Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review || Branding Obamessiah | The Rise of an American Idol by Mark Edward Taylor

Hi Global Citizens,

Here I write a book review for Branding Obamessiah: The rise of an American idol by Mark Edward Taylor. My review reads more as an academic reflection (i.e., it's long). Be free to jump to sections of interest, or enjoy my photography.


Considering how communication strategy informs campaigns, I reviewed Branding Obamessiah: The rise of an American idol by Mark Edward Taylor. I learned of this book via the Religious Communication Association's ListServ and Dr. Quentin Schultze, who with Robert Banning co-edited the book. I had read Schultze's (2000) Communicating for life prior to my Master's program in Summer 2008 and benefited from his framework for communicating as shaloam, or peace.

During that Summer, I blogged elsewhere about communication imperatives and what I noticed as Savior language in at least people's response in the media. Then came the infamous campaign poster assigning hope as the defining virtue for Obama's 2008 campaign. I wrote then that such a heavy virtue siloed in one man would likely lead to disenchantment when the leader, mortal as he is, fell short of such a lofty expectation.

The Disenchantment Blues

As Shapiro and Hacker-Cordón (1999) cautioned, democracy's challenge remains resolving the disparity between promise and disappointment without a heavy-handed centralized control yet with sustained allegiance. 

Unfortunately, American political machinery for all its impressive glossy glory risking leaves people singing the disenchanted blues. I suggest a follow-up study on people's perception of or experience with disenchantment during the campaigns in 2012 compared to 2008. Disenchantment bodes poorly for democracy as it often leaves people blaming their leaders and withdrawing their contribution (Cha & Edmondson, 2006). Campaign icons such as Obamessiah risk widening the gap between democracy's promise and constituent disenchantment.

As far as I'm concerned, I prefer silent vice to ostentatious virtue.

On a deeper level it bothered me that people in a democratic society depended on one person to deliver them from their troubles, which had only just begun what with the snowballing of the global recession, the housing market crash, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Then I sensed an epic fail to democracy, or the idea that "We the People" contribute to our destiny, or if not that, our quality of life. I wondered how it possible that a candidate could succeed in his term with such an idealized beginning, and how the American people would respond.  

Also, it can be difficult for a leader to influence a machine hell-bent on controversy, party lines, factions, and debate.  I come to like the man, how the leader thinks, but ask people to contribute their part to make a democratic republic work instead of hype a person to messianic status as a means to check out.

Democratic Musing;
Democratic Risk

Performance overlaps with culture and politics (see Conquergood, 1985; 1991; 1998; 2002). Consider the benefits and risks of performing narrative, such as Obamessiah's iconic images, and the performance's impact on democracy.

Democracy does not sustain itself; it must be sustained and cared for by the people who allegedly govern. Elshtain (2000) warns that modern democratic citizens have become self-pleasers "and self-pleasers cannot sustain institutional forms" (p. 39). Vanity can please itself in an image. How do communication arts benefit or risk democracy given self-centric narrative?

Herein lies the risk in campaigning: reducing constituent responsibility to donations, volunteerism, and even brand development stops short of inquiring of them what of democratic process do they wish to see.

Experience Teaches

In recent years I've consulted grassroots campaign leaders twice: one municipal leader running for re-election, and one everyday yet uncommon citizen who petitioned his city regarding the location of the public library. In both campaigns, I advised candidates to embed their vision into their campaign strategy. That change which you want to see realized, now do. That process which you want to scale, now do. Do not wait until the campaign ends to transition your platform to your term. Campaigns don't end really; officials campaign by their decisions and actions during their term. They always campaign whether or not they observe this progression of accountability.

The Pitch Persuades

Taylor (2011), borrowing from Reeves' 1950s "Unique selling proposition" (cited in p. 27), correctly noted that the Obama campaign changed how We the People do politics. The Obama campaign maintained and committed its single and unique pitch to memory making the campaign stand out as a marketing and sales wonder. Note that pitch, marketing, and communicate, but do not necessarily imply veracity or truthfulness. Certainly campaigns and politicians alike can communicate with better consistency and follow-through with their pitch instead of the campaign routine soundbytes, and pitch repetition persuades.

