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Our Government, Their Brands


Designers, marketers, and pollsters have been getting pretty hot under their very different collars about politics and brands. And they’re right to do so, as campaign branding and consequently campaigns have gotten more sophisticated in technique and scope. Consider how talk shows and blogs waxed on about the choice of Gotham as Obama’s typeface or the hair and diction of Palin and her milieu.

Because politicians rely heavily on brand and messaging during campaigns, and because politicians exert vast amounts of energy in packaging themselves, brands and values have now seeped into the actual governmental work. It’s worth taking a dedicated look at how branding, rebranding, and positioning affect our legislation. David Mitchell, the comedian and the “PC” from the Apple ads that ran in the UK and Ireland, did this very nicely for the UK political system in his short study of the rebranding of the controversial Antisocial Behavior Order. Though I’m usually just happy to read his snipings and chiding (and imagine he’s saying them in this tone), his most recent article in the Guardian is some of the best writing about governments and branding I’ve read.

In the same breathless tone he uses to highlight the inanity of governmental rebranding (of the sort that England is particularly partial, changing “of” to “for” and “Ireland” to “Northern Ireland”), he ends up demonstrating just how much messaging and branding can affect context and connotations in the eyes of constituents. His argument rests on the positive effect that changing “Antisocial Behavior Order” to “Criminal Behavior Order” will have in UK politics, as it removes from the state the ability, perceived or real, to turn value judgments into laws. Changing the name to “Criminal Behavior Order” emphasizes legality, not offenses against someone else’s sensibilities.

What our values are, what our civilisation stands for, what it means to be British – these are issues on which [politicians] are less qualified than the average citizen to take a view, because they have too big an incentive to be dishonest. We can’t trust them, when discussing such subjects, not to descend to self-serving demagogy.

When doing research for a website or online campaign, I need to learn about users’ values in order to ensure that the workflows and messaging help people complete their tasks. If we design an educational site about a water filtration system for people to use, I need to know whether the user’s primary concern is keeping their family safe or civic responsibility etc., because if the product branding conflicts with their personal ideas, the design or product ceases to be useful. However, I do not propose a design based on the values themselves.

And that nuance is crucial. Values and ideologies are important in helping to sell something, but if you make something based only on what someone likes or dislikes, not their needs, then your product becomes nothing more than personal values writ large. That’s fine (well…“fine”) for Old Spice or makeup ads, but not for politicians. As Mitchell astutely points out, they have both too much incentive to lie and the power with which to manipulate. When politicians create sites, programs, and campaigns branded with what users and voters should value, such legislation and motions end up either lulling or polarizing, neither of which elevates political debate or agreement (their oft-stated aim) or helps people interact more fully with the message or service the government or government-to-be provides (their true remit and job description).

If we look at the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention websites, despite the nearly identical purposes these sites serve, the values that the sites espouse are incredibly different from each other. The RNC’s tone seems simple and folksy, and the DNC’s is complicated and high-minded. Just looking at interface elements like the big call to action button on each page the difference is clear: RNC’s reads “Donate” in the contrasting blue color, and DNC’s reads “Contribute” in smaller letters. It’s straight-shootin’ versus maximum-nuance. It is a .com versus a .org. Both sites are responding to those traits that the individuals in their base want affirmed in them and it affects what people see and find when they come to the sites.

If branding and value-pandering work in campaigns, it stands to reason they work in day to day governmental work as well. I hope that it isn’t the highly branded name of H.R. 358, the “Protect Life Act” with all its insinuations and value judgments, that would galvanize, horrify, or manipulate the officials I helped elect. But that instead, they would be spurred into action by the contents of H.R. 358 itself. But that’s the point (and problem) of branded names: to appeal to emotions, to rush ideas past people as they glance up and see their reflection. Complex issues, and any that can be tinged in personal values and morals, become easier to accept or reject without information or reference to their real world context or discussion of ramifications. This is seen clearly with the name calling that discussions and campaigns devolve into when any gun control, abortion, health care, or most recently breast feeding matter comes up. Subtle changes in language to make things more emotional become increasingly divisive as the political brands become more entrenched and concentrated. As David Mitchell strongly puts it:

In general, we should avoid changing the names of aspects of the state or government because politicians’ tendency will always be to make the new names more emotive, more like adverts. And the government has nothing to sell us that we don’t already own.

I would only add to his resounding call that regardless of who owns what the government is selling, politicians are all selling us things everyday, and we’re lining up and buying back our own values. Because the current trend is for politicians to brand everything they do in a way that does not clarify or encourage us to engage with and understand governmental work, it is our responsibility to become expert readers of brand and media messaging. Let’s decide what of their work we really buy.

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About Mule Design Studio

Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
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