Smile over substance

Sat, May 23, 2009, 01:00

PRESENT TENSE:YOU’LL HAVE seen the election posters. On lamp posts, fences, walls, trees. Covering the side of buildings, growing in fields, smothering vans. You probably woke up this morning and found a couple of Mary Lou McDonald posters swinging from the headboard of your bed, writes SHANE HEGARTY

They have turned the street furniture into freakish totem poles. Grinning candidates, pictured slightly from the side, with head tilted and airbrushed. And then, for some of them, comes the coup de grâce:a slogan. And what do they come up with? Something as empty as their smiles.

If you have the ego to plaster your face across a town – or several counties – you should at least have something to say. Most don’t. They offer only wimpy political jabs or murmured punchlines, so that you want to climb the lamp post, shake that cardboard avatar and tell him or her to speak up.

In last Saturday’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins wrote about the National Library of Ireland’s fascinating and colourful collection of old election posters. He noted how they always said something of their time but today they tend to feature just a picture and a name.

The problem with modern posters is that they are allusive rather than direct. A few clouds in the background, or, in the case of Fine Gael, an army of the undead standing four-square behind their candidates. But in this campaign, so far at least, most posters have retreated into banality.

There has been little to stop you mid stride, to challenge you, to frighten you, to outrage you. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the campaign, of the nature of the contest. It’s more likely that it’s a reflection of the candidates and the anodyne nature of modern campaigning; of saying everything but meaning nothing.

There are exceptions. In Dublin, independent candidate Mannix Flynn – a writer, not a career politician – has come up with perhaps the smartest line any local election candidate will manage: “Don’t do the same thing expecting a different result.” Now there’s a message. Direct and thought-provoking. Okay, so it doesn’t tell us what he will do, but it tells us where he stands.

Contrast that with the main parties. Fine Gael is offering either “a fairer Europe” or “a fairer Ireland”, depending on the candidate’s ambitions. Those promises are so thin that it’s very possible Fine Gael has used them in every campaign, knowing they will disappear from the collective memory quicker than the unsuccessful candidates.

Most of the Labour Party posters don’t bother with a slogan. It’s just smiles and a name, a reminder to anyone leaning towards Labour. It means that they are little more than giant Post-it notes stuck across the country. No policy, no statement. Only a suggestion that you should vote for this candidate because they have their facial features arranged in a somewhat conventional manner.

The Libertas posters have been everywhere, and have at least been relatively arresting. Crisp, bold, an attractive arctic blue, and with a catchphrase. Libertas has already run the cutting “Is this what real opposition looks like?” billboards and some of its current campaign posters are going with: “It’s your future. Take it back.” That’s snappy. No idea what it’s supposed to mean, but it gets you thinking. Although, among those thoughts is whether Libertas nabbed it from the trailers for the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It would be fun to think it’ll use that theme in future. Or that opponents might also co-opt lines from The Terminator. “Libertas: it can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

The “for and against” nature of referendums make for straightforward sloganeering. A poster that said “Keep our commissioner. Vote No” told you where they stood on the issue. In the divorce referendum, “Hello divorce. Goodbye Daddy,” was classic scaremongering, but it hit you hard.

In order to make them something other than colourful street litter, candidates should be made put at least one policy on every campaign poster – a genuine, coherent standpoint. And not the “more jobs, happier people” generalities that anyone can claim. If they’re going to impose themselves on your eyeline, they should be made justify that by giving you a reason for their presence.

Election campaigns should be turned into opportunities for clarity, rather than just visual clutter. And if posters were to become increasingly outrageous or maddening, so be it. At least you’ll know that a candidate’s position is somewhere other than on top of a pole, swinging in the gale.