Did the Obama campaign intend to pitch hope, or did they perceive this virtue from the polls? Did the message come from the campaign consultants and Obama himself, or did the audience, the People, brand Obama with their ideal? I suspect a little of both, and that, too, made the campaign unique in that it broadcasted and engaged.

Send in the... Consultants

I hear, "Send in the clowns," and that's my cue. I laugh awkwardly at my own joke as I consult organizations on communication strategy, narrative, communication and leadership research, and intermedia. In intermedia, or social media plus artwork online (e.g., photos, audiovisual, infographs, etc.), organizations need to produce and share their content, and then engage their constituents with their brand development. 

This process, called production, integration, and engagement, unfolds as emergent and digitizes storytelling. The Obama campaign imparted hope if not in its successful and appropriate use of intermedia. I say hope because after reviewing municipal and candidate websites, the political landscape needs to improve by utilizing intermedia to engage constituents.

Another hopeful result of the Obama campaign includes people participating in the political process. My candidate wanted to engage diverse and traditionally underrepresented citizens and potential citizens, or residents, in political process. So we started those relationships with outreach efforts for his campaign. The political environment needs to be so adaptable and able to flourish in diversity.

To Save or not to Save

So Obama succeeded, whether intentionally or not, in amassing religious-like support in 2008. What's the big deal? Politicians need the media and to brand their campaign.

For starters, there's risk in violating other virtues such as responsibility, veracity (truthfulness), authenticity (vs. hypocrisy, or mismatched narrative and action), efficacy (results). At worst, there's risk, building from Freire (1970; 1994), in treating people as containers for information by requiring them to submit to a narrative at the expense of their autonomy and empowerment.

On the latter, I return to embalmed Saviorism, or when people reduce their power by depending on someone else's promise to save them. This codependency happens elsewhere, such as in health, or whenever people elevate someone else to expert, hero, or savior status. Democracy needs people ready and able to self-govern together. Generations ago Parker Follett (1918) demystified democracy:  organizing group will into action.

Communicative Action,
or Change is the Reform

As far as Obama's policy, there remain two points from which I depart: his response to Wall Street, and lumping a tax for health into other needed health reform. The former was a missed opportunity as explained in PBS Frontline's Money, Power, and Wall St. The latter a seeming market choice seemingly supporting insurance companies instead of holding them accountable (save the pre-existing conditions clause). Reform efforts missed the mark.  However, solutions morph into dialectics of probabilities.  A plan can foil.

Soft reforms upfront will proffer long-term gains. For instance, I recommend reforming how we communicate, deliver, and organize health primarily by designing chart documentation systems that better involve the constituent. I use empowerment language and suggest a change in medical discourse. Note the empowerment and shared contribution ethea embedded in the design.

Holos, from where we derive health, implies bringing together multiple frames for a cohesive and unified whole. This sense of well-being involves more than "fact" and "biology" and "medical" language that makes certain genres of science into a health "care" hegemony that often reduces quality of care, life, and outcomes. Note that of the industrialized countries, the US ranks poorly for health. The iconic cry to Hope coincides with a break in Holos. Not necessarily good.

Credibility amid the Politics of Reframing

Yet as I learned with my doctorate applications: Statement of intent and purpose must speak in tandem to action. I must now do that which I claim I want or will do. Credibility demands more than communication sleuths and marketing sages can muster in an image. Images do not represent, record, or contain a person; the person does not embody the image, either. The image reframes (Phelan, 1997). A published text becomes available to a public. The publicity plus reframing constitutes a political act.

Kouzes and Posner (2003) wrote one of my favorite leadership books, Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. They remind readers to deliver consistent results and convey compassion while living true to their credo. Defying compassion, idols fail to suffer with followers. Building from Russell (2004), performance narratologists and leaders can do better in compassion as participating with constituent ritual.

In a manner of speaking, Obama kept his campaign promise to hope in that we still hope, or at least we've reason to hope. We still hope as we suffer still. If there's reason to boast, boast in the object of hope, but not hope's cause.

Virtuos Dialectics,
or the Benefit + Burden of Virtue

In any case, I return to my initial point: the main challenge in the Obama 2008 campaign bore its success. Such is virtue, which often rises and falls as a dialectic. Any virtue carries a flip side. We know hope by lack, and we need hope to endure suffering, but, alas, adversity marks humankind.  For me, it remains a leadership imperative to contribute together to benefit and raise a healthy society.

