Michael Bierut | Essays

No Headline Necessary

Purple revolution
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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.

Posted in: Business, Politics

Comments [18]

Nice. This immediately reminded me to ask this question of all of you fine folks: While driving through Minnesota and North Dakota this past weekend, we passed by several simple black and white billboards with phrases like "Be Kind." "Be Polite." and "Smile." in bold (what appeared to be) Futura. Nothing else... no branding, no "brought to you by..." in tiny type, nothing. Just simple statements.

Has anyone else seen these and/or know of their origin? Could it be a local initiative down there? In any case, it resonated in it's simplicity, much like the example posted above.


We should be so lucky to have signage in Times New Roman; the true nightmare would have been Hobo.
Isaac B2

Looking at the billboard I immediately asked myeslf: What is "1-2-1-1" code for? Is it morse code for "Vote"?
felix sockwell

If this really were a "triumph of reality over rhetoric" at least one of the four images would show fingers covered in blood rather than ink. The Iraq Body Count website reports that between 17,233 and 19,608 civilians have so far been killed by the military intervention in Iraq.
Nick Currie

I should have said "modest triumph." There is more reality there than any one billboard can do justice to.
Michael Bierut

It´s weird but I saw the third image as if the finger was partially chopped off. Reality check, I guess.

The Iraq Body Count site's counting methodology has been debunked numerous times. Go Google.

The best purple finger picture is the one with a woman swathed in black where you see just the purple finger and her eye with a tear.

17-19,00 would seem to be a "modest number". Whats the number of bombs dropped and the strike percentage? Anyone? Mariana? How an American website (Google) is assumed to be reliable for body counting is neither here nor there. Favorite pictures. Urgh. I'm debunking you Mariana, should anyone care to Google it.
felix sockwell

Benetton? Times Roman? This really is taking the words "Design" and "Observer" too literally... As a design campaign, the only way this could be deemed mildly succesful by any peer group, is if this was a vanity meant for the US networks.

After all, who commissioned these, and what is the message? Is it, "Our differences are erased and we are united through the mark of the purple vote?" How about "We are united by the marks the occupier leaves on us"?

What does the average, struggling Iraqi there (not their western-educated returnees) think that series means, what it stands for? How was the placement selected - for whose eyes? Mostly US network cameras, photo ops and the like.

Who to ask in US government? How about Egyptian-American Dina Powell, the new face of the administration as it tries to repair its image overseas. As the NYTimes notes, she "will face the onerous task of trying to sell America to the Arab and Muslim worlds, where the Bush administration has been viewed with contempt since the invasion of Iraq and where previous efforts at public diplomacy have failed. Skeptics say the problem is policy and that no amount of marketing, even in Arabic, can sell the war in Iraq or American support for Israel." Not even a tv or radio just speaking in Arabic to them... So why should an image series do anything but speak to converted who can translate it in the "right" way.

An occupying nation works as fast as it can to control image and communication to "sell the war" and then the "peace" - direction OUTWARDS. The occupied will always have no access to produce a reflection of their perspective on a global level. History has shown any occupying nation trying to "brand" the country they occupied 'after' war is at best producing an "uncanny" monster that comes back to haunt.

With that in mind - who are these signs for? Well, aside from demagogues, in public space images rarely rise above the written word in arabic-speaking countries, no matter how "modern" the population.

For example, Beirut is hardly populated with trendy, cutting-edge (or just any) billboard-style ads. Oh, wait, there was one example similar to this Iraqi model: when the land developers under Hariri's patronage were enjoying the reconstruction of the vast destroyed Beirut city center, a huge billboard with the image of a modern city ("what will come"...) was placed in the center. It was the image new travellers to Beirut photographed. While it showed quite alot of urban plan from many angles, it wasn't showing the humongous, out of scale and out of place mosque Hariri was planning for the absolute center, now built, that ended up placing that whole "modern" city center in its shadow.

And perhaps as a note to the Iraq branding parallel, the site of that western-style campaign billboard was only a block away from where Hariri was asassinated while driving with his entourage. And the mosque is now the camera-ready site for that vast united crowd, of the new "peoples revolution" (bush tried using purple there but it didnt take).....


