Once again, the Confederate flag incites people with its terrible power. Which is what it was designed to do.

June 22, 2015

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I’ve always been passionate about posters, billboards and signs in general. So much so that I’ve given talks on the subject to various ad clubs, conferences, even at the revered Palais in Cannes. Because I’m in advertising, these discussions were invariably about out of home advertising. In the beginning, I framed my talks around the Altoids case study – a testament to the power of posters. The Altoids’ campaign has moved on (where I wonder?) and so have I. But the passion continues.

Billboards and posters can be the most effective persuaders known to man. They are certainly the oldest. Since man first scribbled on rock, signs and word pictures have defined our kind for better and for worse.

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Alas, we now have a case of the latter, which has drawn our country into emotional debate. It involves the Confederate flag, a totem of the Civil War. In the wake of the horrifying murders of innocent black parishioners in Charleston by one depraved white man, calls have again risen to remove this flag from public view. The primary argument being that the flag is a symbol of slavery and its ugly history. Given current events –in Ferguson, New York, Oakland and now Charleston- the Confederate flag is more polarizing than ever. Those that wish to keep the flag in prominence have their arguments, the best of which (I suppose) might be to serve as a reminder to the many lives lost fighting behind it during the Civil War.

Yet, I purposefully chose not to research this debate, or that flag. I write this with my ignorance uncorrupted by studied discourse of either side. I only have my visceral reaction to the power in that symbol, same as most everyone else.

The distinction is important. For most who experience this flag know little about it either. I’m betting 99% of every Bubba who hangs one in the back window of his pickup truck doesn’t know who created the flag and when, let alone what the various insignia on it even mean. They just like what it projects about them. Herein lies the secret to its power. Signs are not meant to encourage research. Quite the contrary. They are symbols, meant to transmit an idea (good or evil) to a lot of people. The Confederate flag incites us because that is what it was supposed to do. And still does. The Swastika works the same way. When it was relevant so did the raised fist of Black Power. On a happier note, Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster helped get President Obama elected.

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Signs arouse us. When I was a kid, growing up in the Lake View neighborhood in Chicago, the Latin Eagles and Latin Kings reigned over the alleyways and street corners. There graffiti terrified me, causing me to haul ass to school, my lunch money stuffed down my underwear. While I hardly respected what those symbols represented I behaved differently because of them.

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Done well, signs can sell products. They can get men elected. They can also instill fear and hatred and whether you believe the Confederate flag should be removed from public view or not that is exactly what it is doing.

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