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Solace in symbols: discovering cultural meanings in symbolic propaganda.

In 1977, the state of New York hired a graphic designer by the name of Milton Glaser to design a logo to correspond with an advertising campaign looking to boost tourism. New York City, the unquestionable hub of the state's tourism, was going through a very difficult stretch, having experienced a major blackout and a serial killer, who caused this period to be known as the Summer of Sam. Before that, Bronx neighborhoods had been ablaze, systemic police corruption was being investigated, and there had been terrorist attacks in Manhattan and at La Guardia Airport. (1) The general public, understandably, was not eager to spend their money or time in such a city. Indubitably, the state and the city needed an improvement and it arguably came in the form of the now very famous icon, which represents the entire state but I[love]NYis mostly synonymous for New York City. For the purposes of brevity, NY concentration will be made with its relation to the city.

This article will examine the I[love]NY logo as propaganda. I will explore the different techniques used by this simple logo and how it came to be such a ubiquitous symbol, not only for New York but also for popular culture in general. I will also explore this piece as art and its relation to propaganda through the lens of other group's attempts to persuade people to behave, believe, and act in a particular manner. First, let us dissect the I[love]NY logo and its particular meanings.

By design, Glaser attempted to encapsulate an aesthetic of New York City in a very down-trodden time. Of note, the simplicity and symbolism of the three letters and the heart create a square. This symmetry, in my opinion, provides the aesthetic nature of organization and order, something that New York City desperately needed to convey at the time of the logo's creation. Furthermore, with each character being roughly the same size, it fashioned the sense of equality and justice. This was an important message to express in a racially heated time in American history.

The letters themselves carry great meaning as well. The use of slab serif typeface has become common in newspapers and other print publications. With New York's relationship with the printed word, namely newspapers and publishing houses, it is no wonder Glaser used this typeface in I[love]NY. In fact, the typeface is called New York rather than slab serif by the word processing software Microsoft Word due to its relationship with the city. It is clear to see that this typeface has become synonymous with New York and the I[love]NY logo.

Philosophically speaking, the use of "I" bears great significance in the ethos of each person's inalienable rights underpinning the very foundations of America. Proclaiming that every individual has a right to express themselves in any fashion and then choose to don I[love]NY to communicate a fondness toward New York encapsulates a Cartesian philosophy adopted by Western culture. Coupled with the abbreviation of New York, "NY," the logo has become synonymous with the likes of American culture. As the largest city in the United States with an unquestionable influence on popular culture and commerce, New York has become the representative for Americana on an international stage as a place for economic and artistic entrepreneurship.

However, assuredly, the image that separates itself from the rest of the logo is the red heart. The color red, which in some cultures represents passion or love, is a drastic contrast from the black letters in slab serif typeface. It is obviously the focal point of the icon, and its conveyed meaning of love is beyond a doubt. Like a modern-day hieroglyph, the heart in pictorial form conveys a meaning without the use of words. "Unlike our alphabet, in which visual symbols represent sounds rather than images, the components of each hieroglyph were usually rooted in some visual depiction of the world." (2) This remains true with the symbol of the heart. Because of its universal understanding, the heart is able to convey more artistically, passionately, and broadly than the printed word "love."

The heart has come to symbolize the spiritual, emotional, and even intellectual home in human beings--the internal center for the emotive and rationalorigins of thought and decision making. But the exact origins of the now ubiquitous symbol of the heart are lost and the theories are numerous.

A North African plant called silphium, now extinct, had a significant role in the economic well-being of the seventh-century B.C. city-state of Cyrene, and is said to have been used as a form of birth control. So important was the silphium plant to Cyrene's economy that coins were made in the shape of its seedpod, now widely recognized as the symbol of the heart. This shape came to be associated with sex and love, not unlike its meaning today. The Catholic Church, however, contends that the symbol of the heart comes from a saint by the name of Margaret Mary Alocoque, who had a vision depicting a heart surrounded by thorns, representing the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Now a major devotion in the Catholic Church, the Sacred Heart is associated with love and fidelity. Still, other scholars contend that this symbol was actually nothing more than a botched attempted at drawing the anatomical human heart. (3) Regardless of the symbol's origins, its meaning has become iconic in the world and is used in the I[love]NY logo as propaganda to evoke an emotional charge in hopes of drawing people to New York to fall in love with it.

Clearly, each character in the logo portrays a particular meaning that is unique by itself, but the combined whole contains the intended and complete message. By combining the mediums of alphabet and symbol, Glaser accomplished what Marshall McLuhan described as media hybrids. The alphabetic letters represent a style of obvious meaning quite recognizable in our culture, whereas the symbol in place of a word and as part of a statement is not part of the usual structure. The symbol of the heart can convey more meaning through its shape and color than the actual words "heart" or "love." "The moment of the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. It is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses." (4) The hybridization of media in the case of I[love]NY provides a unique and provocative interaction that forces people to experience and engage this statement in a fresh fashion.