Cynicism for the blunders in Iraq aside, the billboard is still a powerful way of giving oppression the finger.
Daniel Green

Regardless of one's politics, the billboard is still as striking visual statement. Whether the messsage get's lost or not is a good question to ask, especially considering the mercurious nature of today's world.

Now, how about a billboard campaign featuring bodybags. That would be a great counter to the Bush Administrations ban on filming any of the thousands of dead Americans returned to the US for burial at Andrew's Air Force Base. Imagine how much more vocal the anti-war effort just might be, if those images were appearing on a regular basis. Instead, it's just one more example of how the Adminstration has done it's best to hide the pain and aguish of war to serve its own agenda.

These images hold no political allegiance. It is four images depicting an historic event. We should, at least once, put our bias on the back burner to see that something good happened in the midst of all the hardships. Don't spoil it with politics and Bush bashing, it only gives attention where attention is not due. It's a very powerful message, and even a modest triumph is a triumph. Thanks for sharing!

I keep coming back to the apparent numbers 1,2,1,1... surely whomever paid for/created this didn't have only 4 photos to choose from?

And oo, someone down in Dallas, Texas did similar billboards (black bg with simple sayings - with a more biblical slant than the ones you describe) a few years back. If I recall it was just a guy who wanted to spread the word and had enough money to do it.

I keep coming back to the apparent numbers 1,2,1,1...

I saw it as all ones except for one peace sign, rather than 1, 2, 1, 1. I couldn't think of any other reason why the person would be holding up two fingers.

This is a striking billboard, but I wouldn't entirely agree with Jennifer saying it is four images depicting a historic event. It's just one take on a historical event, and in this case, it's a positive point of view. If the billboard were talking about the voting process, then where are the people who were too afraid to vote? Or the people who chose not to vote? Sure, the positive is a huge part of it, but it doesn't capture the full scope of what happened. But hey, it's only a billboard...
Ryan Nee

In the Divided States of WestAsia (a play on USA) with antiquated laws being practiced, a woman inherits half of what her brothers do unless a will directs otherwise, her testimony in court is half of that of a man's if allowed at all, and as in the case of Ms. Zahra Kazemi, when no one is found responsible in a prison killing, the victim's family is compensated only half the amount payable to the family of a male victim.
In this sequence read from right to left,
first: female freshly-voted finger,
second: short stocky male inky finger,
third: a woman showing what we know as a peace sign but to most is simply the number two,
and last: a male freshly-voted finger,
these laws are evident in that both women depicted have their hair and upper torso covered by large black scarves.

As the Iraqis forge ahead, with a new constitution still unwritten, although they've been represented first and twice in a seemingly egalitarian girl-boy-girl-boy rhythm here, these women may in fact end up with less personal freedom under a newly formed democratic system if the conservative religious factions get their way. Simply put, this is a question. Will it be one for one or two for one?

Considering elections in Saudi Arabia were for the menfolk only, this 'outdoor advertising' in neighboring Iraq is a triumph of sorts holding promise for half the population to be valued as equal the other half (or at least a third of the total) instead of nil, when determining policies for their future.

The purple ink is also proof of illiteracy prevalent in some of these areas, not only a byproduct of election security measures and identification methods.

"just one take on a historical event"

Just one take means it's an opinion, it's one slant on reality. If I'm not mistaken, the fact that the people in the images have purple ink on their fingers means it is historic fact that they voted, not an opinion. Like I mentioned earlier, why can't we hold our bias back and be happy for those who voted? Some may not have voted in fear, which makes it that much more amazing that many did vote. From what I remember hearing, there was a better voter turn out in Iraq than the US saw in November. So whether some chose not to come out, or were afraid to do so, those who did have that much more to be proud of. I understand the images depict only one small part of the struggle the Iraqi people have had to go through, but it's not opinion or "just one take" on what happened. It's one part of what happened, and an historic event not worth muddling with politics. Whether we should be there or not, or should have been in the first place, at least something good happened all politics aside.

Jennifer, it's a representation of a historical event; as impartial as it may be made out to appear, there is as much authorship, as much fore-planning and as much vested interest in this as in any Benetton campaign. This billboard didn't spring up from nowhere: like it or not it's political, and in some eyes it's propaganda.


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