political brand, but a blind taste test fails to notice a difference.