Let us now turn our attention to the different techniques the I[love]NY logo depicts and the parallel examples provided by the likes of the Nazi party and the Soviet Union. Although it may be dangerous to compare this logo to the likes of these unpopular social movements, it should be clear that linking this popular icon to unpopular ones proves that propaganda is a natural byproduct of communication that everyone participates in.

Jacques Ellul provides a definition of propaganda first offered by psychologist Daniel Lerner that states, "Propaganda is the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influencing the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends and through psychological manipulations." (5) Though psychologically toned, what is of interest is the emphasis on action and not just opinion. What propaganda principally wants to achieve is to persuade people to change their behavior.

Principally, the tourism commissioners wanted to transform the public opinion concerning New York City. They wanted to claim that, despite the gruff and aggressive stigma of the city, it could still be loveable. The goal was to draw more people to the city so as to boost the economy, and the I[love]NY logo was designed to create an emotive response of love toward a city synonymous with a rich history in the American psyche. However, when pondering I[love]NY, one must ask, What is love, and how does it relate to changing the reputation of a city?

This brings us to our first propaganda technique, hyperbole. It is a mere generality to claim to love something or someone, though admittedly it is a strong motivation toward an end. Love can be expressed as a feeling or an action. It can be said between two lovers with sincerity or can be thrown around to express a delight in something as superficial as pizza. How does one know when one loves something or someone? Though the expression is used far and wide, concrete meanings of love are not stated in the expression "I love you." Implications connected to the statement can include fidelity, respect, loyalty, or sexual fulfillment, but none of them are explicitly stated in this phrase. Love happens to be one of the emotive responses in humanity that is never completely explicable with the use of words or with any action. Yet, the representative symbol for love, the heart is used here. Does the overarching statement of love negate the numerous imperfections of New York City?

Hyperbole, by definition, never reveals the entire truth.
  Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of
  the word is impossible. In order to conduct a [sic] propaganda there
  must be some barrier between the public and the event. Access to the
  real environment must be limited, before anyone can create a pseudo
  environment that he thinks wise or desirable. (6)

Like the allegory of the cave offered in Plato's Republic, we are trapped to see a truth only in the shadows. One may believe that New York City is the greatest in the world, but it is hard to deny the atrocities that accompany it in reality. Poverty, crime, homelessness, racism, and lack of a proper education for all still plague this city. Yet, the public don the I[love]NY T-shirts with pride. The public opinion has accepted this mutual love for New York City because of the image that it wants to believe. Though most Americans have never been to New York City, they still know the logo that conjures up such powerful images by association, such as the New York Yankees, the New Year's Eve ball drop. Times Square, the Empire State Building, the site of the World Trade Center, etc. Through mainstream media, the general public is shown these particular sights as icons which romanticize the city. The fact of the matter is that the intended end is to create a pseudo-environment to represent reality but only partially represent the truth, like the shadows that dance along the cave as representations of reality described by Plato. (7) The I[love]NY logo only offers us a glittery and partial side of the city. Indeed, the distinction of the good characteristics of New York City from the bad must be defined and the inauspicious ignored in order to change the public opinion. The I[love]NY logo must conjure up collective memories that are favorable to the city in hopes of changing the poor image of the city.

This can be compared to the fascist propaganda centered on the Nazi's movement to power. Emotions, such as love or generosity, rather than rational deduction, were keystones to the fascist philosophy so as to spark passionate action. This emotive influence is highlighted in their propaganda art.

Hermann Witte's poster "Baut Jugendherbergen und Heime" (8) [Build Youth Hostels and Homes], for example, depicts a smiling adolescent girl with blond braids draped over her shoulders holding a can depicting the Swastika for donations and four white flowers. The background is painted in bright yellow, orange, and red, as if the sun is rising behind her or a halo casts a radiating glow to brighten everything she encounters. There is an innocence and happiness that is expressed on her face; optimism is readily apparent in her youthfulness, and her commitment to the Nazi party and philosophy is evident by the Nazi uniform. Personally, when I view this picture (and attempt to disregard my knowledge of Nazism) I see hope and I feel a desire to assist this cause. The softness in the brushstrokes expresses a beauty and gentleness that is apparently connected with the Nazi philosophy. If I did not know better, I would easily assume that, based on this picture, the Nazi party is committed to a hopeful future where peace and progress would be readily available to the German people, most especially its youth. However, we know this not to be the case. The Nazi philosophy was constantly geared toward war and divisiveness so as to root out that which contaminated the purity of what they believed to be the perfect race and nation. (9) Hitler said that "a peace that lasts more than twenty-five years inflicts great damage on itself." (10) This contradictory message in propagandistic art is, by its very nature, necessary to be labeled as such, for it contains only half-truths and ideals. In Witte's particular piece, it does represent a hope for the future of its youth, but only the youth who are deemed acceptable by the regime.

Counter to Nazi philosophy, the I[love]NY logo attempts to epitomize friendship and relationship. It summons a feeling of acceptance and positive expression, while embracing the philosophy of hope, optimism, and hospitality that brought so many people from around the world to this city looking for a better life. This logo encapsulates the ethos of a culture set upon the shoulders of this city. This meaning must be brought to the icon by the public, however.

