October 1, 2012
Hail to the Chiefs: The Presidents With the Best Branding
On the eve of the election, we take a critical look at six decades of presidential branding.
Welcome to the 2012 season of America’s Presidential Candidates Got Talent, the hit show where two competing finalists are judged by a live television audience. To win, a candidate must juggle his fundamental beliefs without revealing something that will offend his base, while strategically attacking his challenger for real or imagined sins. ID-carrying members of the national audience are eligible to vote for the show’s winner based on either the substance of the players’ performance or the likability of the players’ persona or image. Since the competition is broadcast as 30-second commercials, two-minute debate answers, and short televised news clips, the scales are tipped toward style over substance.
From the first presidential election in 1788, candidates were branded through slogans and images emblazoned on bills and badges that mythologized them: Jefferson was “The Man of the People”; William Henry Harrison got Americans singing “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”; and Lincoln is always “Honest Abe”—effective rallying calls all. A candidate’s image must represent their lofty beliefs and be unassailably patriotic. That’s why American clichés—patriotic colors, mascots, and symbols—have played an integral role in campaign materials since Washington (who ran unopposed) became our first president. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, it’s easier to get the words and images out than ever before, but it’s much harder to spin or erase any embarrassing or campaign-ending gaffes. In the high-tech media world, traditional campaign communications are the one thing that can be controlled, manipulated and managed.
This is where campaign paraphernalia plays an important supporting role in the finalists’ strategies. Never underestimate conventional campaign swag as the connective tissue that bonds the public to their respective choice and telegraphs their personal preference to fellow citizens. The most presidential of official portraits, posters, logos and slogans are the essential branding tools of any political candidate—they’re the DNA of American presidential politics. We’ve selected a few of the most important branding blocks and offer dos and don’ts for this and future presidential campaigns.