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

What messages are the posters trying to send? And what’s the point of them anyway? TheJournal.ie answers all your questions.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

YOU MAY HAVE noticed that a referendum is on the way.

You may have noticed this because practically every lamppost in Ireland – or so it seems – has one or more posters tied to it, urging us to vote one way or  the other.

The election poster is a stalwart of Irish political life. Before every major vote they appear as if by magic along our streets, the work of thousands of dedicated volunteers. And the Fiscal Treaty referendum is no exception.

But what are the posters actually trying to say? TheJournal.ie spoke to two experts – Dr Eoin O’Malley, lecturer in Law and Government at DCU, and graphic designer Ronan McDonnell of A Worthy Cause – to assess them from political and visual perspectives.

What’s the point of election posters anyway?

In a conventional election, posters are there mainly to boost name and face recognition for the candidates. But this referendum isn’t about individual politicians. So what effect do the posters have? ”Its major impact is probably to make people vote. Because it just reminds you constantly that you’re in an election campaign,” Eoin O’Malley says.

It’s also an opportunity for the parties to try and set the terms of the debate. “It’s one of the ways you see the election being framed,” O’Malley says – so for example referring to the treaty in terms of either ‘stability’ or ‘austerity’. “What they’re trying to do there is get particular words in people’s minds when we consider our votes.”

There may also be another reason – in the world of party politics, it pays to keep your activists busy. “I think they also do it just to keep the party workers fit and get them used to putting up posters, in case they suddenly have to do it at the drop of a hat,” O’Malley says. “It’s a bit like military training.”

So how do each party’s posters rate?


1. Fine Gael

Eoin O’Malley: “It’s the same sort of language that’s been used for the last two or three European referendums. It doesn’t strike me as terribly clever. The only thing that I thought when I saw it is, have Fine Gael rebranded? Their colours are usually blue, whereas this looks like Fianna Fáil colouring. I don’t know whether this was to make it look more nationalistic, so voting Yes would be a nationalistic statement. But they don’t seem to be great posters. Stability, recovery – these are messages we’ve heard before and I suspect aren’t going  to convince people this time.”

Ronan McDonnell: “There is some crisp typography, tastefully done. Presumably the typeface is intentionally similar to the Gotham face with which Barack Obama swept to victory, on the back of groundbreaking political design.

“Unfortunately for Fine Gael, the statement of intention is relatively small. And their identity is so small as to make one wonder if they are hiding it; as the party in power, they are making unpopular decisions. While the layout and type is confident, the overall effect is meek.”


2. Labour

EOM: “It’s the same nationalist overtones. Obviously they’ve done work with focus groups who’ve said ‘Oh, we think the EU has gone away from Ireland, and we should be thinking about Irish interests.’ So they’re pushing the tricolour down at people and saying this is about Ireland, not about Europe.

“Usually when you’re trying to frame these things, emotion might work better than a cognitive appeal. And stability isn’t someithng you might get emotionally excited about. Whereas a word like austerity is a more emotive term. If I were they I would have had posters of nurses and gardaí saying ‘Who’s going to pay my bills if we vote No?’ or something like that.”

RMcD: “A total dog’s dinner of a poster. Traditionally Labour posters have been refined, with clear typography and well commissioned photography. Not so here. Why is there a picture of a sky? Are we looking to the future, or being lowered into a grave? Admittedly, it would be a patriot’s grave as the tricolour drapes us.

“The Yes is placed over a fairly deep blue in a red of similarly strong tonality. This, in a real-world scenario, makes it almost invisible. At least their logo is clear.”


3. Sinn Féin

EOM: “The austerity card is one that you were obviously going to play. It’s a much more emotive term. I suspect their real job here is to promote Sinn Féin as the party that’s against austerity; that’s standing up for Irish interests.”

RMcD: “A similar approach to Fine Gael, but with a more rough-hewn aesthetic. They have at least cottoned onto making ‘No’ the largest element along with their party name. But imagine driving past this poster. By the time you have read the extra clutter you will have passed it, long before reading the Sinn Féin at the base.”


5. Fianna Fáil

EOM: “‘Just vote Yes, and we couldn’t think of any reason why you might.’ There’s no attempt at framing it or trying to press a message, which is odd. They’re also not pushing the Fianna Fáil logo. I’m not quite sure what this is doing, other than saying ‘We’re involved in the campaign as well.’ I wonder how much money they’re actually putting into this campaign.”

RMcD: “This is a great poster. A clean, crisp aesthetic not unlike the Fine Gael poster, but with a nice gradient which brings it to life. The typographic mixing pushes the Yes message clearly. The handwritten script is quite unusual in Irish political posters, and adds a striking positivity. Interestingly they add the referendum date, which is a nice touch.”


5. Socialist Party

EOM: The Socialist Party posters are definitely cleverer. This is a copy of the old Tory one from 1979, Labour Isn’t Working.”

RMcD: This poster is a mockery. The design is below par and rambling. For example: if they wish to emphasis that austerity is counter productive then “doesn’t” would be better off in the same colour but heavier weight than “austerity” and “work”. Then it forms a single entity. The red full stop hanging on can go. “No” is one of the smallest words on the poster.

More: ‘What are we at?’ – Labour TD criticises number of election posters>

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About the author:

Michael Freeman

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