The suspense of the 2018 mid-term elections is now behind us, and pundits on both sides of the aisle have been trying this past week to make sense of what happened and what augurs for the coming two years.
In this article, I would simply like to offer my analysis of two of this year’s most contentious ballot measures, purely from a branding and design perspective, as a case study.
Ballot Measure 105
The Measure 105 was intended to “repeal the state law, Oregon Revised Statute 181A.820, which forbids state agencies, including law enforcement, from using state resources or personnel to detect or apprehend persons whose only violation of the law is that of federal immigration law” (Ballotpedia).
Since the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump in 2017, the issue of state and local governments cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become a visibly contentious part of America’s national discourse. Oregon enacted ORS 181A.820 three decades ago to stop the rampant racial profiling against Latino immigrants and citizens in the Willamette Valley agricultural region.
Riding the Trump nationalist wave, Oregonians for Immigration Reform sought to push this issue to voters (timed also with the gubernatorial election against an incumbent Democratic governor who was widely seen as a weak candidate, with hope that a conservative voter enthusiasm would help Measure 105 succeed). In the end, it failed with a landslide (two out of three voters rejected it).
Yes on 105: Oregonians for Immigration Reform
The verbal message for the Yes on 105 campaign is that Oregon’s “sanctuary” law harbors “criminal aliens” and therefore it must be repealed.
The campaign’s Web site domain name, “StopOregonSanctuaries.org” makes a subtle reference to “SOS,” the international code for distress. On the billboard, the word “SAFETY” is contrasted with “NOT SANCTUARY” while also visually juxtaposing “Oregonians” with “Criminal Aliens.”
The choice of colors is a curious one here. Green usually communicates safety and peace. Yellow is also a color used often for safety reasons, consider yellow safety vests and yellow construction equipments. However, when used together, they take the visual impact away from the campaign’s brand. On the Web site, the campaign uses light green (#0aae8d) against light orange-ish yellow (#fce06f). These two colors are not complementary on a color wheel. The green letters do not stand out very well against the background. To make the situation worse, in some versions, the background color is in a gradient (shifting between yellow and white), something reminds me of the 1990s especially with the CG Omega typeface.
Another issue I find is that they use too many words across the board.
“Vote Yes [check mark] on Measure 105” could as well be simplified as “[check mark] Yes on 105.” Especially when you are placing an ad on a billboard and a lawn sign, the message has to be recognized by drivers who are moving at 25 to 55 miles an hour (and their primary concentration is on the act of driving). High-contrast colors should also be used, just like highway signs.
The secondary taglines “Safety for Oregonians, not sanctuary for criminal aliens” (eight words) and “Repeal Oregon’s sanctuary law” (four words) are both poorly thought out. The former is too long, even though it uses a strong contrast. The latter is both vague and fails to inform potential voters (not everyone understands what a “sanctuary law” means).
Furthermore, the use of the word “sanctuary” could have actually been detrimental in communicating the Yes on 105 message. In the common vernacular English, a “sanctuary” is a religious place of worship. It is not a hideout for fugitives, or a den of criminals. To many, the word “sanctuary” has a positive connotation (think a “wildlife sanctuary”).
Historically, the so-called “sanctuary movement” originated in a group of liberal Mainline Protestant churches who shielded Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum-seekers from the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. The sanctuary movement used a decidedly religious message and appealed to people’s conscience and humanity. The Yes on 105 campaign really needed to invent its own alternative word to evoke a more negative emotion toward illegal aliens. Because the campaign (as well as President Trump and his allies) instead kept referring to Oregon as a “sanctuary state,” the word “sanctuary” itself has become a politically loaded and devisive word with strong emotions on both sides of the debate. Accordingly, I surmise many conservative religious people who are otherwise supportive of law and order may have been alienated by the campaign’s message.
No on 105: Oregonians United Against Profiling
The No on 105 campaign, originally organized as Oregonians United Against Profiling (when the ballot measure was still referred to as IP-22 pending approval by the Oregon Secretary of State), focused its message on upholding “Oregon’s values” of “fairness” and to prevent racial profiling, the very reason for ORS 181A.820’s existence.
Importantly, campaign did not make the ballot measure about undocumented immigrants; instead, it emphasized the negative impact racial profiling would have on the U.S. citizens of color and immigrants alike.
To the No on 105 campaign, it was about combating racism and Donald Trump’s white supremacist agenda. Voters overwhelmingly agreed with them, seeing this ballot measure as a referendum on Trumpism and an act of resistance against the president and the larger “MAGA” movement.
