Postering for elections combines art, science and common sense
Bigger election posters outside railway stations can get into atmospherics, but the lamppost posters have more precise and limited functions, writes Terry Prone
The only safe place to be, during the European and local elections, is over with the poster-haters. Posters are pointless and anti-environment, goes the argument, and those EU contenders are shocking, the way they deface or even destroy the posters of people from within their own political party which stray over the line established as belonging to another candidate.
he worst political fight I was ever involved in started with posters. The candidate involved wasn’t even a candidate when the suggestion was made that I cast an eye over his posters, but — nudge, nudge, wink, wink, finger to the side of the nose, say nuthin’ — it was known that the leader of the day favoured his placement on the ticket, so everybody else was falling in line. A meeting to make poster decisions had been scheduled and I arrived to find dozens of people crowded around a big square table in the middle of the room. It might have been several desks jammed together, rather than one table, but you couldn’t tell, because the surface was completely covered in vast draft posters, overlapping each other.
A row was already in progress, with one of the participants claiming that the entire lot would have to be scrapped. The party finance man present broke out in a mild sweat at his hairline. The man who wanted the whole lot of the posters tossed in a wheelie bin seemed to be a close friend of the candidate.
“This is supposed to be all about authenticity,” the friend said in the tightly controlled voice you get when someone has just told you to stop shouting.
This candidate brings a new honesty to politics. And these posters contradict that utterly. To use them would be unconscionable.
It took me a while, covertly looking around the room, to work out who the candidate was, but that’s always the case with political posters. They make the candidate look as good as possible while trying to keep this side of recogniseability. One photographer once claimed he had positioned a candidate on her back on a painted floor in order to take ten years off her face. Gravity was her friend, although she might usefully have gagged the snapper afterwards.
In this case, the man in the poster was recognisable, but clearly an improvement on the reality, and his pal’s underwear was in a pleat because this had been achieved through the use of make-up. The pal believed everybody seeing any of the posters would instantly realize that a big MAC job had been done on the candidate and the electorate would burst into cries of “Betrayed, yet again.” The others at the meeting didn’t agree, one of them pointing out that since the candidate wasn’t widely known except in one reasonably limited circle, the general public wouldn’t have a mental picture of him against which to compare the posters.
The party finance man introduced me and suggested that I might have something to offer, me being a communications expert. Perhaps, he said, going parliamentarian on us, I might even be accorded the casting vote. I then annoyed everybody by saying the makeup issue was irrelevant — like anybody looking at a poster 20 feet off the ground and curved around a lamppost was going to get into speculation about the shade of foundation used or morals appended thereto. The issue, I suggested, was that all of the posters were lousy, none of them was usable, and they were being looked at in the wrong context.
“You’re all leaning over a poster arm’s length away from you,” I pointed out. “The voter who sees the finished poster will be in a car, passing it at 30 miles an hour and they’ll be three car lengths away from it.”
One of the more experienced party members present grabbed this baton and ran with it. This particular poster had to go, he said, hauling out from under the pile an artistic shot of the candidate, in the middle of moorland, looking into the distance. The candidate began to look upset. Someone else produced a poster showing him with a hand raised like he was directing traffic, and suggested it be ditched.
At this point, hostilities broke out on all sides until the finance man suggested we might, before we got to the specifics, agree some general rules about election posters. The rules were kicked together over ten minutes and went something like this.
The Eyes Have it
The first rule means that any poster in which the candidate’s eyes are not visible and brightly focused on the onlooker have to go. Lamppost posters are not artistic statements. The bigger posters outside railway stations can get into atmospherics, but the lamppost posters have more precise and limited functions. They are there to introduce. To remind. To establish a relationship. Or reinforce it. No more. No less.
No matter how beautifully coiffed the candidate, big hair has to go, if it takes up space and reduces the area devoted to the candidate’s features. Anything that stops the face being experienced at a glance must be edited out. So if the signature necklace, the great suit jacket and the elegant hands require the face to be smaller, they have to go.
Control the Gnashers
The teeth issue changes over time. Forty years ago, any candidate over 50 was likely to be wearing false teeth and accordingly couldn’t afford to open their mouth in a major smile.
Today, thanks to better dental hygiene, fluoride in the water and implants, candidates can safely do open-mouthed grins at the drop of a call to smile. This isn’t always good. The voting public has no need to be exposed to upper and lower gums and few want to vote for a candidate who looks like the MGM lion, mid-growl.
Careful with the Logo
Every party goes through a phase where candidates are more salable as individuals than as members. Every party has candidates who need heavy party branding to get over the line. So the size of the logo requires care and flexibility.
Keep the slogan for the junk mail
Slogans are like mission statements. They’re all the same, but the people thinking them up are convinced their gem is uniquely wondrous.
If it’s pointed out to them that everybody, these days, claims to be experienced, transparent, accountable and to be filled with integrity, they try to improve the situation by adding even more of these empty words, pointlessly crowding out the bottom of the poster.
Every now and then, someone tries something a little different. Like the MEP going up for re- election a few years ago whose posters stated he was ‘ACTIVE IN EUROPE’.
This proved too tempting for his rivals, who printed up one word in the same typeface as the original slogan and pasted it on every poster they could reach.
Thereby changing the claim to the perhaps more exciting ‘SEXUALLY ACTIVE IN EUROPE’.