Asses and Elephants: Branding (Or Re-Branding?) A Proud American Political Tradition

Let me start by saying I would probably be better off not allowing CNN to be my “company” here in my home office as I while away the hours  analyzing cultural data and developing “strategery” for my roster of global brand clients.  I sometimes think I would get more out of  anthropomorphic cartoons or maybe “reality” TV on Bravo (same thing?).

But alas, I am stuck in a bad habit and lately have been barraged by political news as both parties warm up the melee with conventions commentary  for the upcoming presidential election.

As I sit passively observing the hissing, spitting, bucking, kicking and other intellectually primal behavior of the political species of human, I am inclined to put on my brand strategy hat and indulge my curiousity about how our leading political brands, the Republicans and Democrats came to adopt their appropriately zoo-like visual identities (otherwise known as logos): e.g. the Elephant and The Donkey.

Here’s where I have landed thus far. To be blunt, the semiotic signification I associate with both animals are not exactly those that evoke  confidence or pride.  Aside from the fact that they “never forget”, elephants to me signify over-sized circus animals who get paid in peanuts to do tricks.  And Donkeys lead me down the rabbit hole to dumb, slow, awkward pack animals who bear the burden of carrying people’s crap and generally are synonymous with stupidity and idiotic behavior.

Don’t get me wrong:  I am sure the integrity of both species in the wild defy their human-imposed stereotypes.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the associations with politics seem kind of odd.
So, I did some research and thought I would share what I have learned for my similarly curious ( or just bored) readers .  But before I impart wisdom, I have one request:  I am curious to see what animals or other symbols YOU would use to represent each party if you were charged with re-branding them using a more current popular culture reference.

That being said, enjoy your education:

From From William Safire’s New Language of Politics, Revised edition, Collier Books, New York, 1972, via

“The symbol of the [Republican] party (the elephant) was born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874

An 1860 issue of rail-splitter and an 1872 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly connected elephants with Republicans, but it was Nast who provided the party with its symbol.

Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald raised the cry of “Caesarism” in connection with the possibility of a third term try for President Ulysses S. Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant’s second term and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect Republican voters.

While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York’s Central Park in search of prey.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion’s skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: “An ass having put on a lion’s skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings.”

One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote – not the party, the Republican vote – which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a subsequent cartoon on November 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance. Other cartoonists picked up the symbol, and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became the party itself: the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant.”

Now you know and “knowing is half the battle” – G.I. Joe (American Hero)

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