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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Elections 2017: Political Billboards - The good, the bad BUT mostly the fugly!

For many people in NZ the first real sign that there is an election campaign going on is when the election billboards go up.

Like a form of political graffiti or territorial pissing they appear on the side of the roads, near major intersections and roundabouts across major cities and out in the countryside to remind people that their local MP may soon be unemployed.

Of course these brightly colored signs serve other purposes, of which one is to provide employment to the political billboard industry and another is to make the local candidate feel good about themselves.

And that's all political billboards are really good for because one of the the first things any Pol Sci 101 student learns when the study gets to election campaigns is how pointless these things are. Its generally accepted that they have no real value in an election campaign.

I have distinct memories of sitting in a lecture, in what was a NZ and US election year, listening to a well paid political consultant, who had come in as a guest speaker, talk about how to run an election campaign and what not to do as a candidate.

And their words stick with me now, as they did then, because they summed it all up in two simple maxims that were Be authentic and don't waste your money on billboards.

And the reasons for the billboard rule is numerous but the best way to explain it is though the language of advertising.

In advertising, targeting ones product at ones audience is a basic principle and such a thing is best done by finding the  best medium to reach that target audience.

So the questions then is who thinks that a large, garishly colored billboard, with an MP's gormless face on it is the best way to a) reach that sweet target market of potential voters and b) convince any of those potential voters to actually vote for you?

The correct answers for both should be "are you out of your mind, I have better ways to waste my election campaign funds*"

However its not often the answer that MP or political parties seem to give**.

Its scatter-gun advertising at its worst with the potential to raise vaguely one personal profile and the party's brand image slightly but with no room for any substantive message or any genuine appeal to voters.

Think about it: not only is your political billboard and three (or four if your really pushing the envelope) word message competing with every other political billboard out there but also with every other billboard and piece of advertising in the same space or area.

Also, consider, in your daily travels or commute, how many signs, billboards and other forms of advertising you pass and subconsciously block out? You probably don't even notice how many billboards and signs you pass.

In fact, next time you are moving around town take the time to consciously count how many small signs are out there on the sides of the roads and streets in New Zealand, probably a lot more than you think. Also consider how many you knew were there before you deliberately started noticing them.

There are signs for (and this is not counting actual normal advertising on the road but just the kind of signs one sees on fence which are likely to compete directly with political billboards) bridal shows, hypnotists, school fairs, garage sales, theater groups, local pubs and shops, fencing contractors, dog washes and all kids of activity and business one can image; and they all have more words, a more focused message and probably much more relevance to you, driving, walking or busing past, than whatever political candidate X and party Y has to say.

And on top of that there are the even larger political meta factors to consider such as if your candidate is either a guaranteed win or a hopeless loss, why spend precious campaign budget on a dead skunk way of advertising at all given its limited effect?

The answer to trying to connect with potential voters is not through a billboard but more targeted and direct means such as pamphlets, letter drops, public meetings, sky writing, going door to door or even just driving round the neighborhood, blues brothers style, shouting out your name and message through a  public address system.

And that raises other issues for these useless hunks of corrugated cardboard in that how much mojo do you think your dead eyed face staring out at the world is going to do to offset the already poor reputation both you, your party and politicians in general have among the public?

Is a photo of you on a billboard with your soulless party leader going to do anything to offset all the bad publicity you and they have generated over the last three years from your antics in Parliament?

The answer to this is obvious and the rate at which political billboards "edited", defaced, punk'd or just plain destroyed should be enough to give readers an idea of how good these things are at inspiring people to vote for any politician.

Finally there is the fact that your billboard itself might inadvertently generate its own media controversy like when politicians squabble over potential wall space or have to take it down or modify their message.

Of course there is also the use of digital and social media as a campaign tool but NZ is not a sophisticated democracy and as such these areas are not fully explored or understood yet.

And to help ram these points home I spent part of last week driving around Christchurch looking for and taking photos of various party billboards to analyze like some sort of demented political Pokemon collector, Ugh!

So in no particular order, except in which I took them, please find my take on what will be trying to worm its way into your subconscious this election.

You can also decide if my own party slogans are any better than the party's actual ones.

I did try to find a NZ First billboard but as much as I drove round I never saw any so they escape for now but if anyone sends me a photo of a current NZ First billboard I will add it here.

Labour - Oh the Irony

Its worth noting that this photo was taken the day before Little announced his resignation and that its been removed now as Jacinda has rapidly stamped her mark on the party by getting new billboards done.

The problems with this billboard are many but the fact that the party has now spent a lot of money erasing little from history with its new billboards, new slogan and new faces shows that this will be come a rare collectors item for anyone who would want this monstrosity.

First up the color; not one BUT two tones of blood red and a picture of Little and Ardern dressed mostly in black superimposed over it which makes them look like a pair of vampires come to your door to suck out your life force if given a chance.