Most pieces of advertisement, comics, and print media are low in definition, meaning that there is a certain amount of participation by the audience required to derive meaning from the piece. (11) As an icon, the I[love]NY logo must be a sign-post that points the audience to more information than what itself can offer. As has been said, by using the symbol of the heart to represent love, the logo points to the numerous aspects of New York that are to be loved, experienced, and remembered without beating its audience over the proverbial head with the popular icons of the city, such as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Grand Central Terminal.

The I[love]NY logo sought to emphasize an infiltrating ideology by means of its sociological context. Despite the state of the city at the inception of the logo, the city celebrated a glorious history due to its connection with entertainment, popular culture, art, literature, etc. What the public remembered about New York City was the glittery generalities that were presented to them via the movies, books, and the general public opinion. This is what the public loved about the city and what was made concretely clear through three simple letters in slab serif typeface and the universal symbol for love, the heart. Eventually, the I[love]NY logo became synonymous with New York City, and it has been part of the city's culture ever since its introduction. What was thought to be an advertising campaign that would only last a couple of months has morphed into a logo that is widely used with anything that promotes itself as popular in the public. Other cities, such as London and Paris, have adopted the logo. The icon has surpassed the intended market and now derives its meaning on a universal level thanks in large part to the public popularization of the logo.

Ellul describes this type of propaganda as sociological or the bandwagon technique. Unlike political or direct propaganda, it is much more subtle and gentle. It slowly works its way into the consciousness of the public to where it is naturally engrained as part of the common culture. It seeks to unify the public opinion so as to conform a way of life and thought. (12) In the case of the I[love]NY logo, a steady re-gentrification of New York's image was sought. The city wanted to shift its reputation from a violent and aggressive city to a loveable one by harking back to its lore as the center of American identity so as to boost its lacking tourism. It captured a truth that people were ready to subscribe to. The citizens of New York and, arguably, the rest of the United States, were eager to see this city beloved again and set out to secure this myth of supremacy. Therefore, the popularity of the I[love]NY logo has snowballed to become as iconic with New York City as the Statue of Liberty. Aided by mass production, I[love]NY has become ubiquitous in the American culture.

Similarly, the Communist government of the Soviet Union attempted to create a unifying aesthetic in order to live equally and communally. Led by the avant-garde artist and Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin, the government sought to design everything from clothing to entire cities so as to create an aesthetic which would change the behavioral habits of the Soviet population. They "viewed design practices linked to mass production as a means of integrating art with the reconstruction of society" by "organizing the psyche of the masses." (13)

It is not a stretch to contend that the mass production of the I[love]NY logo parallels that of the Constructivists. Though not as pervasive or obvious, the logo is seen anywhere, from bumper stickers to shopping bags. It has, arguably, become as common and synonymous with New York as Broadway, with the objective of changing the psyche of a people to remember the city favorably.

As a piece of propaganda, the I[love]NY logo attempts to change the attitude of the public by conjuring up the remarkable contributions of the city and state of New York. It hopes to make people remember that New York was the doorway into America for millions of people and the center for entertainment, capitalistic ingenuity, and artistic expression. It hopes to maintain, in the public conscious, that New York City is the center of the American dream, where people can come from anywhere in the world and have a chance to acquire riches, fame, and glory; to help people remember that it was the first seat of a new nation built on liberty and freedom for its citizens. These are the things New York is loved and remembered for, and the I[love]NY logo attempts to invoke this nostalgic awareness through a logo that conveys affection, simplicity, and ubiquity.


(1.) Clyde Haberman, "Who Wants to Relive That '70's Horror Show?" The New York Times, August 1, 2008, (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(2.) Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A History and Future of the Information Revolution (New York: Routledge, 1998), 11.

(3.) Keelin McDonell, "The Shape of My Heart: Where Did the Ubiquitous Valentine's Symbol Come From?" Slate, Posted Feb. 13, 2007, (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(4.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 55.

(5.) Jacques Ellul, Propaganda. Trans, by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), xi-xii.

(6.) Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: MacMillan, 1932), 43.

(7.) Plato, Republic. Trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 514a-518e extensively. From the introduction, it is of note: "The form of the good is standard or paradigm, then that enables the philosopher to determine what poetical, political, or any other kind of goodness is. That is why other types of expertise need philosophy." In this case, goodness (truth) must be solely permitted to come through and a separation from the bad must be evident in order to persuade the general public to believe that New York is, indeed, good.

(8.) Toby Clark, Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997), 47.

(9.) Ibid., 48-56.

(10.) Ibid., 56.

(11.) McLuhan, 163, 168.

(12.) Ellul, 63-64.

(13.) Clark, 82.

Brian J. Altenhofen is a PhD student in Telecommunication and Media Studies at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

This article is based on a presentation at the Across the Generations: Legacies of Hope and Meaning Conference sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics, September 11-13, 2009, at Fordham University, New York City.
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Author:Altenhofen, Brian J.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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