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What do the children's referendum posters mean?

What messages are the children’s referendum posters trying to get across and do they work? We asked the experts…

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

AS REFERENDUMS GO, the upcoming children’s referendum has been fairly uncontroversial so far.

Given that all of the mainstream political parties are advocating a Yes vote, there has been criticism of the lack of debate the proposed constitutional amendment had created and a fear that turnout will be low among an apathetic public.

But that has not stopped the tradition of parties and advocacy groups erecting posters urging people to vote a particularly way. In this instance we have had only posters which advocate a ‘Yes’ vote as the fractioned ‘No’ campaign has so far failed to erect any similar piece of cardboard.

But what do the posters mean? A Twitter user asked us recently if we would put them under the same scrutiny as we did the posters during the Fiscal Compact referendum earlier this year.

We were only too happy to oblige and our two experts – Dr Eoin O’Malley, lecturer in Law and Government at DCU, and graphic designer Ronan McDonnell of A Worthy Cause –  were happy to help us out once more.

So, what do the experts think of the posters generally?

O’Malley believes that the sufficient resources of the Yes side has allowed it to dominate the debate to the extent that there is not much of a debate at all: ”They are able to frame the referendum as being for children’s rights, which suggests in people’s minds that if it’s ‘yes for children’, no must be for something pretty nasty. This phrase, used by Children’s Rights Alliance, I suspect is the most effective one. It is simple and suggestive.

He notes that all of the posters have children although different posters have different children in different moods. Some happy, some sad, some even bored. “It’s not clear which one would work best – I’d have thought a happy child; certainly not the bored one, who might just induce apathy in the public,” he adds.

McDonnell takes a more critical view from a design perspective: “They are a poor, insipid lot. Taken as a whole, they are a kaleidoscope of complacency, a largely disinterested attempt at persuasion. Clearly, their various commissioners have taken it as a given that the motion will easily pass.”

He believes the parties and interested organisations have put up posters “with a minimum attention to detail” adding that it’s as if they are saying of the proposed amendment: “We all know we have to fix it. But we just want you let you now we think so too, in case you’d like to vote for us in the next election.”

How do each of the posters rate?

Fine Gael

Eoin O’Malley: “Fine Gael’s phrase, ‘Every Child Matters’ is one of those meaningless phrases that is hard to argue against, and linking it to a yes vote makes it powerful, because immediately the suggestion is that if you vote no, then every child doesn’t matter.”

Ronan McDonnell: “This is the finest poster of a bad lot. The message is clear. Technically it cannot be faulted without recourse to navel-gazing levels of detail. Its colours are thoughtful, but sombre, with just enough lift for the promotion of the message.

“It is legible, direct and yet it still lacks grace. The image of a concerned boy is obviously chosen to remind the viewer of the emotive nature of the referendum – our sympathy is begged for this young child clutching his teddy, alone in a world of untold hardship and weighty concern.

“Yet, this is such a leading image, it seems unreal; it loses impact. It is so posed, so full of contrivance, we understand at some basic level this child is a model and his hardship is superficial; at most he is unhappy at being sent to bed before the end of Scooby Doo.”

Labour Party

EOM: “The Labour poster has a clever take on the phrase ‘children should be seen and not heard’, but it doesn’t work for me. It might if the missing ‘not’ were replaced with another word it could have kept the metre of the original phrase.”

RMcD: “Let’s not dwell on the red-haired cailin-ness of the girl chosen to represent Ireland’s children. Let’s consider the type that sits on the banner which cuts across her like an Irish dancer’s sash. There is an odd hierarchy here. In good typographic layout the key message is emphasised, often times to the point of eclipsing the other type elements that support the message both grammatically and rhetorically.

“In this layout the stand out words, and those that are seen from the greatest distance, are ‘and heard’; these are presumably the most important in the hierarchy. We assume from the ‘and’ that something important was mentioned in the preceding small type.

“This ought to be the first point in a combined statement. And yet it is tiny, of far less than equal importance. At the same time we are loudly told that children should be heard. But then the Yes is smaller again – surely this is what they are “telling” us, vote Yes? So why is it smaller? Also, the V on vote should be upper case.”

Sinn Féin and ‘Yes for Children’ (ISPCC, Barnardos and Children’s Rights Alliance

EOM: Sinn Féin and CRA use colourful lettering – as you see for ads aimed at parents, such as for baby milk. Sinn Féin, whose posters don’t seem to have actually made it on to lampposts, also use a phrase from the 1916 Proclamation ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’ to presumably make a broader point about how Irish nationalists love kids.”

RMcD: “Such is the strength of belief that Sinn Fein has in children’s rights, they even got a group of them to design their poster by the looks of it. From the top it is colourful, text is aligned right, then left, then a centred logo, all around the image of a smiling child. It’s not rocket science, thank god.”

RMcD: “There is some metaphor hidden in there, deep within the bad photoshop and drab layout. It is a big pencil, sure, but is the child making a mark? Has he stolen a giant’s pencil? Is he relying on ‘big people’ to make the mark his peers need for protection?

“Anyway, this follows Fine Gael’s lead, or vice versa, in having a slogan, and then repeating that same phrase, only smaller this time, as a url. Is this really necessary, or needless repetition, showing the lack of care that went into these posters?

“From a technical point of view, having a white bar across the base, holding logos is unimaginative. It is risky too, meaning the central logo, Barnardo’s, may get chewed up with zip-ties. Oh, and in case you forgot this referendum is about children, they put the word “children” in varied colours. They love that colouredy-stuff, the little ‘uns.”

Fianna Fáil

EOM: “It’s visually quite distinctive and well-designed. The phrase ‘Protect Children’ is again an attempt to frame the referendum, which those on the no side might take issue with. The phrase is pretty anodyne, but that doesn’t really matter.”

The ‘No’ side – Unmarried and Separated Families of Ireland

EOM: The no side is smaller and seems to consist of a number of groups and arguments. A Catholic group, who argue that it will mean the rights of families will be affected; those who say that this is unnecessary because the rights already exist in law; and those who argue that the state has not shown itself to be better than parents in providing for the welfare of children.

“This last group (above) have useD the phrase, ‘if you tolerate this, then your children’s children will be next’, which is a very specific if not immediate threat. The challenge for the no side is to counteract the frame that yes is ‘for children’.

“It’s a pity there are so few No posters to look at – we could then see could they counter the dominant frame that the referendum is to ‘protect children’.

“Presumably they would have ‘Protect Families – Vote No’, but I doubt that would be successful. You’d need to include something about children, so perhaps ‘Children belong in their families – Vote No’.”

RMcD: “If your message really means something, then you ought to at least put your name to it. You also don’t need to jazz it up with gradients last seen in the cloakrooms of 90s raves, or a mix and match of equally nasty serif and sanserif fonts. The double exclamation marks are a new low in the history of punctuation.

“What exactly is the message? Your children’s children will be next, as in each successive generation comes after the previous, thus continuing your legacy through your direct descendants? Or they will be next for something in particular – an inheritance perhaps? Also, what are we tolerating exactly – atrocious design? There is no compelling message here at all.”

Previously: How election posters work – and which party has the best

Read more: TheJournal.ie’s coverage of the children’s referendum >

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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