The Composite Sum of Obama’s Face

06 Dec 2008
December 6, 2008

Beauty has always been a product of the social attitudes of the time. During the Renaissance voluptuous Rafaelesque women were the standard aspiration while in the 1960s, and certainly today, thin –even an emaciated look– is often what people admire.

While waiting for the subway after work yesterday I found a new back-lighted dental ad at my usual standing spot. Quick! Who does this man look like?

Is it a coincidence this model reminds me of Barack Obama? His election was more than the total electoral votes he garnered –some even calling it a post-racial social revolution. Oh, our propensity to overstate and overstate prematurely. His election was only a beginning. We’re all still racists. How could we not be, given the importance and effect race has had in our society? We’ve got a long way before race is not the issue. But we did learn this time that something else was more important to most of us when it came to our vote. That’s a watershed.

From his campaign logo to his iconic visage for change, the visual in social politics and contemporary culture is once again on its ascendancy. And it was inevitable that Obama’s “look,” beginning as a political critique, would find its way into advertising.

Right now, this is all about Obama and what political and social changes his administration with usher in. But, ultimately, this will be less about him and more about how we see ourselves. An ad for a Dupont Circle dentist is an interesting beginning.

The couple pictured above could be black or white or a mix of cultures and races. I’m reminded of Nancy Burson’s 1980s computer composite photographs, and her Human Race Machine which allows us to see ourselves as a mix of ethnicities. Yes, this couple could be a composite. Then I look at my own family, a mix of European and Han and Mongol Chinese –our transracial family. Each of us literally comes from a different part of the world. We’re less a composite and more of a sum.

Whether composite or sum, it’s the understated mix that Barack Obama’s presidency heralds. A norm. Expect to see more racially mixed or ambiguous advertisements. High style is often at the forefront of cultural shift. But dental ads are another little step. This isn’t Vogue. Suddenly it will seem as if it’s always been this way. And, in a way, it always has.

Update: Washington’s local NBC affiliate picked up this piece and wrote about it on their Web site. The most interesting part of their reportage was the comments. Most readers felt it must have been a slow news day for the station to write this up. Reading NBC’s post I can see why. Rather than treat the dentist’s advertising photo in the context of a larger cultural identity shift, they chose to write it up with comic overtones: times must be tough if Obama’s looking for a second job. Using humor to talk about serious issues is difficult (especially about people trying to find work). NBC, you might want to stick with reporting facts from now on.

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