Posters Show Obama as Superhero, Sun God, Saint Artists who back Democrat Barack Obama depict the presidential candidate as a visionary, putting his face at the center of the campaign. Steve Seidman, chairman of the strategic communication department at Ithaca College, looks at the role of iconography in politics.
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Posters Show Obama as Superhero, Sun God, Saint

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Posters Show Obama as Superhero, Sun God, Saint

Posters Show Obama as Superhero, Sun God, Saint

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Every political campaign has posters, usually on a red, white and blue background, unless the candidate is Irish, and running for a seat in an Irish-American district, and then, it's white type on a green background. It's the candidates name, its slogan, and then a swoosh-y symbol that staffers have worried about endlessly, but always winds up looking like something stolen off the letterhead of a Days Inn.

But this year, Barack Obama, or at least his devotees are saying, yes, we can do something different. Yes, we can depict our candidate as if he's ready for beatification. Yes, we can possibly call to mind the revolutionary visage of one Che Guevara. Steve Seidman, chair of the strategic communications department at Ithaca College, author of the forthcoming book, "Posters, Propaganda and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History," joins me now. Hello, Professor Seidman.

Dr. STEVE SEIDMAN (Strategic Communications, Ithaca College; Author, "Posters, Propaganda and Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History"): Good morning. How are you doing?

PESCA: Well. Did the Obama - any of the official Obama posters or Obama T-shirts strike you as unusual in this day and age?

Dr. SEIDMAN: Well, first of all, it's unusual to have a - the image of the candidate on an official T-shirt or poster these days. In fact in 1988, a trend began in the United States, where - with the Dukakis campaign, where posters began to look like giant bumper stickers or lawn signs.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. SEIDMAN: In fact, they were used on bumpers and on - in lawns. So, you really don't want a face on the back of a car or on a yard sign. It's probably more effective just to have a logo.

PESCA: And what about in other parts of the world? Have they still - when I travel throughout the world, I see campaigning usually done with the candidate's picture, especially in Latin and South America.

Dr. SEIDMAN: Posters are much more common in many countries around the world. There are constraints, legal constraints, in England and France and in other countries on TV advertising. And also, there's high illiteracy in many countries, so it makes the poster a really good vehicle to be used in these countries.

PESCA: For Americans unused to this, unused to presidential candidate's face on a poster for a number of years, and also, just wearing a candidate's face on their chest, I've never seen that in my life. I'm, you know, 36 years old, so maybe it happened in the '50s, but I doubt that "I like Ike" showed Ike's face on your chest. Anyway, that sort of thing, are they taking a chance? I mean, it is, as you talked about, a little bit unprecedented.

Dr. SEIDMAN: Some of the posters, they, I think, are fairly risky, but the audience is not the mainstream anyway. For example, there's one that's called "The Dream." I don't know if you've seen that, but it shows a halo behind Obama's head and rays coming out. It makes him look like a saint. So, the religious iconography, I don't think would appeal to most voters. It might turn them off, actually.

PESCA: It might set - yeah. The tones are - some of the writing with the word "dream" is brown, but mostly it's gold, and Obama is gold. He's, you know, the color of C-3PO.

Dr. SEIDMAN: That's right.

PESCA: Now, with the Obama campaign, or at least with the Obama posters, they're not always sanctioned by the campaign. There's a big grassroots element, and some of the people who are making these posters depict him as something akin to a revolutionary peasant leader, or an African sun god, or a caped superhero, but the - it seems to me that the ones that have been approved by the campaign rein it in a little. Can you describe some of the official posters and as - and official depictions of Obama's face in campaign paraphernalia?

Dr. SEIDMAN: The official one is - was - is recently put on a T-shirt.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. SEIDMAN: That actually is a poster image and its - the poster is a little different. The poster has an American flag behind Obama, but other than that, it's about the same. And do you know which one I'm talking about?

PESCA: Yes, the one that has him just from the shoulders up, looking up, and the slogan on the shirt says - that says, "Yes, we can."

Dr. SEIDMAN: That's correct.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. SEIDMAN: And then the old Obama logo is below the slogan. I think that's a very effective image, and it associates Obama with the slogan, which is a very good slogan, by overlapping the head and the three words, and the word "we" is bigger, because you want to emphasize that. You're reaching out to the voters, and he's gazing into the distance, almost like a visionary. This is a common approach I've noticed in my research. I would say that I've seen Nixon posters, Carter posters, George Bush, the second Bush posters, even Adolf Hitler posters in his election campaigns in Germany, have shown him gazing into the distance.

PESCA: Now they - the artists go and they make their own posters, but by putting on the site, Obama is at least acknowledging them and saying good job. The NPR program Day to Day talked to an artist named Shepard Fairey, who gained fame for his entree, the giant stencils on city streets, and then he began doing some Obama posters, and here's a little clip from that report to show what interaction the campaign had with the artist.

(Soundbite of NPR's Day to Day, April 7, 2008)

Mr. SHEPARD FAIREY (Artist): (Reading) Dear Shepard, I would like to thank you for using your talent in support of my campaign.

ALEX COHEN: He shows me a brief typed letter he recently received at home.

Mr. FAIREY: (Reading) Your images have a profound effect on people, whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign. I'm privileged to be part of your artwork, and proud to have your support.

COHEN: The bottom is signed, Barack Obama.

PESCA: If you were advising the Obama campaign, would you say, watch out, giving the official stamp of approval to these posters? Because if I were the Republicans, I would take it and use it as a sign of, you know, megalomania.

Dr. SEIDMAN: Well, actually, I've taken a look at a couple of posters that Mr. Fairey has done, and actually, I think they're the tamest, most conservative posters, I would say, on his website. They do remind me a little bit of some Cuban posters that I've seen from the 1970s, but I don't believe they're so outlandish and radical looking that they would turn off many voters. I don't think they would be able - the Republicans would be able to use these as ammunition.

PESCA: Now, if you were John McCain, let's take into account his personality. Would he be smart to try to fight art with art? Should he try - if there are people who want to do a McCain poster, should he embrace that, or should he kind of, no, that's not what my brand is all about?

Dr. SEIDMAN: Well, I think it would be good for him to do it. He could emphasize his military background. He, you know, as a prisoner of war, and a war hero, he could put - he could emphasize that. In fact, John F. Kennedy did that. When I began looking for T-shirt designs by presidential candidates, I found one from 1960 that showed one for John F. Kennedy that had the PT boat on it, you know, showing his heroism during World War II. So, I think McCain could do something like that, too, and I'm sure there are artists out there who would come up with the designs for his candidacy.

PESCA: All right. Steve Seidman, chair of the strategic communications department at Ithaca College, and his forthcoming book is called "Posters, Propaganda & Persuasion in Election Campaigns Around the World and Through History." Thanks a lot.

Dr. SEIDMAN: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Coming up, dollars to donuts, or euros to dollars, say they're still partying in Spain after their Euro 2008 championship victory. Sports with Bill Wolff on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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