Virtue's Irony;
Vitue's Deception

The most widely distributed version of
Shepard Fairey's Obama "HOPE" poster
Other versions used the words "change" and "progress."
Does codependency instead of independence now define us? Does the emphasis on virtue, hope or otherwise, cloud a more systemic change? Is it possible for virtue to deceive?

I remain concerned about the loss of rights, althgough I'm glad that Obama rejected the Keystone Pipeline: the right to be free from, and from unfair taxation of, seizure and unwarranted searches (TSA), the right to a just and swift trial (National Defense Authorization Act), the health tax, which I write elsewhere effectively reduces gains to access (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), rising costs to education amid budget cuts, lack of clarity in policy for Afghanistan, and finally a failure to reform Wall St. Note how campaign virtue conflicts with policy or even the reality that many people and interests and dynamics conflict with even the best intentions.  However, I remain hopeful for our president to lead by his unique style with storytelling and inviting unique solutions, a style which matches my own.

Why do we hope? We hope because we need to hope. I trust that's not the message the 2008 Obama campaign intended to unfold. However, in nature of the pitch, make it until it's no longer wanted or needed. Now onto the term in a rigid system entrenched in debate as a smokescreen for the denial effect, or that over-rationalization and debate ad tedium instead of acting with an appeal to urgency for urgent problems. Yet with that urgency we must slow our thinking long enough to make good decisions.  American politics fails at its polarization. Again I suggest embedding vision and virtue for one's term into the campaign and then pitching consistent decisions that follow from that vision and virtue, but then that assumes people want to collaborate with a shared and vested interest in our future.  Even if the president wants to make good on Hope, his power of persuasion only goes so far as people opt-in, or, better yet, contribute instead of complain and criticize.

Conversion Funnel

These failures hinge on one American value that campaign marketers call a conversion funnel: money. A conversion funnel is what the marketing campaign wants or intends as a result of the campaign. For our purposes, money, or donations, comprise one conversion funnel. Votes consist of another. Monetary gain or at least management, and ideally stewardship, constitutes such a core American value that we even align our economic philosophy, if not equivocate or confuse, with democracy.

The main problem I see with Obama as president versus Obamessiah lies in the passivity of a people wanting to be led only so far as someone else does all the work for them. Sound harsh? Here evidence-based analysis must first answer to different virtues or concepts such as veracity, fidelity, community, and holos, or my favorite, "All things are permissable, but not all things benefit" (1 Cor. 6:12; 10:23).  What will you do today to benefit the common good?  

Of my professional communication I ask, Does it benefit?

Politicians and constituents alike must ask that question, too.  Note that I said constituents and not voters. Voting participates, yes, but democracy needs people involved on a more regular basis on the ground and in developing concept.

Narrating Story;
Narrating Self

As a writer and photographer, I care about creativity, borrowing from Rogers (1989; 1994), as a process of becoming. We develop via our creative contribution. Taylor (2011) notes Obama's "visual messianism," or images that match religious symbols, such as beams of lighting surrounding his head (p. 178). 

My thesis research applied performance and narrative frameworks to studying photographs and poems that I produced on a blog during and after Grandma's end of life rituals. People as storying creatures create and propogate symbols to reinforce ritual and to create a narrative of who they are as situated in a larger system (Bruner & Turner, 1986; Turner, 1987). 

Boorstin (1987), who wrote The image: A guide to psuedo-events in America, cautioned readers of believing their intermediated selves that they "live in them" (cited in Taylor, 2011, p. 180). Whereas, I find more appropriate the notion of reframing, this warning assumes that person departs from image (1) and that the image is a static object (2). Chvasta's (2003) hint of the living text and other emergent concepts suggest otherwise. 

It helps to understand the embeddedness, cohesion, if not desired unity, of a communicated text with its creator. The communicator designs the message and becomes it, but not in a static sense. The crime occurs not in the imaging, but in the case of hypocrisy, misuse of imaged power, or lack of promised outcome.

Intermediated Hype or Hysteria?

Image via  Scott T. Hong (above)
Hype or hysteria bodes nothing new in the techno-cultural realm. Hype, extreme repetition and elevation, or hysteria as extreme fear or panic, in the least cue an inaccurate belief or risk an erroneous response to a given phenomona including intermediated political icons. Did Obama intend for the hype or hysteria around his religi-fied intermediated persona?

