Governor Phil Murphy has released a series of short promotional videos on his Twitter account, touting his various goals and achievements so far. Here, I will consider the advertisements as art objects and not policy, and talk about their successes and failures as such.
The “Raising the Minimum Wage” ad
Shot in a documentary style, this ad follows a woman (“My friends and affiliates call me Miss Cookie”) who works in a school cafeteria, earning minimum wage. She describes the difficulties of balancing all her needs on what she earns (“Am I gonna buy food, or am I gonna pay PSE&G?”), while wearing a purple shirt that identifies her as a union member. It is shot in what we assume is her home; it appears to be an apartment. We are told stunningly little about this woman or her situation; we’re just presented with a nice-enough-seeming woman who is struggling financially, and with Murphy’s solution to all of her woes: a rise in the minimum wage.
Critiquing a video like this is tricky, as one assumes this is a real woman, telling her real story. It’s hard to talk about it in a critical way and not feel as though you are critiquing the woman herself, which feels profoundly cruel. But this is, in part, what makes these ads so effective – they are essentially critique-proof, in a smartly manipulative way. Oh, your heart is made of stone? Sure, go on, beat up Miss Cookie.
Note “manipulative” is not said pejoratively: all good advertisement, and propaganda, plays upon the viewers’ emotions, only showing them one possible outcome that reflects what they’re trying to sell. A good advertisement doesn’t show you a moderately scuffed-up floor and go on to talk about the pros and cons of different cleaning fluids that you might or might not buy. It begins by showing you a filthy floor (say, middle school soccer practice in the rain and the whole team comes over for cookies – some wholesome scenario like that), and then the only product that will restore it to pristine condition. The ad can’t end with “so, buy Pine-Sol, or Ajax, or whatever. Seriously, there’s lots of ways to look at this. Whatever works for you!” It has to leave you feeling as though you are a terrible spouse/parent/citizen if you don’t buy their product, specifically, and start cleaning, immediately. And if you don’t leap into action right now and run to the store, your children will get sick, your pets will die, and the neighbors will know. Buy Pine-Sol.
We see a similar device in play in this video. We are presented with a problem (this woman making ends meet) and a solution (raise minimum wage). The problem is one many of us can relate to, but also makes us feel guilty because this woman has it just a little worse than we do. And then there is the ridiculously simple solution presented, to make all those bad feelings go away. It succeeds as agit-prop.
However, it’s interesting to note one way the video totally fails is that it offers no clear call to action. All successful advertising implores the viewer to do something – to buy a product, to complete an action, something. We’ve become a little numb to it in conventional advertising, but check out how these WWI/WWII posters involve civilians in the war effort:
Now, did saving fat and not eating wheat actually help the soldiers during the war? Maybe; I’m going to guess that the help it provided was negligible at best. But it gave people a role in the war, even from a very safe distance. It made them feel involved and like they were helping.
Murphy presents himself as the person who has the plan to solve the state’s problems – he alone will solve it. He probably means to do this to present himself as a strong leader, but he should realize – people like to help. Anyone watching this video and moved by this woman’s story is going to want to do something to help her out, so – what is that? Call your local elected official? Sign a petition? Give the people rooting for your side something to do. It makes them feel part of the solution.
Today we are 100 days closer
All of Murphy’s videos make notable use of text on the screen, which doubles both as closed-captioning and as a formal, artistic device. The text works both to make his speech easy to understand (especially since so many of us view this sort of thing on mobile devices with the sound off) and to amplify and clarify his message. Here is a shot from his 100 days video:
Ugh, that font. It’s like a huge bite has been taken out of the “1” in “100.” More on that in a bit.
