Sunday 18 February 2018

Election time: Smile, you're on candidate camera

They're everywhere. Every city, town and village is festooned with posters of every shape, colour and size that desperately beg: vote for me. For casual voters they are often as close as they get to knowing their local candidates. That's what makes them so crucial in an election that has yet to ignite... and why they tell us a lot about Irish politics.

For her poster, Catherine Ardagh told her hairdresser that she didn't 'want to look like Hitler'. Picture: Ronan Lang
For her poster, Catherine Ardagh told her hairdresser that she didn't 'want to look like Hitler'. Picture: Ronan Lang
Fallen posters for next week's election
The boys are looking forward to the local elections
Mannix Flynn's election poster. Picture: Ronan Lang
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the day that Catherine Ardagh went to get a blow-dry for the photograph that would appear on her election poster, she had a clear directive for her hairdresser: "Don't make me look like Hitler."

The Fianna Fáil candidate standing in Dublin's south-inner city had discovered, to her horror, that a previous photo commissioned by the party had wound up getting the Photoshop treatment on a notorious Irish website.

"I had worn my fringe to the side and because I was wearing dark clothes somebody had put a swastika on the sleeve. It became a problem when I went for a job and the person mentioned the Nazi thing to me."

There's little fear of anyone taking similar liberties with the poster that adorns every second lamppost in Walkinstown and environs right now. "Who knows what will happen?" Ardagh asks. "If you stand for election you put yourself out there visually and you can't control what people will do. Posters are such an important part of any election, especially for younger candidates who would not be well known."

The country seems to be engulfed with posters for both the local and European elections. For Alan Kinsella, who curates a blog on Irish election literature through the years (, there has never been anything like it.

"I've never seen such a rush to get them up," he says. "And some streets in Dublin seem to be infested with posters. And with independent candidates like Paul Murphy putting them up early, there can be a real sense of annoyance about them. Part of it is down to a general feeling of fed-upness with politics in this country.

"But I think posters can say quite a lot about the people and parties in question. It's interesting, for instance, that on the Labour posters, running mates are not mentioned, and if you look at the incredibly generic posters from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael you see that even the youngest candidates are dressing to type with the sober jackets and ties for the men and the power suits and perfect hair for the women. You certainly won't find any of the People Before Profit candidates sporting a tie. All of that is very deliberate, of course – a lot of thought has gone into image and the message."

Jack Murray, CEO of which calls itself "Ireland's leading media intelligence company", believes that since the advent of photos of candidates appearing on voting slips, the poster is a more important tool than ever. "It's about name and face recognition," he says, "and the thinking is built around that phrase from American politics: 'just when they're sick of you they know you'."

Murray, who used to work for the Progressive Democrats and was an adviser to Seán Gallagher during his failed presidential bid of 2011, says a good poster campaign works in tandem with street canvassing, a strong message and – in deference to these super-connected times – a compelling presence on social media.

"It's certainly not an option to avoid the poster route, especially if you're starting off in politics," he says. "And it's not cheap. Posters can cost between €5 and €8 and if you're putting up 1,000 or 1,500 the costs can really mount up."

Murray cites the poster of Dublin councillor Mannix Flynn as one that's especially eye-catching. "It's a black and white photo of Flynn with pink lettering and it really stands out when you look at a sea of posters," he says. "It makes you think. It sends out an 'I'm different' message."

The choice of photo to appear is vital, he says. "More of us understand this because of Twitter and LinkedIn avatars. We chose photos that say something about us and what candidates should try to convey is a sense that they are warm, engaging, approachable and, of course, professional and competent. Coming across as aloof or intimidating on an election poster is not a good idea."

Sometimes candidates get it badly wrong, as Mary Davis discovered when she stood for president three years ago. "Her poster [which featured a full-length photo of Davis in a red dress] was so airbrushed that people were talking about the 'Special K effect'. The simple fact was that Davis did not look like the person in the poster and that damaged potential voters' confidence in her.

"The temptation to accentuate looks is there, when you consider that studies have shown that good-looking people tend to do better in life – and in politics."

Dr Ciarán Swan is especially well placed to talk about the power of posters thanks to his twin roles working with the Technical Group in the Oireachtas and as a lecturer in visual design at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.

"Simplicity is key – a poster, at a glance, should provide the name, face and party of the candidate. The best ones are uncluttered and present the person as he or she is, without obvious recourse to touching-up. Anything that might be deemed inauthentic about the poster can be the kiss of death to that candidate because the voter can make a snap decision on them without quite articulating what it is they don't like."

Swan was involved in the design of one of the most memorable posters of the last few decades – the Proinsias De Rossa Euro campaign in 1989 which featured the Workers Party leader in black-and-white on a bluish-grey backdrop and boasting the motto A Breath of Fresh Air.

"It stood out because it was so different to other posters at the time," he says. "Mike Bunn, the fashion photographer and someone not normally associated with political parties, did the shoot with Proinsias on Sandymount Strand, and it presented an image of a strong, principled man who offered something different.

"Some posters can become victims of circumstances. In 1997, the PDs featured candidates as the main image with party leader Mary Harney 'hovering' over their shoulders. That was a good idea when the campaign started, but when she started to get hammered in the polls her presence became something of a millstone."

Swan cites a 1992 poster from Democratic Left as another that had a negative impact on the electorate. "The candidates opted to wear open-necked shirts with no ties," he says. "That led to suggestions that they weren't taking politics seriously enough and it damaged them. In a way, it was before its time because there's much greater acceptance of more casual attire in the workplace than there was 20-odd years ago. But looking at the posters for the main parties today, and the emphasis on the tie is as great as ever."

Meanwhile, Catherine Ardagh is hopeful that her poster will have helped her cause come polling day. "I hope I come across as I am – approachable and friendly," she says. "My father [ex-Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ardagh] advised me that a photo from a different poster made me look uptight and that's certainly not me."

While some candidates go to serious lengths – and expense – to get the perfect image, Ardagh says her chosen shot came from a 10-minute shoot. "I paid €70 at a photography studio in Perrystown and a further €50 for professional make-up and curly blow dry. That's €120 all up. And I negotiated the best rate I could per poster – €5.66 – so I don't think anyone can accuse me of being a spendthrift."

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