Bloggers asking "is Barack Obama the Messiah?" leaving me to ask if writers and analysts speak more in tongue-in-cheek or authentic belief, sarcasm or wit, hype or hysteria. Meanwhile, the Politiken, a Danish newspaper, casually claims, "Obama is, of course, greater than Jesus as the blogger all-caps [sic], "... A LIGHT WILL SHINE THROUGH THAT WINDOW, A BEAM OF LIGHT WILL COME DOWN UPON YOU, YOU WILL EXPERIENCE AN EPIPHANY... AND YOU WILL SUDDENLY REALIZE THAT YOU MUST GO TO THE POLLS AND VOTE FOR OBAMA" (Obama, New Hampshire, 2008 Jan 7). Nevermind the host of Obamessiah religious iconic images via Google.

There's enough narrative to support Obama's use or presence of messianic verse, which for at least two religions amounts to blasphemy if not heresy. Religious communication in campaigns need be more respectful. However, people can respond with their own hype or hysteria, too. On the latter, I prefer to confirm people through developmental interviewing, or get to know them on their terms to connect them with their purpose or task. Remember that the media frames personas, too, and that a media or public persona may not necessarily define a person.

Intermediated Identity Crisis?

Certainly this belief borders delusion if the image fails to support behavior, or what some might loosely call "reality." I depart from that concern, borrowing from narrative therapist writers such as Mattingly (1998), noting that narrated and mediated selves, our story, can become a source of healing and empowerment. More than that, the storied self is the self, and without story just as without spirit, we do not exist.

In any case political imaging carries a nuanced impression management. That much I know from my campaign consulting. For instance, in weddings it's desirable to photograph images of wine. That shows celebration and wealth. Whereas, in politics, photographing alcohol within a candidate's grasp, if not held or even present at the event, can be a no-no depending on the message the candidate wants to convey and the demographic the candidate wants to reach.

Deify Leaders;
Reduce Self

Barring virtuating a political candidate as a deity, Taylor (2011) aptly concludes that the Obamessiah campaign responded to a millenarian movement. For what did people hope in Obama? That can only be known by inquiring. The First Lady provided a clue on the Hugh Hewitt Show, "'I am married to the only person in this race who has a chance at healing this nation'" (cited in p. 328). She may well be right. I like her emphasis on healing. One leader can make a difference provided that the parties work together and that people lead, too, as a way of life.

With the upcoming presidential election, the campaign season trump sounds, yet gone speaks the savior verse from the Obama camp whose final saving grace falls to charisma and perhaps a genuine belief among many Americans that we do, after all, need and want change. Perhaps this perception made election history, again.


Essential to messianic promise: The hoped for coming as a deliverance. Hope: Indeed a virtue. With any talk of messiadom, it must follow that a Savior saves ________ from ________. Those questions must be answered.

The only aspect with which I feel disturbed even four years after the Obamessiah campaign: The religious overlay of performing as a persecuted and evolved candidate who referred to his supporters as "believers" (Ajami, 2008, Oct. 30, cited in p. 333). The irony of course: amid much global cristophobia and freedom from, not for, religion exists, even according to the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom report. Nevermind that we also need an internal religious freedom report. So leaders use religious icon, discourse, and narrative to elect to office, but what do they do to protect religious freedom?

As a Christian I believe in one messiah because that Messiah physically rose from the dead (John 20; Mark 16), ascended to heaven, and promised to return a second time. Jesus' pitch aligned with his actions. Jesus empathized with humans and identified with God by being part man and part GodJesus suffered rejection and death.

Enduring such suffering Jesus did not retaliate, but asked God to forgive those who wronged him. Besides the obvious, Obamessiah's flaw amounts to the marked disparity between idol and messiah, and barring that, the undesirableness of walking the path required

In other words, we must moderate whatever drives our ego, our sense of worth, and our power of position, whatever that may be, with compassion, empathetic understanding, and confirming each other.  Embedding these latter virtues in political process can moderate the yearning for hope with a social interaction. Hoping in a human being to restore healing fails when we ourselves fail to be that change that we expect of others, including the Obamessiah persona.  We fail to be that person who contributes healing, or answers the hope with humility wrought by a shared understanding of our humanness. The recent global and domestic violence and instability exacerbates or flatlines our yearning. Key to our success involves mobilizing a spirit of volunteerism that engages people with everyday social challenges via their energizing passion, talents, and skills. For instance, I admire Obama for his writing because I apply that modality to initiate beneficial change.

