The amount of power a simple symbol can hold is truly extraordinary. For 30,000 years, it’s been used to convey language, intention, and power. While its place throughout the course of human history cannot be understated, its influence today is arguably more substantial than at any other point since its creation.
Thanks in large part to newspapers, magazines, television, and the internet, the modern world is oversaturated with symbolism. It’s reached a point where ideology and branding have become intertwined. If someone expects to make it anywhere in essentially any industry, the right name, logo, or slogan can make or break just about anybody. Even politics aren’t immune to this crucial fact. Sometimes just having the right name and slogan, or even the right religion, is all it takes to convince an individual to vote for a certain politician.
Whether it be the logo for Apple, Nike, or McDonald’s, there are immediate correlations that go off in your brain the moment you see certain images. For instance, when you think of technology, there’s a fairly good chance that the first thing that’ll pop up in your head won’t necessarily be a computer or a smartphone, but rather the Apple logo. The same can be said about Nike with shoes, or McDonald’s with fast food.
Due to a lifetime bombardment of advertisements, recognizing these logos is basically second nature for hundreds of millions of people. Identifying these symbols of industry comes as naturally for them as remembering their own birthdays.
But it’s not just the familiarity that makes certain brands so popular, it’s also what they say about you as an individual. If you were to see a guy walking down the street wearing Calvin Klein shirt and pants, Maybach sunglasses, a Rolex watch, and Louis Vuitton shoes, the first thing that would come to your mind would be, “Damn, that guy is loaded”. The products you choose to invest and surround yourself with says a lot about your place in our society.
While not having the same smartphone as the rest of your friends won’t necessarily ostracize you from them, it will still most certainly be the punchline for dozens of jokes. Wearing a plethora of Nike attire could result in people instantly assuming that you must be an athlete or a jock. For women, wearing a North Face jacket along with a pair of UGG boots could result in being labeled as “basic”.
It doesn’t stop there however, the very same logic applies to the entertainment industry as well. The kind of shows, movies, and music you consume conveys just enough information for others to assume what type of person you are. Whether it’s true or not is inconsequential; in today’s society, you are what you consume.
But out of all the titans of the entertainment industrial complex, there’s one product in particular that holds a disproportional amount of influence above all others: football. Specifically the NFL, which has become far more synonymous with Sundays than even Christianity. If you were to add up the total amount of views Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC receive in an entire week, the three of them combined still wouldn’t compare to a number of people who tune in on Sundays to watch the NFL.
With so many eyes locked in on this one platform, it’s fair to say that whatever cause or ideology the NFL pushes for will universally be noticed. We’ve already seen the NFL sponsor breast cancer awareness and military worship. But the one topic that they don’t seem too fond of endorsing is police brutality, or rather, police brutality disproportionately aimed at African Americans.
The main reason for this is because of the manner in which awareness is spread for this controversial issue. At its very core, it’s at odds with the NFL’s insistence on military worship. At the start of each game, all people in attendance are expected to stand for the National Anthem, a symbol of nationalist pride. However, in a sport that is predominantly made up of black players, some have chosen to kneel during this ceremony in order to direct national attention towards racially driven police violence.
Whether you agree with their methods or not, there’s no doubt that it’s working. By performing a gesture as simple as refusing to stand for the National Anthem, it has undoubtedly empowered the movement. Not only has it forced an open dialogue to take place across the country on both sides of the political spectrum, but it’s also become far more visible thanks to the popularity of the NFL.
Disputed issues like this can also heavily influence the chances of certain politicians from getting elected or re-elected. By donning the donkey of the Democratic Party, or the elephant of the Republican Party, these politicians make an unofficial agreement to represent their values entirely. If any of them chooses to take a stance contrary to what the rest of their party believes, that could easily result in them losing an election.
Without having either party’s symbol associated with your campaign, the chances of winning any election are basically zero. These symbols not only have power attached to them, but also long histories of failure and success as well. When you think of Democrats, you think of presidents like FDR and JFK. As far as Republicans go, names like Lincoln and Reagan come to mind. By having your name associated with these easily recognizable figureheads, it tells the voting public that despite your background, you clearly must be qualified for the position if these parties are willing to support you.
This was fairly evident during Bernie Sanders campaign for president. Despite the fact that Sanders had been a member of Congress for nearly 30 years as an Independent, his campaign would never had been taken seriously without the Democratic Party’s endorsement. The same could be said about Donald Trump’s campaign. However, there was one thing that really differentiated the two candidates from each other: brand awareness.
It’s no secret that having a recognizable name in politics can prove to be extremely advantageous. We’ve seen this already with the Kennedy’s and the Bush’s, and saw it once again in the last election with Hillary Clinton. Had Clinton run against virtually any other Republican, she probably would’ve won. But because she ran against Trump, it actually proved to be her downfall, despite Trump’s glaring inadequacies. The reason for this being because both Trump and Clinton had familiar names.
As an already well-established brand, Trump’s name instantly commanded plenty of media attention. By going up against a Republican with every bit as much recognizability as her own, Clinton, unbeknownst to her, was dealing with an opponent that could realistically beat her. While Hillary was clearly the more qualified candidate, Trump had already won the branding war before the election even started.
Out of all facets of American culture, perhaps the oldest form of symbolism that still has bearing over our lives today is religion. While there are various religions practiced throughout the United States, the most predominant by far is Christianity. Over 70% of the population identifies as Christian, while nearly a quarter considers themselves atheist. Only 6% of the country identify with any other religion.
Despite the fact that these assorted denominations are thousands of years old, they still manage to carry significant weight in a nation that claims to uphold a separation of Church and State. There are religious references all over our currency and nearly every politician identifies as Christian. Whenever the topic of religious symbols being defaced or promoted comes up, it turns into a heated national debate.
While it may be true that religion no longer holds the same value it once did in this country, it certainly still continues to hold meaning in our minds. However, their meaning is solely based on our own life experiences. To some, they represent a community, hope, and a second chance. While to others, they’re the embodiment of ignorance, manipulation, and division. The image they project in the hearts and minds of both their followers and detractors has arguably become one of the most polarizing discussions of the 21 st century.
It’s difficult to say what role religion will have in not only our own society but around the world in the next 1,000 years. But what will assuredly endure above all else are the Cross of Christianity, the Star of David of Judaism, the Star, and Crescent of Islam, etc.
The Sum Total
There’s simply no escaping the influence of symbolism. It dominates your shopping habits, your sources for entertainment, your political figureheads, and your spirituality. Its roots have already dug deep into the very fabric of your everyday life, permeating throughout both your conscious and subconscious mind.
While much of symbolism in American culture is of a commoditized nature, that, of course, is not the case when it comes to the individual. It’s easy to determine what a new pair of Nike shoes means for someone, but it’s impossible to even begin to comprehend what some cheap 50-year-old locket means to another. There is no conceivable measurement for such things. However, it does offer access to a realm often hidden away from the rest of the world: truth. Truth of the self, truth of what it means to be, truth of what embodies the soul. No matter where we find ourselves in history, it is the truth that every person represents that will remain unchanged.