The use of text in this video (and in all of his videos, but especially this one), reminded me of the late, great graphic designer Tibor Kalman. And if I had to point to one thing to compare Murphy’s video to formally, it would be the video for the Talking Heads song “Nothing But Flowers,” which features Kalman’s typography and art direction in striking form. The video will be familiar to kids who grew up with 80s/90s “alt” rock, even if Kalman’s name is not:
Kalman states: “What we really tried to do was integrate the words and the images very thoroughly, because we’re very interested in this notion of how you combine words and images more powerfully than just here’s the picture and here’s the text.” [Kalman, How magazine, 1993.]
This is what Murphy is doing, but a pared down and simpler version. It’s smart. It makes the video understandable to hearing-impaired people and those watching it with the sound off, but does so in a formal and aesthetic way, so as to make it pleasing to watch. It pushes his ideas.
The words bolded throughout Murphy’s ad are:
Stronger, fairer, changes, impact, fixing, revamping a broken mass transit system, fully funding our public schools, create opportunity, control property taxes, protecting our environment, our economy, our finances in order, New Jersey, path, honestly meeting our obligations, whole new vision for this state, stronger and fairer, New Jersey, opportunity, abundant, available, put on your own track shoes, 100 days closer, stronger, fairer.
Listening to the ad, as opposed to watching it, little things jump out of you. Little, stupid things, but they linger. Do people really pronounce “finances” like that? To me, it’s FI-nance-es. Murphy says “fi-NANCE-es,” which makes me weirdly uncomfortable. Who is this man we elected? What the hell?
You get the sense watching this that Murphy is not a comfortable speaker. He speaks in a strange and halting way, flashing a smile uncomfortably now and then, as if prompted by an advisor in a hand-scrawled note on his speech, “<insert smile here>.” He pronounces each word, slowly and deliberately, as if trying to be a very good boy. This is not a natural politician. This is not a natural anything. He’s just an awkward guy. We are made to feel awkward by watching him.
As if to prove my theory that he really wants us to read the text and not actually look at him, the video blurs out at certain points:
Font choice is very important because we tend to see the words before we actually read them. Which is to say, we see them as aesthetic objects with their own connotations first, before we actually take a moment to consider what they’re trying to tell us. This means choosing a font can be one of the most difficult decisions a designer makes.
Here’s a perfect example: I reworked the “Today we are 100 days closer” screenshot in some different fonts. I did it because I hated the font in the original, but I struggled trying to think of an alternative. It was hard. “Fixing” the problem wasn’t as simple as just swapping out for a different font.
First I tried the simple, commonly used, and barely-a-font at all Century Schoolbook. It’s ok, but so airy and open that I like the Murphy team’s version better:
Chalkduster is a font that comes standard in most Mac design packages, and it’s favored by Hudson County school board and city council members running on a “let’s support the public schools” platform, whatever that means. We get lots of mailings using this font. I hate Chalkduster. But it’s interesting how differently the text reads in it:
We could have Our Groovy Governor Who Tries Too Hard with a font like Keep On Truckin’ (this could maybe be useful when, or if, we ever get our pot announcement):
It’s the exact same text as before, but it’s starting to feel increasingly unserious and awful as we go. This is how quickly things can deteriorate with a bad font.
Or lastly, my personal favorite: Murphy as that “Hell Yeah I Remember City Gardens” Guy (please do not do this) in the font All Ages:
Now, I’m doing this very quickly and not entirely seriously, but you get my point. The font isn’t perfect, but it could have been far worse – and there are dozens of far worse examples happening all the time in NJ politics. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either.
The policies put forth by Governor Murphy can certainly be debated, but as objects, his advertising holds up. He may not be the most charismatic speaker or have the best solutions possible, but in terms of messaging, he presents us with slick, easy solutions, communicated clearly and understandably. For political ads – especially political ads in New Jersey – they are solid and good.
 The ad closes with the hashtag #FIGHTFOR15 so maybe they want us to tweet about this? It’s not really stated.
 Does she have medical expenses? Children to support? A spouse with health problems? Student debt? A predatory mortgage? An awful landlord? No idea. Raise the minimum wage, the ad tells us, and all her problems go away.
 All fonts from dafont.com