For a country that would claim to have mastered the language of advertising, the United States hasn't proven itself very adept at selling political ideas. When persuasion needs a graphic boost, the 21th-century spinmeister's state-of-the-art response is to order up one of those digitally-printed backdrops festooned with a step-and-repeat pattern of a slogan like, say, "Corporate Responsibility." The principle is right out of the moldy playbook of American Tobacco's George Washington Hill, who attempted to browbeat mid-century America ("Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco!") into universal lung cancer through the same kind of mindless repetition. (There are exceptions: sometimes just one big banner will do, perhaps supported by an appropriate costume change.)
With the winning of global hearts and minds still a national priority, the nomination of longtime Bush confidante Karen Hughes to the position of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs — a role originally filled, to less-than-widespread-acclaim, by Madison Avenue veteran Charlotte Beers — does little to reassure.
That's what makes the billboard above so astonishing.
Branding a country is tricky business in general, and in this part of the world in particular. As Thomas Vinciguerra observed in his wonderfully titled New York Times piece "The Revolution will Be Colorized," "Lately, it seems, you can't have a decent political upheaval unless you color it in." Democracy in Iraqi was barely born when George Bush branded it "The Purple Revolution" after the ink that marked voters' fingers.
Like George Washington Hill, George Bush knows a good slogan when he hears it, but this time the reality stands on its own. Four photographs of those proudly displayed fingers are all it took to make the ultimate political ad, all the more potent for its wordless confidence. As elegant as a Chiat/Day billboard for Nike, as provocative as an Oliviero Toscani ad for Benetton, this is the most sophisticated piece of political propaganda this new century has seen.
Who took the pictures? Who decided to mount them publicly? Were there lots of them, or just this one? Are these images still visible, two months after the election? Or are they gone but, we hope, not forgotten? And, alas, the cynic in me asks one last question: was this miraculous billboard the result of a printer error, with the headline — "JOIN THE PURPLE REVOLUTION! IRAQ VOTES YES FOR FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY!", Times Roman, caps and small caps, white with a black drop shadow — deleted by accident? Am I rhapsodizing over a mistake?
I hope not. in a part of the world where reasons to cheer are still too rare, this triumph of reality over rhetoric deserves our admiration.
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