The more voters are engaged, the less posters matter

Tue, Jun 3, 2008, 01:00

Only a few of the Lisbon Treaty posters are deemed a success by the experts. Ruadhán Mac Cormaicreports.

IN AN age where a national radio interview may reach less of your target audience than an ad on Facebook and where the idea of a campaign blog already seems a little jaded, you might think that the lamp-post has lost some of its value as a mass medium.

You might also wonder how useful a three-foot sheet of plastic could be in summarising your view on a complex treaty whose purpose is the reform of institutions that are mysterious to so many people anyway.

And then you might walk through any city or town in Ireland this week, and see just how many people disagree. The street will be awash with colour, a circus gallery of greens, blues, yellows and reds, with threats here and inducements there.

You will be confronted with images of intransigent chimpanzees, hovering six-foot torsos and, equally incongruous, pictures of each of your local councillors.

The lamp-post tells us quite a lot about the strategies of the lead actors behind the Lisbon Treaty campaign. Opponents use them to push further the idea of alleged losses - be it a commissioner, influence or "freedom" - that could follow ratification, while the Yes side emphasises the EU's positive role in bringing the Republic to the position of a wealthy state in a peaceful continent.

Most mainstream parties have chosen to give prominence to their leader's image. Labour, for instance, has blitzed the streets with posters of Eamon Gilmore, though the message - "Proud to be Irish, Yes to Europe" - is so small that it is best read from the upper deck of a stationary bus as the poster presses against the window. Offerings from Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats are also dominated by their leaders.

Paul Moran of Owens DDB, an advertising agency, points out that Fianna Fáil is a notable exception, having withheld Taoiseach Brian Cowen's picture, despite his strong approval ratings in recent polls.

There are two interpretations, Moran believes. It could be a principled stance: in a referendum, the message is more important than the personality, and the chance for some cheap publicity is being sacrificed for the greater good of ratification.

Or it could be that Fianna Fáil was unwilling to risk the referendum becoming a plebiscite on the Governments performance. "But I think if there's any indication beforehand that the gap is closing, or that because of apathy the Yes voters won't come out, then you will see a very different tack being employed by Fianna Fáil in the last week," says Moran. He expects heavy press advertising in the final week of campaigning, which will allow parties to tailor their advertising message to the feedback from the doorsteps.

Prof Richard Sinnott of UCD proffers an alternative view on picture-posters. The Irish Voter, a book he recently co-wrote on voter behaviour, confirmed that candidates play a major role in people's choices at the polling booth. "Parties are less popular and people are less attached to them. So actually, candidates putting up their poster with 'Vote Lisbon' or whatever and their photograph may not be quite such a self-serving notion," he says.

There may be some value, then, in using the face of a party leader or a well-known TD, but what of the ubiquitous councillors? Will voters be reassured that Cllr Anne Onymous, so sound on the pothole question, finds a corner in her busy poster to whisper a gentle "yes" or "no" in their apathetic ears? "On a moral basis, I think they should be discouraged from doing it. But if I was a member of a political party, what they're doing is exactly what I would do," Moran admits.

Advertising specialists agree that, as with all forms of outdoor promotion, the most effective posters offer a single proposition that is clearly presented. A prominent "Yes" or "No" followed by a concise supporting statement is a good start.

Fonts must be carefully chosen (Sinn Féin's layered bubble-font strains the eye, while Fine Gael's black type is ill-suited to the background), while colour (or its strategically helpful absence, in Joe Higgins's case) has an important role to play.

For those who don't read newspapers or listen to talk radio, posters are a vital source of information, so the aim is to offer in four seconds an impression that will spur people to investigate your case further.

Despite some successes - advertisers mention the Alliance for Europe's simple yellow posters with the strapline "Let's make Europe work better" (cleverly appealing to people with a dim view of the EU as well as its fans) and Cóir's "People died for your Freedom. Dont throw it away!" - the general view is that the posters are derivative and generic.

Chris Cawley, co-founder of advertising agency Cawley Nea, contrasts the "incredibly under-developed" political advertising here with the agenda-setting sophistication of the art in the US, where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both managed to load a depth of content behind two guiding concepts - change and the idea of community, respectively.

The message then flows from these themes, and is pressed home by consistent, hard-sell packaging of everything from badges and bus livery to the clothes the candidates wear.

"I don't think anyone has landed a punch like they did in Nice 1," Cawley says. "I think it's all over the place therefore I would have thought that all the advertising is just cancelling itself out."

Do posters work, then? Anxious campaigners on both sides might consider a piece of research published by Prof Sinnott after the two Nice Treaty referendums in 2001 and 2002. After each plebiscite, a polling company asked voters to identify their main sources of information.

After Nice 1, when turnout was 35 per cent, some 19 per cent said posters were "very" or "somewhat" valuable. But that figure declined to 12 per cent in the second referendum, when turnout rose to 49.5 per cent. This suggests that the more voters are engaged, the less posters matter. And if that's true, campaigners face a paradox: the more their posters are ignored, the more heartened they should be.