'The personal touch': Why lawn signs survive in the digital age

When election signs started sprouting in his neighbourhood, Stan Gallant decided to jump on the bandwagon. 

'A thousand years of marketing history shows, awareness matters'

Stan Gallant of St. Albert isn't running for office but commissioned this custom lawn sign for the federal campaign 'just for fun.' (Stan Gallant/Facebook)

When election signs started sprouting in his neighbourhood, Stan Gallant decided to jump on the bandwagon. 

He commissioned his own custom sign for the front yard of his St. Albert, Alta., home.

It carries his name, a graphic of a glass filled with red wine and the slogan: "Not running for anything. Just wanted a sign."

It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood and have a laugh, said Gallant, a real estate sales representative.

"It cracks up the neighbours," he said. "It was, in no way, meant to put down the political process. It's just a sign."

But in the race to the ballot box, a lawn sign is never just a sign. Common in every race and at every level of politics, it's considered a powerful campaign tool.

There's a reason these relics have stubbornly survived the digital age, said Zain Velji, a political strategist with the Calgary firm Northweather.

Signs work

They work.

"A thousand years of marketing history shows, awareness matters," Velji said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"If every sale was directed by a Facebook ad, every company would be successful constantly. And we know that's not the case." 

Political candidates rely on campaign signs for name recognition. And not every sign is equal in the eyes of political strategists, Velji said.

Lawn signs on private property are the most prized, and convey a powerful message to anyone passing by. 

We make decisions based on trust and the people around us.- Zain Velji

"They broadcast your opinions to the people closest to you, and campaigns know that," Velji said. "So they put a disproportionate time and energy into it."

"For a campaign, they don't have the resources to reach out to every single person, regardless of their ambition. So having someone to take on that responsibility, it's a very overt message.

"And we make decisions based on trust and the people around us." 

Campaign signs on lawns in the Toronto riding of Davenport on Canada's federal election day on Oct. 19, 2015. Political scientists say signs remain a powerful political tool. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Coveted real estate

There is a strategy around earning the best real estate for lawn signs, said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

Campaign teams will identify key streets and the busiest intersections within given ridings and do their best to earn the support of voters living on those coveted spots.

"There are particular houses, particularly on corner lots, that are seen as more valuable," Bratt said. "They've identified key intersections, key homes.

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Bratt helped conduct two studies on lawn signs, counting each one in a given riding. The surveys were conducted in key battleground ridings in Calgary during the 2014 provincial byelection and the 2015 federal race.

The counts showed lawn signs are a key predictor of who will ultimately win, Bratt said. 

"You often hear, 'Signs don't matter.' But they really do matter on private land," he said. 

"There is a reason parties continue to door knock and put up signs, even if it takes a lot of time and money." 

Bratt doesn't expect lawn signs to wane in popularity, even as targeted ads on social media sites like Facebook become more common in political campaigns.

"It's the personal touch," Bratt said. "With lawn signs, you don't have to worry about fake ads.

"A homeowner is willing to put this sign on their property and tell their neighbours who they're voting for and that's important. It's a show of support that is stronger than just voting."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon


Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from Ariel Fournier

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