There is also the issue of the slogan as there was nothing "fresh" about having Andrew Little anywhere near the party leadership. If they were honest it would have said "the same crap as always!"

Labour's new slogan, soon to be appearing, on billboards is "lets do this" which immediately brought this to mind when I herd it.

Yes that's right, Jacinda may have accidentally come up with the best campaign slogan of the lot because unlike the other awful offerings (see below) this one at least implies some energy and action (if also a good amount of steroid abuse).

Finally there is the glaring issue of Jacindas teeth. Little is flashing just the right amount of tooth to not look like a add for toothpaste but Jacinda is firing off a dental broadside like she has just found out that she has absolutely no cavities after a weekend of drinking endless sugary cokes and smoking meth and is not afraid to prove it.

A less horsey picture of her would have been just as effective.

The person that comes best out of this picture is Jacinda's dentist.

The Greens - Fine Young Conservatives!

As someone who has voted Green in the past this picture frightened and confused me.

Firstly because Shaw and Turei look like young National candidates more than Green MPs as they are both wearing sombre blue (traditionally the color of National) business attire and because the actual color green is highly minimized in this picture.

Its either blurred in the background or in green so dark to be almost black so on the use of a core color to build even simple brand awareness this billboard fails miserably.

At least neither of them are showing any teeth but when you do the old trick of covering the mouth and looking only at the eyes only to see what kind of real emotions are being displayed you get a sense of smugness emanating from both co-leaders.

Its the kind of smug of people who think they are in control of their destiny, who are on the right (or should that be Right) side of history and who are going to "win big" this election.

Also the slogan, "Great together", means absolutely nothing unless again the Greens are subliminally trying to tell Bill English that they are happy to work with him because otherwise what exactly is "great" about the current Green/Labour arrangement together?***.

Its just a two word jumble that produces no real message and mushes up the mind of anyone reading it without further context.

Whats for sure is that this photo was taken prior to Turei's benefit or vote fraud admissions and I wonder if the Greens have realized that taking a principled stance only works when your actions remain principled.

If I was to read anything subliminal into from this picture is that the Greens don't really want to be green they want to be in government and if that means doing a deal with the devil (the oh so blue National party) then so be it.

Vote for at your own risk.   

Eagle eyed readers might have also noticed this this billboard is already on the ground. That's how I found it and photographed it. I don't know if it had been pulled down or just fallen down.

TOP - The mask behind the man

I had been looking at the face of Gareth Morgan, staring down at me from immense billboards like Big Brother, for some time now and something about his face was bothering me.

Something about the high cheekbones, large nose, mustache and the way the black and white photography gave him dead eyes was not sitting right and it was only when I was recently in Auckland and the evening sun caught the billboard in a certain way did I realize what I was looking at and I nearly peed myself.

Look at it a certain way and that billboard makes Morgan look like the main character V from V for Vendetta which sounds crazy until you think about a few key points.

a) Morgan announced the creation of the political party TOP on Guy Fawkes day (November 5th 2016);
b) the titular character in V for Vendetta wears a Guy Fawks mask and announced his presence to the world on Guy Fawkes day also;
c) These masks are now popular items among the online and social protest group Anonymous.

It seems unlikely that Morgan is ignorant of this Film (or even the comic book form which it sprung), the obvious connotations such connections have for anyone who is clever enough to make such them and what both the implications of starting a political party with such connotations actually means for politics as a whole.

Morgan himself has not quite been shy about things as he compared himself to Donald Trump, because of his anti-establishment approach, on the day he announced TOP but he forgot to mention this little bit of subliminal manipulation his billboard has been doing to myself (and now you too as once its seen it cannot be unseen) because if the Big Brother face on a billboard was creepy enough then Morgans ginormous face morphing between himself, Big B, the man called V and then Anonymous as you gaze at it is terrifying.

Who knows what "Care, Think, Vote" actually means   but I am probably going to need one of those pairs of "special sunglasses" like in They Live to see what the real message of TOP's billboard is.

Creepy, very creepy.

National - On Dead Ground

There was something about National's billboard being all there alone on a piece of waste ground in central Christchurch that immediately made me think of the following lines from TS Elliot's The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

What an apt description for both the bungled rebuild in Christchurch but also the National Party because despite the gloss of the rebuild in the central city and the grandiose plans to bring the "business back" there has never been any real recognition of the devastation wrought on the people of this city by the inept bungling of the rebuild, of the horror of fighting with insurance companies that afflicted many and the greed and corruption that lead to CERA having to be closed down to hide the evidence and Gerry Brownlee being moved out of the Rebuild portfolio prior to the election lest he do more damage to Nationals election chances.

So Bill and Nicky grinning out at us from a blasted piece of earth is entirely appropriate and sums up National so well that why bother with a slogan when that says it all.

