“Politics, like science, depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality”
-Sen. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope
By Jesse Van Mouwerik
To bring the history of media full circle into the present day, the world of international policy finds itself poised in a place very similar to where it began in ancient times, a place where clever imagery and iconography has returned to the center of public life. This is best embodied by the career of graphic artist Shepard Fairey.
Although today mainly a commercial artist that diverts a portion of his time and money to philanthropy, the original project that rocketed Fairey to success, better known as the “Giant Manifesto,” was a social experiment carried out by him and some of his friends in 1989 while still a student at Rhode Island School of Design. His goal was to identify how the mind turned images into symbols of greater meaning. Fairey was intrigued by the amount of imagery in 20th century America that was designed with a planned commercial or political message for its viewers.
This intrigue manifested itself in a project where he chose to explore what effect a mass-circulated image absent any planned meaning would have in a public setting. He did this by creating a basic stencil of 80s cult figure Andre the Giant’s face, with the caption “Andre The Giant Has a Posse” placed next to it. The face and caption were deliberately vague. Fairey and his friends spent several days secretly printing and putting up the stickers around their campus. Within days, numerous articles appeared in his school’s paper, theorizing what the stickers were all about.
Original Giant sticker by Shepard Fairey
Modern Day Obey Sticker
Whether a creative accident or a brilliant marketing ploy, millions of people around the world have purchased products, donning Fairey’s OBEY icon, along with many of his other prints. The famous OBEY icon now appears legally on T-shirts and posters, along with illegally on just about every form of defaceable public space imaginable. Fairey’s original “Giant Manifesto” is posted on his website.
“Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and conspicuously consumptive nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides them with a sense of belonging.”
-Excerpt from Shepard Fairy’s Giant Manifesto
One of the many images paired with text from Obama’s Facebook page during the 2012 campaign
Shepard Fairey’s famous 2008 poster of Barack Obama (top) and Jim Fitzpatrick’s famous 1968 poster of Che Guevara (bottom)
Obama’s victory in 2008 was of course not the result of any single poster, promise, or Facebook post, but the fact that his campaign communicated with voters through multiple media formats, particularly online, is one of the main roots of his popularity among younger voters. But if Obama and his campaign were efficient at using the Internet to craft a strong public image for him, the campaigns of his opponents proved less effective at doing so. The Romney campaign in particular encountered the negative side effects of what happens when public statements are not coordinated with one another in the Internet age.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney came off strong in the first presidential debate between himself and Barack Obama during the 2012 election, but unfortunately was not nearly as poised in other situations. During his visits to Britain and Israel in the summer of 2012, he did much damage to his reputation internationally by offending the British press when he questioned the preparedness of London for the Olympic games during a casual interview. He received a hostile response from both Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who both included insults to Romney in televised speeches, all of which quickly hit blogs, tweets, Facebook posts and eventually the British and American mainstream media.
Romney made the same mistake again in Israel, where aggressive rhetoric while discussing the GDP disparity between Israel and the West Bank gave the impression that he believed Israel to be culturally superior to Palestinians.
We may never know what Romney actually believes on the subject, but it matters little. Regardless of his actual opinion, his fumbling of words came off poorly in the world press, where he was swiftly reprimanded by not only his opponent back in the states, but also many prominent human rights groups and world leaders.
What was certain was his assertion that he saw the Palestinians as culturally the more hostile group, saying “They have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace,” and called a two state solution “almost unthinkable to accomplish,” infuriating people in the region and upsetting Muslim Americans at home. The embarrassing incidents in both London and Jerusalem severely damaged Romney’s credibility internationally. Even if he had been elected, Romney would’ve begun his presidency in an international community where many already held him in a largely negative light. This and his now famously camera phone-recorded speech to conservative benefactors calling 47% of the American population lazy were part of the demise of the Romney campaign, where the percentage of American voters who turned out for him ironically turned out to be 47%.
Thanks to the Internet and also 24-hour news, lightning speed communication around the world that can lead to generalizations are also not only limited to Politicians. Individuals, from terrorists to cartoonists, can suddenly be validated or condemned at the flip of a channel and the click of a mouse.