Saturday 22 October 2016

Jason O’Sullivan: Despite the rise of social media, election poster is still a pole topper for parties

Jason O’Sullivan

Published 05/02/2016 | 02:30

A worker erects a poster of Fianna Fail Leader Michael Martin under that of Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Molesworth Street ,Dublin. Photo: Maxpix/Julien Behal
A worker erects a poster of Fianna Fail Leader Michael Martin under that of Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Molesworth Street ,Dublin. Photo: Maxpix/Julien Behal

The election will yet again feature all of the usual factors which both intrigue and annoy in equal measure. Door-to-door canvassing, party manifestos, unrealistic party promises, policy U-turns, media campaigns and, of course, election posters.

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The last is a major facet of election campaigns, omnipresent and visually unavoidable due to its visceral impact, regardless of one's interest in an election.

The election poster can be a divisive object from which there seems no escape, no matter where one lives in the country. Some view them as a tactical necessity, which adds both atmosphere and information in equal measure, while others view such items as a blight on our landscape.

So what does the law say?

The relevant legislation states that posters may be put up for only a maximum of 30 days before polling day.

Therefore, given the short run-up to this election, which will be over within 30 days, it will be impossible to infringe specific time constraints this time around.

However, the legislation also stipulates that all posters must be removed within seven days of the polling day. So this does give scope for possible infringement.

The local authorities have responsibility for the enforcement of any breaches to the law. A common breach might involve either putting up the posters too early (something that is not likely to have been an issue in the case of this election) or taking them down too late.

Another common breach is positioning posters in such a way as to cause a hazard to pedestrians or road users.

An added measure in the legislation prohibits the placement of flyers under the wiper blades of vehicles and again makes such conduct an offence.

What are the penalties?

A €150 fine attaches to every such breach. Therefore, depending on how stringently the laws are applied in this regard, a substantial penalty could hypothetically arise for any aspiring or seasoned politician during this election, if they fall foul of these laws with a large quantity of offending posters or flyers.

But many would argue that today's technological innovations, coupled with the power of social media, could provide a more environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and targeted way for election candidates to communicate directly with voters.

This was evident in the success of US President Barack Obama's first and second presidential campaigns, which are viewed by many as the benchmark for such social media methods and the use of modern campaigning techniques.

The recent referendum on gay marriage also demonstrated the power of such social media tactics for electioneering purposes in an Irish context for the first time.

With this in mind, however, it must be noted that both election campaigns still relied on the traditional posters and campaign devotees on the ground.

However, most traditionalists would argue (and some social media purists would concede) that although social media and technology strategies are a vital election tool in today's campaigns, they are still limited in their electoral reach.

It should also be noted that any limit or ban on electoral posters, something which has been argued for in recent times, could do more to assist the established parties, while potentially inhibiting new parties in the creation of the desired 'recognition' of their new brand and candidates on a national scale.

There have been many worldwide studies done on the whole psychological reasoning and alleged effects of political advertising.

There is little dispute that a large section of Irish voters in this upcoming election, as in the past, will succumb to such primitive psychological tactics and make their choice in an irrational manner.

Such subconscious choices are usually based on an image over substance approach, meaning such voters won't fundamentally care about the detail of the candidate's policies but rather make their decision based on whether that candidate fits their perception of what constitutes an ideal political persona.

Therefore, the common theory behind election posters is the so called "recognition factor". The theory goes that the more frequently the voter sees the faces of prospective candidates, the more likely such voters (particularly undecided ones) will recognise the candidate at polling day and will have formed positive feelings towards them.

One could argue, of course, that given our traditional party allegiances and love of parish pump politics in Ireland, coupled with the plethora of candidates and parties in any given area, this recognition factor will be diluted, as nearly all candidates will have election posters.

This is true for some, and there are more tangible factors which ultimately influence voters, one being an overall integrated communication strategy.

Established parties are keen to ensure that all of their communication experts get the key messages across and display carefully choreographed candidate photos that seek to exude desirable traits such as leadership, power, intelligence or friendliness, depending on the candidate's attributes - whether these are natural or contrived.

Like it or not, the election poster is deeply ingrained into our political culture and psyche and, because of this, it is likely to always remain a prominent feature in polls.

And so, following the announcement of polling day, the election posters will have been put up during the course of a single night by all of the various parties and their devotees. The most prominent location and the highest point at which to affix the posters will be sought by every single party candidate, so that our lampposts resemble totem poles, where positional dominance aims to feed into the voters' subconscious.

So, whatever the result of this year's election, these posters will dominate our eyeline over the coming weeks as lampposts and telephone poles are covered nationwide.

They will attract positive and negative debate - plus much indifference - but will still play a big part in the various candidates' objectives of persuading the electorate, and particularly the undecided voters, to cast their all-important vote for them on polling day.

Jason O' Sullivan is a solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at JOS Solicitors

Irish Independent

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