The campaign also learned the lessons from the failed Yes on Measure 88 campaign (2014), in which Oregon’s immigrant rights movement packaged the proposed Oregon Drivers Card law into a confusing campaign ostensibly to promote “road safety” while wasting the entire campaign on making a daily YouTube video series featuring sob stories of undocumented immigrants. In 2014, the political situation was very different: progressivism appeared to be on its pinnacle following the wave of community organizing inspired by Occupy Wall Street; President Barack Obama was considering an executive order to offer a temporary legal status for the DREAMers. There was a growing resentment toward immigrants in general, outside the radical leftist activist circle. Measure 88 failed by a phenomenal margin, with people in the close-in Portland the only ones supporting it.
From the start, the No on 105 campaign chose the high-contrast pair of blue (#006786) and orange (#ff8202), which are close to being complemetary colors. A strong, bold sans-serif typeface is used across the board, unlike the Yes campaign whose use of typefaces is inconsistent (and CG Omega is a weak typeface).
The dominance of blue in branding has a wide appeal. Many businesses use blue for their brands (for example, Facebook, Chase Bank, Pepsi, Walmart). In the language of American politics, blue is also associated with the Democratic Party, and by extension, liberalism (except when it is used in the context of red, white, and blue, which could also be of the Republican Party candicates and conservatives).
Earlier in this campaign, they released two posters (shown above): “Oregon is our home” and “In Oregon, we believe in fairness.” Both are typical feel-good ads, but I was seriously concerned about their effectiveness outside the progressive bubble and the social-justice liberal churches. Part of the problem with these two posters is the over-vagueness of the words such as “fairness” and “home.” Notably, both sides of this ballot measure claim ownership of “fairness” and “home.” To the Yes on 105 camp, it is unfair to give “special protection for law-breakers” (actual words heard on a conservative radio talk show). Likewise, they believe a repeal of “sanctuary” law keeps their home safe. The two opposing versions of fairness and “home” thus competed. The posters lacked a strong visual impact and recognizability, something every political ad needs.
In the end, the campaign wised up and came up with “No on 105. Not safe. Not just. Not Oregon.” Succinct slogans are very effective and pack punch. By saying “not Oregon,” the campaign also positioned No on 105 as a key part of the state’s resistance against the Trump agenda.
Ballot Measure 106
The Measure 106 sought to end public funding on abortion procedures. In addition to defunding organizations such as Planned Parenthood, it could have prevented Oregon Health Plan and public employees’ health insurance plans from paying for abortions.
Yes on 106: Oregon Right to Life
The Yes on 106 campaign has an excellent design on its advertising. Among all the ballot measure campaign ads this year, I think this one has the best design.
The consistent use of white letters against light blue creates high visibility and ready public recognition. The stylized letters 106 prominently occupies the center of most law signs and billboards, with the italicized word “yes” in the middle. The light blue (#0075cf) is decidedly a “feminine” color, and for the pro-life Roman Catholics (the sizable portion of its support base), it evokes the imagery of Virgin Mary (whose iconography generally features her in a light blue mantle). According to Catholic publication Aleteia, the blue symbolizes “transcendence, mystery, and the divine.”
The design also features a heart symbol, which is an universal visual language of love.
The slogan, “Your money, your choice” is a very clever one, turning the popular perception of pro-life movement as “anti-choice” upside down. The message behind this slogan is that taxpayers with religious conscience are forcibly compelled to subsidize something their faith cannot allow. The merit of such an argument aside, the idea that voting yes on 106 is about “your choice” (and thus your freedom) is a potent one. (As an aside, I wonder if some voters were inadvertently misled into thinking that Yes on 106 is the “pro-choice” side and thus supporting women’s right to abortion. This is something I will probably never find out, but I am curious if there was a deceptive intent behind this slogan.)
No on 106: Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, et al.
The No on 106 used the slogan, “No cuts to care.” The underlying message is that Measure 106 was about healthcare, not about abortion. It was “reproductive freedom,” not abortion.
Choice of words is always very important in branding and marketing. When the opponents call abortion a murder, shifting the language to “care” (as in healthcare, but also the implicit connotation of care as nurturing) also shifted the perception from death to life.
Likewise, the clear messaging here communicates what was at stake: cuts to healthcare if you are receiving state-funded plans, whether you are on the low-income Oregon Health Plan or if you are a government employee.
The visuals are dominated by two shades of purple (#9e1f63 and #201b6d), colors that historically are associated with feminism. In a typical visual language of brands, purple is often associated with creativity, artsiness, and imagination.
Like Yes on 106, the design is high-contrast, but it uses bold, all-capital typeface. If Yes on 106‘s light-blue brand communicates one version of femininity, the No on 106 brand does a vastly different version of it: bold, strong women standing up for their freedom.
As such was the case with Measure 105, the campaign rode the anti-Trump resistance wave. Interestingly, the number of No on 106 voters (1,140,034 or 64.45 percent) and No on 105 voters (1,115,709 or 63.31 percent) are very close.