OK, so the New Yorker cover boasting an Oval Office portrait of the militant Obamas provided smokin’ hot fodder for the media for a couple of days, until the frenzied pack moved on to reporting that Jesse Jackson also used the “n” word, before he made the cutting-off-the-nuts gesture.
Meanwhile, within this world of minute media issues that are sensationalized enough to fill a full 24-hour news cycle, are there any lessons to be learned from this latest New Yorker kerfuffle? No. 1: I think that the magazine’s advertisers should be thrilled. Any cover that through sheer cleverness generates this kind of attention is to be worshiped. (George Lois’ exhibition of Esquire covers from the late-’60s at MoMA was a good reminder of how no one is lobbing incendiary bombs these days.)
Indeed, in this economy, with magazines scrambling madly merely to stay alive, I’d like to think that talented people who work hard to express something substantive made these publications.
So kudos to the New Yorker for putting the “The Politics of Fear,” as the cover is called, with all of its upsetting realities, on the table. I think it’s an amusing illustration for a piece that dissects all the prejudice and misinformation that is out there. It looks to me as if it started with the drawing of the couple, and it got sent back to the illustrator with directions to make it “even more over the top. Throw in a burning flag and a portrait of Osama.” The burning flag in the cozy fireplace is particularly chilling because it reminds me of the terrorist version of Goodnight Moon. That said, I don’t think it works as a cover, and the concept never really rises to satire.
I like the drawing, especially the Angela Davis/Black Panther’s 1960s-style Afro that the illustrator, Barry Blitt, gave to Michelle, (as opposed to her real-life, rather conservative Jackie-O-ish flip). It’s powerful. Combine that with the skinny camouflage pants, with the Army boots and you have a total contemporary runway look. (You might have to lose the AK-47 and the ammo belt, but then again, maybe not.) Just this week in The New York Times, in fact, there was a big ad for a Manolo Blahnik sandal done in the very same camouflage material (though it did have a four-inch heel). So her outfit is slammin’ and clever.
Here’s the problem, though. Michelle is satirized, but the Barack drawing is practically a Xerox of an existing photo, showing the presidential contender on a visit in Africa, complete with headdress and sandals. And the fist bump between the couple actually happened in a very public venue, and was replayed everywhere. So this mix of things is what makes it so insidious — the lies and the ignorant smears, along with the on-the-record poses and photos. The mind doesn’t know what to make of the combination, and all hell breaks out.
As a cover, it’s attention getting, yes. But as inspired satire, that takes the visual image to another level of metaphor, it falls far short.
Barbara Lippert is Adweek’s advertising critic.