A human does not an idol make. A leader a human can do. Leaders must demonstrate the very virtues that they espouse. Politicians and constituents alike do well to douse with a dose of humility and resist the lure brought on by media's conversion funnel to win campaigns by flatlining them to agree/disagree polarities, which at the heart depend on compliance. Democratic principles need resistance, and that, my friends, requires a different, a dialogic, paradigm.

Switching to Life

Campaign imaging and intermediated personas, messiah or not, purvey political power. To resist hysteria or hype, it helps to know the flipside benefit of intermedia: Life. As Chvasta (2003) observed, online texts live each time a person interacts with them. Blau 1982/3 noted that performance rehearses life-mortality. Schultze (2000) rightly explained community development as needed communicative reasons, actions, and desired outcomes.

I recommend developing training resources for communicators to communicate as community developers and civic leaders. Indeed Obamessiah built a movement as Taylor (2011) describes. Obama's campaign slogan, "Forward," builds from 2008's messianic verse. Forward to what? Once again, the campaign slogan lacks an object. Let the grammarians note. However, slogans and campaigns only define leaders when they, as I advise mine, embed their vision into their campaign strategy. Why wait until the campaign ends to begin their mission? Let the media demands step aside so that leaders can move in this healthy and responsible direction.

Build a Nation of

We can contribute to an active democracy that aligns its imaging with human concerns. 

Coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.

For this campaign, I suggest returning to the tried-and-true gutsy and rugged Americanism that remembers the virtue of each one contributing to our own healing and unity as a nation with the unique pitch this timearound as sharing and innovating, or changing how we design our systems throughout, from economics, to sub/urban housing infrastructure, to health communication, to political campaigning. Stop depending on one person to fix our problems, and instead hold that one person accountable to bringing to pass that which he promised, or better yet, that change which we desire to know. Create a volunteer movement that brings people together to solve social challenges and improve democratic practice.

We contribute together.

Drawing from the meaning of the prefix, "co-", in communication and contribution. Let those two behaviors two sink in and overlap until they identify a new breed of Americans. Of couse in saying that I'm being dramatic. I know that people communicate and contribute change. I mean the verb, and not the noun.

Moral of the Story

Me working on a campaign in 2011 (above)
Image courtesy Zacharia York.
Delusions of grandeur may well be forced. The risk comes about with missteps, which increase disenchantment. Disenchantment leads to decreased participation (Cha & Edmondson, 2006). The cure for disenchantment in democracy: involvement. Volunteer. Serve. Locate your vocation by reflecting on how your adversity shapes compassion and wisdom, and by that wisdom apply your skills and gifts to a sector of concern. Contribute the desired change. Challenge unhealthy norms. Stop pointing to a mortal messiah, and reach in to reach out. Be change.

Contributing your involvement reduces the need to depend on an idol or image to save. Contribution scales, too. You may improve quality of life for people for years to come.


I recommend Taylor's (2011) read as an important contribution to understanding how discourse, rhetoric, and marketing impact political decision-making, whether by the constituents, candidates, or media. His work stands out from media's influence on politics to delving into the specifics of the campaign process that led to the limelight.

As a communication professional, anything less sheds a bad light on my discipline. As Chvasta (2007) noted, we truly must remember praxis, or application, in the digital age. For my part, Taylor's work reminded me to be conscientious in the benefits and risks of winning political campaigns via the communication arts.

Thank you for reading,

Coda and Ask

We will do well if we heed Parker Follett's advice for leader and follower alike to heed the "invisible leader," or our common purpose. Perhaps identifying a shared vision ought be that next step in political campaigning. Inquire and engage constituents and candidates to brand the shared vision, then share it.

Seek to contribute healthy leadership.

What about you? What are your impressions of the Obama campaign in 2008? Do you think Taylor is on or off by identifying religious overlay? What results or communication do you want to see in the 2012 campaign? For what virtue will you cast your vote this time around? Why?

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