Battle of the Placards

PUBLISHED: July 27, 2012

The Supreme Court’s health ruling was, indeed, historic – it gave Mitt Romney the chance to set a record for canniest use of a lectern sign.

With the Capitol behind him, Mr. Romney stood at microphones on which, minutes earlier, an aide had affixed a placard reading: Repeal & Replace Obamacare. Gone are the days of one-message-fits-all presidential podium signs like Romney for President or Re-elect Obama/Biden.

In earlier times podium messaging was such an afterthought that host hotels could get away with using it for a free plug like Waldorf Astoria. Now, even with billion-dollar budgets for paid campaign advertising, candidates seem more determined than ever to leverage their lecterns.

When June’s employment figures were announced, for example, the first reaction from candidates came not from their lips but from their podium signs. Mr. Obama, addressing an audience in Ohio, stood at a podium on which was written: Betting on America. Mr. Romney, who spoke while on vacation in New Hampshire, had the foresight to bring along the lectern sign: Putting Jobs First.

I looked at news photos going back 75 years and found little evidence of messages on podiums in presidential campaigns until Obama-McCain in 2008. The Obama forces used variations of Change We Can Believe In, while the McCain camp favored Country First.

In the ’12 campaign, neither candidate would dare speak with his podium bare. Mr. Romney started out in December with the lectern message: Believe In America. Then, at a drywall factory in Ohio he stood behind the placard, Obama Isn’t Working. By April, as his primary wins piled up, Mr. Romney’s podium message read: A Better America Begins Tonight. In smaller communities he went with the sign: Every Town Counts.

A sitting president has the option of using the presidential seal on the podium, or replacing it with a campaign message. The Obama team tried the single word Forward as its podium slogan, but recently Vice President Joe Biden has been using a lectern sign that says, Strengthening the Middle Class. The beauty of these podium signs is that they almost always appear in video clips and still photos taken at the events. No matter how aggressively editors slice and dice the footage, the candidate’s core message remains plastered right there on the podium.

Some podium-watching pundits said Mr. Obama’s staff went a bit too far after the 2008 election by creating the never-before-seen sign: Office of the President Elect. It prompted The Weekly Standard to write that Mr. Obama had violated “18 USC Sec. 713,” which has something to do with defacing a presidential seal.

One problem with podium signs is that their messages live on in photos long after a campaign has been dismantled. In one lingering shot taken the night of the Florida primary, Newt Gingrich stands at a lectern on which a quickie sign has been posted: 46 States to Go. Then, too, podium signage occasionally has a mind of its own. In 2010 President Obama was delivering a speech at a women’s conference when the presidential seal fell off the lectern and clanked onto the platform. Laughing, the President assured the crowd, “That’s all right, all of you know who I am.”

What’s next in podium technology? Perhaps campaigns will turn to portable digital displays that can be easily fastened to a lectern, allowing aides to key in messages that change as the candidate speaks. Audiences would then be treated to the same inane process that cable channels favor – restating what was said a minute or two earlier as a bullet point, such as, Romney: I’ll Repeal Obamacare on Day One.

In the broader sense, lectern messaging is just another reflection of nonstop efforts to squeeze promotion into every campaign cranny.

Pitch lines are tweeted, emailed and posted on Facebook at a frenetic pace. This messaging overdose creates an information blur, which in turn creates the need for more messaging.

As with all sloganeering, podium placards add little to campaigns other than superficiality. Believe in America has about as much political meaning as, say, I Like Ike.

Of course, having discovered the value of such messages, why should a campaign limit its options? Maybe the most honest podium placard for both candidates would simply be: This Space For Rent.

(c) Peter Funt. This column was first published by The New York Times.

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