How effective are campaign posters?

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How effective are campaign posters?

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Voter influencers or visual pollution? Election posters in Sturt. IMAGE: Leon Georgiou

By Leon Georgiou | @leon_georgiou

Like a democracy sausage, election posters are part of the Australian political landscape. But in Adelaide, their prevalence on electricity poles can be overbearing.

In recent years, there have been calls from the public and ex-politicians to remove the corflute (poster) signs as their value has been questioned.

In the social media age, how effective are election posters?

Last month, the Adelaide City Council narrowly rejected a motion by Cr Robert Simms to ban corflute posters in both the CBD and North Adelaide areas.

A week earlier, on the Advertiser’s political podcast Off the Record, former Labor minister Kate Ellis criticised the posters, saying that in South Australia there were too many of the signs attached to “every electricity pole”.

Apart from being an eyesore and annoying voters, “they don’t really serve much purpose”.

Retiring Cabinet Minister and Member for Sturt Christopher Pyne, who was also on the podcast, echoed Ms Ellis’s sentiments.

Despite the growing calls to ban them, candidates continue to cover electricity poles along the main roads of Adelaide with posters.

Dr David Sweet is an expert in public relations, advertising, and communication theory and practice at the University of South Australia.

He said election posters have historically been the predominant way “of getting people’s attention and highlighting who the particular candidates are in an electorate”.

The problem was that many people now sourced this information through other mediums.

Consequently, election posters were increasingly being ignored.

While there is no dispute that out-of-home advertising has an influence on consumer habits, Dr Sweet questions whether election posters have any direct effects on voters.

“Whether people actually take any notice of them and whether it changes their vote or reinforces their vote is very hard to determine,” Dr Sweet said.

Dr Sweet argues that electronic media is faster, cheaper, and more issue-driven. Most importantly it can be targeted to specific audiences.

Michael Cornish is the senior policy adviser to Mayo Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie. He argues campaign posters are predominantly aimed at disengaged voters.

“Quite a lot of people won’t pay any attention to the posters, but the hope is that when they get to the ballot box and they see a name… they will simply go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen them, they seem nice’,” Mr Cornish said.

In this sense, the posters are a low-level interaction with voters who do not engage with politics—a brand awareness tool.

“Think of a big brand name like Coke, a lot of their marketing is not necessarily done to convince people to buy their product, but rather to make sure that people are aware of their product,” Mr Cornish said.

But for small-party candidates and independents who lack the financial resources of the major parties, election posters are perhaps the most cost-effective form of advertising.

Speaking with Greg Barila on the Off the Record podcast, Mr Pyne explained how central the posters were to running a low-budget campaign.

“Posters and doorknocking are about the cheapest campaign you can run while still being seen to have a campaign,” he said.

Mr Pyne’s comments highlight one of the fundamental problems with banning election posters: it makes the ‘political playing field’ that much more uneven for candidates with few funds and no public profile.

And as Mr Cornish explains, if you are not an incumbent, it can be very difficult to get any media coverage, even in the local newspaper.

An ABC poll in late April showed 76 per cent of voters have already picked whom they will vote for in the federal election.

There is little evidence to suggest a poster would make any difference to these voters.

These voters are more likely to be influenced by election issues, campaign promises and the previous work of an incumbent.

Indeed, Mr Cornish said he believes the body of work done by a candidate prior to an election is ultimately what matters.

“In reality, Rebekha getting a good name for the work that she has done happens over the period of time prior to the election,” he said.

“A poster is not going to change the way a constituent votes.”

While many seem to acknowledge the ineffectiveness of election posters, no candidate seems willing to be the first to forgo their use in a campaign.

Dr Sweet joked that it would be a great experiment for the incumbent of a seat to not put up any election posters and see what happened.

“It would be a very brave party and a brave candidate not to do it,” Dr Sweet said.

In a parody of the Cold War, it seems candidates fear forgoing election posters in case their opponents use them.

Locked into a poster war arms race, the electricity poles of South Australia will, for this election at least, continue to be an advertising battleground.