Thursday, April 17, 2008

signs of the times

Because the Pennsylvania primary is a matter of days away, neighborhoods have begun sprouting signs, promoting the candidate of choice in that household. I can't help but wonder about the time, effort and focus-grouping that goes into the final design of those placards and signs, as they create an image, implant an impression, call out a message to us as we pass by them each day.

What's extremely interesting to me is the choice one of the candidates - or that candidate's committee - made with the sign. You'll notice one of the democratic candidates is using first name only to remind voters of her candidacy: Hillary. You have to ask yourself why.

I can't think of another candidate who ran on his or her first name in a presidential election. And it's obviously not because she has something to hide with her last name. Clinton is about as successful a political name as there could be in national politics.

It's also not because it's unprecedented that someone traded on political clout in a campaign. George W. didn't run as George W. if you recall. All of those signs used his well-known last name: Bush.

I wasn't part of the focus groups but I'm going to guess this was a girl decision. Women use first names when we address each other or refer to another woman. Men use last names more commonly than we do.

By noting Hillary on her signs, we feel like she just might be the girlfriend we have in Washington. It's familiar. It's a fun name. It's not dowdy or boring or conventional. It's hip. It's classy. It's modern.

Somehow, I think if Mrs. Clinton's first name were Gertrude or Mildred or Blanche or Ethel, we wouldn't see those signs posted around town. Male presidents can have very traditional names - they almost all do, in fact. They conjure up images of steadfast, loyal, trustworthy, reliable men.

And what of Barack Obama? Do you wonder if he considered - even for a day or so - going by 'Barry,' not Barack? You have to believe someone somewhere floated the idea by him. His signs contain his last name only: Obama. In this case, both his first and last name are not exactly mainstream American name lexicon - it's a toss up about which would be the catch-word to capture him for the masses. Obama is more lyrical. And it is following tradition to use a last name only on a sign.

It will be interesting to see who is the candidate and who is the eventual running mate of that candidate. I'd love to see Hillary choose her husband for many reasons, not the least of which is that her signs may then read Hillary and Bill or even better, Clinton and Clinton.

I have no idea who would make the right partner for his sign. Whomever he chooses will most likely bring a waspy sounding name to the ticket, which may help or may cause more confusion. It may create a complete disconnect to voters. Obama Richardson sounds like people from two different parts of the planet. Same with Obama Edwards. Doesn't really work, does it?

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