As Americans Yen For a More Promising Past, Obama Charges Forward

Forward is a foolish slogan at a moment when Americans are looking with nostalgia to the “Mad Men” past, writes Judith Grey.

The best advertising slogans are those that can be interpreted in any number of ways, all of which make your brand indisputably appealing.

Nike’s “Just do it,” is a perfect example. “But it’s hailing outside.” Just do it. “But I’ve just had two burgers, fries, and a thick shake.” Just do it. “But I look bad in bike shorts.” For crying out loud, just do it.

Compare that to “Forward,” the slogan now being bandied about by the Obama campaign. The uninfectious, gratuitously terse, steady-job-growth-contingent rallying cry is one of the most nondurable taglines to have ever made it to the front of a T-shirt.

The only way the line could evoke positive associations is if things in fact go as well as the Obama folks had hoped and Americans wanted to continue “forward” in the same direction.

Given the May jobs report on Friday—the unemployment rate ticked up from 8.1 to 8.2 percent, and the number of positions added to the economy is “far lower than what’s needed just to keep up with population growth”— a lot of American voters might find continuing forward the most frightening of all possible trajectories.

The slogan was intended to communicate the idea that the country should go forward and not regress to the pre-2008 policies that engendered the financial crisis from which the country is presently trying to extricate itself.

It’s a reasonable thought, but it fails to take into account one important reality of our world today: Americans—perhaps more than at any other period in the country’s history—actually want to go backward.

Way backward. Ideally, to some time during the ’60s.

For argument’s sake, let’s say 1967. That’s the year in which this season of AMC’s increasingly popular advertising period drama, Mad Men, transpires. Since its inception in 2007, the show’s viewership has increased almost fourfold, and it has become one of the most culturally salient influences of our time.

From the moment we were introduced to the series’s attractive protagonists Betty and Donald Draper, a latent sense of enchantment seems to have been awakened across the nation. We were taken with Don’s slicked-back hair and unapologetic entrepreneurial spirit, fascinated by Betty’s stay-at-home-mom-ness and penchant for dressage.

Sound like anyone else you know?

Swap advertising for private equity, Connecticut for Massachusetts, and a rocky marriage for a solid one, and Don and Betty Draper look an awful lot like Mitt and Ann Romney.

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By now, we’re all familiar with Ann’s pride in her decision to stay at home and raise a family and keenly aware of her devotion to dressage. We’ve also heard a lot about Mitt’s unrelenting commitment to private-sector problem solving, not to mention his flawlessly Brylcreem-ed hair.

In the same way that we peer into the Drapers’ lives with a tinge of bashful envy, secretly coveting their clearly delineated gender roles and their super-streamlined sartorial silhouettes, Americans might be beginning to see the Romneys in a similar vein.

Whether we actually want to be like the Drapers and the Romneys is unclear. But that we want to look like them is undeniable. Just last week, Banana Republic reported its best first quarter ever with sales generated from its Mad Men collection, a line of ’60s-inspired apparel that the company began designing as a cross-promotion with the series in 2010.

Tommy Hilfiger, another global American fashion brand, has also experienced extraordinary growth using a backward-gazing advertising campaign. Since launching its retro-chic, Romney-clan-resembling “Meet the Hilfigers” offensive in 2010, the company has enjoyed a double-digit increase in sales and seen considerable worldwide expansion. The ads feature preppy-clad members of a multigenerational—albeit multiracial—family clowning around in a similar way to which the Romneys have been described at their family functions.

Instagram is another case in point. The photo-sharing app that was recently sold to Facebook for a billion dollars (yes, with a “b”) also peddles in reminiscence. Instagram’s most distinctive feature is that the images it produces have a 4:3 aspect ratio, resembling the square-shape proportion of photos produced by the Instamatic camera manufactured by Kodak in the early ’60s. The app’s other cherished attribute is that it can imbue an image with a patina similar to that of a Polaroid that’s been lying at the bottom of a shoebox for 50 years.

Face it, nostalgia is in. (And it will probably still be around until, at least, November.)

By that time, it appears as though Americans will prefer to—in slogan speak—“Rewind with Romney” rather than go “Onward with Obama.”

Oh, and incidentally, in case you were wondering, the unemployment rate in May 1967 was 3.8 percent.