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How Many Campaign Posters Can One Electorate Take?

Historically, posters have long been used as an art form to persuade readers on a whole range of positions. Think Uncle Sam demanding you enlist into the army or Rosie flexing her muscles encouraging us girls to help with the war effort. Suppose there’s one skill I’ve mastered studying history and politics for this long; it’s the ability to overanalyse the purpose and message of these posters. But are they actually effective?

It’s February 2022, and the election hasn’t even been called yet. I walk around my neighbourhood, situated amid a highly contested marginal seat. Still, already the streets are littered with placards.

“Don’t vote for them!”

“Vote for me!”

“Please, I’m begging you, just give me your vote”, the delirious faces on each poster appear to say.

Historically, posters have long been used as an art form to persuade readers on a whole range of positions. Think Uncle Sam demanding you enlist into the army or Rosie flexing her muscles encouraging us girls to help with the war effort. Suppose there’s one skill I’ve mastered studying history and politics for this long; it’s the ability to overanalyse the purpose and message of these posters.

But are they actually effective?

As Election Day nears and everyone’s chiming in with their Hot Takes, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss whether these election posters are any good.

I’ve long wondered whether campaign posters are effective. Does anyone ever look at a campaign poster and think, “ooft, that candidate sure has a luscious set of hair and impeccably straight teeth; they’ve got my vote!”? Or are election posters just something in our periphery? Millions of dollars are wasted and ignored by the masses.

There’s a basic assumption that these posters are aimed at undecided voters. That Jane from down the road will drive past the poster on her way to the school drop-off, notice the stance of the candidate in the photo and think

“Wow, look at those clasped hands. This indicates that this politician is confident yet not overbearing, approachable yet firm. Well, that’s my vote settled!”

However, there is very little, if any, research to prove that this is actually true. Posters, seen as simply remnants of traditional campaigning from back in the day, are often disregarded by political analysts. They prefer to emphasise the influential capacity of the relentless TV ads we are subjected to and the emerging world of social media.

But campaign posters obviously have some benefits. In Australia, you legally are not allowed to place an election poster within six meters of a polling booth. So, they clearly do have some effect on voters. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need this law. I mean, why else would political parties continue to invest an exorbitant amount of money and volunteers into decorating the streets of their electorates with these posters? For fun??

The first reason I’d like to touch on, and probably the most prominent theory, is voter recognition. Increasingly, elections in Australia are becoming more personality driven. Sure, it might be the parties who form the government, but on Election Day, everyone wants to know whether you’re voting to elect the ‘Goofy, daggy and incompetent Dad from the Shire’ or whoever the other guy is. It’s all about the candidates.

Who’s the better leader?

Who can remember the unemployment rate?

Who’s better at holding a hose?

Occasionally, you might get a ‘who’s got the better policy?’ But the emphasis is on the ‘who’.

In this context, political posters are designed to answer that question. To put a face to a name. And while high-profile candidates can rely on the mainstream media to incessantly broadcast their faces all over the six o’clock news, local candidates choose to fall back on the classic election poster.

Independent candidate for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, found herself in front of the supreme court early this year. She was being challenged by incumbent Liberal member Tim Wilson for ‘unlawfully’ putting up her campaign signs. Ultimately, Daniel won the case and got to keep her signs on display.

I bring up this case because it demonstrates the important role election posters play in voter recognition. Ms Daniel recognised that in order to pose any challenge to the incumbent, she had to be just as (if not more) noticeable as the current MP. And thus, months prior to the election, she began plastering her face around the electorate, in an attempt to gain familiarity and recognition amongst her voters.

Political posters are also pursued as a tactic to claim territory (see Rodney Smith’s ‘Australian Election Posters’). Like when you walk down to your local shops and see a big obnoxious ‘Vote One for X party”. The sign might as well say ‘YOU ARE NOW ENTERING ‘X’ PARTY TERRITORY”. The intense candidate bunting around the fences of polling booth entrances is another example of the use of posters to mark territory. It’s all become an attempt to peer-pressure you into voting the same way everyone else in your neighbourhood votes.

Each week when I head to the footy in my alluring North Melbourne attire, I always make an effort to sit near a group of fellow North supporters (yes, we exist, there are over 45,000 of us, actually). I do this not because I want to explicitly convert others to the way of the Kangaroo, but I do it to intimate the other team. To make them fear the wrath of the Shinboner Spirit. United in spirit, here we come. (In saying that, if you are interested, we are always open to new supporters).

In the same way, election posters have become a means to show support for your political ‘team’. A good strong poster campaign has become synonymous with a good strong candidate. A joint French and Belgian study found that the more prominent and numerous campaign posters were, the more likely voters were to perceive that campaign as effective and dominant. The study found that major parties use the signage to construct this narrative that they are popular and powerful, rather than using the posters to actually promote their intricate policy ideals.

Thus, as the smell of democracy sausages draws nearer and we edge closer to Election Day, my neighbourhood continues to drown in red, blue, green and even yellow campaign signs. Everywhere I look, I see them. On people’s fences and in shop windows. At train stations and bus stops. I think to myself, “how many campaign posters can one electorate take?”.

While I must admit that at the beginning, my pretentious Arts student brain was cynical of their effectiveness, I have come to embrace the idea of an election campaign poster. Necessary to promote voter recognition and symbol of power and strength, the campaign poster is a simple, relatively cheap, and ultimately effective campaign strategy. Election campaign posters have been used to persuade and rally voters for hundreds of years, all across the globe, and I’m sure we can expect to see them for hundreds of years more.

 
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EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

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