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From Gandhi to ISIS, Political Branding Is All About Transcending the Obvious

By Adil Rasheed

29 August 2017

A picture may speak a thousand words, but a single political image – like the mythical beauty of Helen of Troy – may well nigh launch a “thousand ships to war”. Thus, as a coinage ‘political branding’ may be of recent origin, derived from the textbooks of modern advertising and PR, but conceptually it has been practised by statesmen and demagogues for ages.

In fact, it is politics of yore that has taught modern advertising the nuances of public perception, crowd manipulation, mass hysteria, propaganda, misinformation and mind control, as was most evident in the fake WMD drum-roll leading to the Iraq War and the social media-driven mischief of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.

Ironically, the domain of subliminal messaging and brainwashing has never been as pervasive and misleading as in the ‘new media’-propelled campaigns of our times.

‘Commodifying’ Leadership

In fact, it is surprising how a simple, emotive symbol or a trusted brand can open up hearts and minds of millions of people to dangerous ideological implants, a collective delirium studied in depth by the Christopher Nolan film Inception.

Similarly, the art of personality branding can make or break political careers overnight. Many political leaders and movements are naturally gifted in ‘commodifying’ themselves and in projecting their carefully calibrated brand image.

Political branding - like any form of commercial branding - is the process of giving a prospective public figure or a movement a distinctly emotive identity, so that its sentimental appeal in public perception resists any intelligent attempt at scratching the surface.

This art of seducing highly impressionable minds – be it through a catchy slogan, logo, clothing, looks, speech, or mannerism - comes naturally to gifted politicians, film stars and adept political groups, who use it for various ethical, amoral and at times immoral purposes.

In fact, religious and political brands have always been used to mobilize the masses for righteous and diabolic purposes, be it the Christian Cross or the Communist Hammer and Sickle, Churchill’s famous ‘V’ for victory sign or Hitler’s Nazi salute in his Chaplin-like moustache.

The Half-Naked Fakir

Paradoxically, the most gifted exponent of political branding in the 20th century was the plainly unassuming Mahatma Gandhi. Although there was no fakery involved in his distinctly genuine and recognizable brand, Gandhi became a powerful political symbol of non-violence and simplicity against colonial oppression and modern consumerism.

A bespectacled messiah-like figure, wearing a self-woven loins-cloth and wielding a shepherd’s walking stick, Gandhi’s venerable image resonated more with poverty-stricken Indian masses than any evoked by his contemporary Indian leaders.

As a consequence, a nation’s destiny was revived and millions rallied behind this “half-naked fakir” to end the misrule of the British Raj. Gandhi stood up to the might of the British empire by becoming the universal brand ambassador of his own principles. Simply put, he looked the part and became the change.

Rebel without a Cause

Another iconic brand, which eventually became more popular than political, is that of the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. His image is not only being used by Left-wing politicians today, like the former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, but is also traduced by small-time merchants to sell air fresheners in Peru, snowboards in Switzerland and cheap liquor in Italy.

Korda’s famous photograph of Che taken in 1960 now symbolizes not the violent Marxist leader of his time, but the quintessential young rebel without a cause.

Other notable mentions are Abraham Lincoln, the first leader whose 19th century, whose photographs were retouched in his time to improve his public image, John F. Kennedy who did not just market his policies but also harnessed his celebrity image, Yasser Arafat, who gave a name and identity to the Palestinian cause by wearing a distinctive keffiyeh over military fatigues and Barack Obama whose famous red and blue ‘O’ brand symbolized hope and made him the first black president of the US.

ISIS’ Iconography

Muslim leaders have historically kept themselves away from political branding in principle as Islam eschews iconography even for symbolic purposes. However, this trend has been sullied by the most pernicious terrorist organization ISIS, when it used the impression of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) seal on its flag.

Lacking religious support or legitimacy from any respected Islamic scholarship, the group resorted to such irreverence only to ensnare the misguided and impressionable. Its monochromatic black flags are again an attempt to authenticate its claim of being a prophesized apocalyptic force. This illegitimate brand identity of the group may have won it a few neophytes initially, but has consigned it to infamy in Muslim history forever.

Thus, political branding can work either in favour or against any aspiring political leader or organization. Again, the invention of a brand identity cannot itself give longevity to the political career of its subject.

However, in today’s age of information overload and confusion, populations need to develop abilities of critical discernment whenever ideas calling for reforms are presented in a revolutionary package. No self-righteous political leader or movement should be taken at face value, for as the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes once put it, “There is nothing more deceptive than the obvious”.