CBC News Federal Election

Analysis & Commentary

Dan Brown

The logic of lawn signs.
June 24, 2004

Dan Brown
Dan Brown  

They're everywhere. Chances are, at this point in the campaign, you can't drive, bike, or walk through your community without seeing at least a few of them, and in many places the ground is thick with them. They clutter up otherwise pleasant-looking neighbourhoods, adding to the visual pollution. But here's the ironic thing: not everyone agrees they they're effective.

What are they? They're lawn signs — the brightly coloured placards used by the hopefuls who are running for Parliament in your riding, and in every riding across the country. You might be tempted to think that, because they're ubiquitous, they serve a useful purpose. Alas, this may not be the case.

"It's a kind of post-adolescent peer pressure," Akaash Maharaj says of the mania for lawn signs that grips the nation whenever an election is called.

The operative theory seems to be that the more lawn signs a candidate can plant around a riding, the more votes he or she will get. However, no one has been able to prove this to be valid.

"Like so many other things in life, people do it because past practice has made people expect that they do it," says Maharaj, a Liberal Party activist and president of the New Liberalism Foundation, a forum for small-l liberals.

In other words, a candidate risks looking like the odd man out if he or she doesn't hand out lawn signs to supporters. Not using lawn signs might give the wrong impression, that a candidate is short of money or volunteers.

Maharaj says he has always believed that there is something "vaguely absurd" about lawn signs, although he points out that "an enormous amount of time, energy and money is invested in identifying sign locations, delivering the signs, and then recovering them afterwards."

According to Doug Long, a political-science professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., there is no direct correlation between the number of lawn signs a candidate manages to distribute and the number of votes that same candidate receives on Election Day. Regardless, he believes they do sway some voters.

"I think the signs influence a very substantial class of people," he says. Long's wild guess is that lawn signs have the potential to make an impression on roughly one-third of the electorate, chiefly people who are looking for some indication of which direction the political winds are blowing.

These voters aren't necessarily affected by one individual sign, but by the cumulative effect of seeing sign after sign from one particular party. When they go to the polling station, Long theorizes, these people take comfort in the fact that they are voting for the candidate who appears to be the most popular. "They feel that they fit into this environment that is speckled with these signs," Long explains. "It's a kind of belonging thing, I think, like looking for a kind of community acceptance."

In Maharaj's view, so-called strategic voters are most likely to be influenced by lawn signs since they are actively looking for information about which candidates are most likely to win in a given riding (he also says that those Canadians who agree to put signs on their front lawns are participating in a kind of emotional self-blackmail because they are publicly committing to a particular candidate).

Randy Stein is a partner at Grip Limited, a Toronto advertising agency. He agrees that some voters, in the absence of local polling numbers, use lawn signs as a way to gauge momentum within a riding.

"I think they probably are a factor in terms of consideration," he says. What Stein means is that lawn signs can put a party into the mix in a voter's mind, even if they don't influence the final decision.

Stein uses the example of his own riding, which - judging by the abundance of red-and-white signs - one would deduce is a Liberal stronghold. But lately, he was struck when Green Party signs started to appear in front of a few houses. "In some crude way that defies logic, you start to think 'Maybe the Green Party has something,'" Stein explains.

In pure advertising terms, Stein says, lawn signs are blunt instruments because they contain no message apart from the name of the local candidate, the name of the party, the party's colours, and (sometimes) the name of the leader.

"They defy every rule of advertising that I would abide by," he notes. "But at the same time � they work, I think."

Despite the relative simplicity of lawn signs, Long says a great deal of thought goes into a party's signage. "I don't think they make them up casually," he says.

In Stein's view, the Liberal decision to emphasize Paul Martin on the Liberal signs may have been a mistake. When the signs were made, the party organizers thought the leader was their biggest asset, but this has not turned out to be the case during the campaign. He also says that the Conservative signs seem especially well-suited to that party's leader.

"If you were to describe Stephen Harper and to describe those signs, you'd probably come up with a lot of the same adjectives: sort of simple, straightforward, no bullshit, nothing too pretty."

But does this mean one party has an advantage when it comes to lawn signs? Are the signs for one camp clearly better than the others? Maharaj doesn't think so.

"Oh, Good Lord no. They're all uniformly execrable."

Past Columns
Dan Brown is news online's senior arts editor/reporter. A former editorial writer, copy editor and journalism instructor, Dan has degrees from three universities.

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