Over the past few months, you’ve likely noticed a visual change to the Philadelphia landscape. It takes the form of posters with blue and red backgrounds staring at you from across the street telling you to “STOP THE RACISTS.” Its crimson lettering paints the name of a Pennsylvania Senate candidate, or NO, depending on your perspective. The posters cover the student health line on the hall bulletin board, they're plastered over your door, and you don’t know how, you don’t know when, but somehow, they crept their way into bathroom stalls and demand you to vote… or else. It is the inescapable world of campaign art.
In a year of federal elections that will decide the future of foreign policies, voter rights, and the legality of abortion, Democrats and Republicans alike have taken to visual displays to persuade voters in their favor. Even as the voting season ends, the impact of each politician’s propaganda will stay with Americans long after the votes are counted.
Political posters are more than just advertisements, but representations of a candidate’s intentions. From their color choices to the style of portrait used and even the type of font, these design decisions tell the story of the politician’s future career.
The Pennsylvania 2022 Senate election proves to be a great case study into how intentions can be conveyed through signage. The six–foot–eight, sweatshirt–wearing John Fetterman acknowledged in a Medium blog post that he “[does] not look like a typical politician, nor [does he] look like a typical person.” This trait has been a point of criticism by those who oppose the Democratic candidate; they claim that he lacks the professionalism needed for a Senate position.
Yet this abnormality in appearance is a proud reminder of his critique of traditional politics, as seen on his posters. While most American campaign signs are painted in the patriotic red, white, and blue, or the color of its party, “Fetterman” is written in all–capital white letters that contrast with a black background on his merchandise.
Meanwhile, his opponent Mehmet Oz has come under fire for his lack of political experience, as instead he has had a notable career as a surgeon turned television personality. To fit into the good ol’ conservative persona, his yard signs are a traditional Republican wine red, written with “OZ” and “U.S. Senate'' as the subhead. Unfortunately for the doctor, as the internet pointed out, a little 90 degree turn of the poster transforms the sign into a large “NO”—a now–fitting slogan after the votes have been counted.
You can't mention campaign artwork without bringing up Shepard Fairey’s—also known as Obey Giant—“Hope” poster used by the Obama campaign in 2008. The piece uses the contrasting color scheme of the American flag to draw your eye around the poster, allowing you to observe his stoic gaze, his logo, and of course, the “Hope” phrase used to convey the legacy of the first Black president.
The portrait is an example of social realism—a movement that portrayed political and social realities with abstract elements. Originating in the 1930s, social realism was created to highlight the economic struggles of the Great Depression while offering a glimmer of possibility in each piece—a fitting art style for a recession–era campaign.
It would be the very same art style that would translate to the 2016 “We the People” posters used during protests in response to the inauguration of President Obama’s successor. Fairey, along with artists Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal, depicted Black, Muslim, and Latina women as the forefront of Women’s Marches of January, 2017.
While some campaign art is so memorable it holds up over several terms, others are far less noteworthy. Take William Taft's 1908 posters, which consist of a solid turquoise background and a portrait of himself with an unreadable gaze. The paper displays a single word to capture the essence of the entirety of his career: “Bill.”
It was a minimalistic choice made by his team, yet an appropriate one as well. As the story goes, if you were to ask someone off the street to name one thing William “Bill” Taft is known for, their minds would go as blank as the former president’s facial expression.
On the other hand, the former actor known for his love of the church and jellybeans—Ronald Reagan—expresses a more colorful persona in his posters. His team utilized realist images of the White House and portraits of Reagan and Bush, covered with a sepia tint to mimic 1800s campaigns. It proved to be a very appropriate theme for a politician with the slogan “Return to Normalcy.” It was very courteous of the former president to let us know ahead of time the exact era his social views were inspired by. As it would happen, his presidency was quite the throwback and decades would be spent trying to pick up where we left off pre–Nixon and Reagan terms.
With an inspired motto of “Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump campaign ads brought a new movement in political art: the fetishization of politicians. Voters would create portraits with the traditional flag background, except now with Trump slaying liberals while simultaneously displaying his six–pack or sporting a superman–style leotard across the back of pick–up trucks. We have entered an era in which supporters have become more like fans; in their eyes, Trump could do no wrong. It should have come as no surprise when this mentality led to thousands committing a federal crime for him on Jan. 6, 2021.
In the past few weeks, a new batch of politicians have been chosen by the American public to represent us based on the visions they shared. Yet even when their candidates promise enchanting lies, campaign posters spill their true intentions—it’s up to voters to heed their warnings.