One thing is notice able though and that's the "toothy" factor again showing its head (or should I say teeth) as its clear that the photographers instructions on the day of the shoot was "more teeth please" as while Wagner is not on par with Ardern (who just seems to be dentally well endowed) she sure seems to be trying.

In fact I would almost say that those teeth are digitally enhanced as they just don't look real, did Colgate Toothpaste sponsor this billboard?

Still its nice to see National not bothering to try and change the formula from when John Key was running the show by having the old "candidate with the leader" style billboards all about town because Bill English is entirely just as popular and recognizable as John Key was.

Perhaps National is hoping potential voters wont notice and just assume it still is John Key running the show.

If National had any brains they would have just put up the same billboards from the 2014 campaign (complete with JKs grinning face) and be done with it and saving its campaign money for better things*4.

If this billboard has a message to voters its the actual land its situated on.

A waste land!

ACT - Pissing into the wind!

Look at this, just look at it! I was so amazed that I actually found one of these that I almost crashed into the back of another car in my haste to make sure I was not hallucinating.

Whats worse is that the bold yellow that ACT normally uses for its branding had faded on this billboard when I got to it and it was more like custard, puss or even a bold piss yellow colored when I took the photo which are definitely not the kind of things you want popping into your potential candidates head when they think about your party.

But it does not stop there as if you thought some of the faces on other billboards were bad then Seymour looks like he has just been asked to leave a restaurant for some public indiscretion and has wandered outside to find a camera aimed at him.

He has a smile on his face but its curled up the way a piece of bread curls as it goes moldy and by doing the cover the mouth test we can see eyes desperately pleading with us to vote for them but knows the reality will be the opposite.

Seymour is the unwanted pet in the political pet store window, you know the one, that mangy runt of the litter that would die if left alone in the wild or be eaten by its siblings but is stuck with its ugly snout pressed up against the glass desperately trying to get someone, anyone, to take it home.

Alas it will never come to be as sooner or later the store will tire of the scabby mutt that does nothing but eat food, crap in the corner and scare the kids when the walk past and take it out back for the "big sleep".

Finally, as if a piss yellow sign with a man trying not to look dodgy or desperate fronting an obscure minor party you probably did not know still existed was not enough there is that three word abortion of a slogan to add to the confusion.

What does "own your future" mean to anyone? Its just as likely that passers by will see it as an endorsement for ACT as for some group of golden shower fetishists.


So long story short, election billboards are visual pollution and nothing more and the candidates would be better served by simply driving round and handing out free money while shouting their name at passers by.

At least the damn things will be down by election day.

*-like on hookers and cocaine!
**-Or we should be able to note a measurable increase in the level of cocaine and hookers come election time
***- Ask Andrew Little
*4-see "*"


  1. EA, I see your poster title appearing over in the side bar at Farrar's site.
    Billboards get a bad rep because they are counter productive in most cases as you noticed well. It would be interesting to see a scientific survey.
    I think they have some meaning in that they can display personality, and context.
    eg. Morgan. Wagner.
    Now over to a related form of display. You are taking your dog to a Veterinary Clinic, and when you get there you see two clinics, next to each other. One shabby, weeds growing in asphalt, fence posts broken by cars and ...
    Paul Scott Vet clinic, it says " We treat Animals like people" and around the sign, quality entrance, newly painted clinic. .
    Yes that's right you come in to see me and my blond nurse is coming at you right now .

    So the best signs in the best places will lift an unknown.
    I did this in Canterbury Regional 2007. I was unknown against well established contenders. Big bold clean black and white signs, alone in paddocks, only a few words,
    wood framework of sign painted black. Two signs in a row, highly visible no mess. I made the mistake of not saying clearly Pro Farmer because of the Belfast people, and City dominance..
    I came close to taking out Jo Kane and giving leadership of Council from Kerry Burke to to Alec Neil. All with signs.
    The value of the signage was noticed by local people, and after the election, and the sites I used were leased from the farmers by those businesses who had seen my impact.
    So quality. Simple messaging.
    I think Seymour confuses people by being dry here and wet there.
    Fiscally conservative but wants to open borders. Mixed messaging.
    I see my own mixed message, this one I'm on the Lolita user site, mainly used for Nazi propaganda . Paul Scott

    1. Hi Paul:

      I would never argue that a political billboard is totaly ineffective as I did note that they can highlight a brand overall but from the perspective of a targeted medium they don't really work.

      Your recounting your own experience using billboards is interesting, I am assuming you were using other methods as well to get the message out otherwise your billboards were rocking given your description.

      My guess is your billboard tapped into a brand/message you had already built and they helped keep that message going.

  2. Last month we had several instances where our pet lambs got their heads stuck in the panels of the '11/90/15' house yard fence. This is evident in the following photograph:iron fence gate