John Campanelli, the Plain Dealer on cleveland.com has a great article on when and how campaign yard signs work for candidates:
If our yards are our faces in the neighborhood, political signs are the zits: annoying, ugly and — thank goodness — temporary.
And this time of year it’s as if the yards have raided the Halloween candy, because they’re breaking out. No street, highway exit or vacant lot seems spared.
To some people, election signs are a nuisance, sullying the autumn colors and doing little else. Certainly, a frivolous little sign can’t influence an important decision in the voting booth, right?
Truth is, there’s a reason we see scores of yard signs every October.
Not in every race, according to Marietta College psychology professor Mark Sibicky, an expert on behavior and decision-making. Ironically, in the races where we see the most signs – high-profile showdowns like McCain vs. Obama – signs do the least. That’s because in those contests, most voters have already chosen a candidate.
“Most social psychologists would tell you that signs do little to change anyone’s mind that is already made up,” said Sibicky via e-mail.
In smaller races – for city council, sheriff, school board — where many voters don’t know the candidates, signs can tip the scales. The reason is something psychologists call the “mere exposure effect,” which says the more humans become familiar with something, the more they tend to like it.
In one experiment, a person was shown two photos, one of his face, the other a mirror image of his face. When researchers asked which photo was preferred, he chose the mirror image (the one he saw in the mirror every day). When shown the same photo, friends and family of the person tended to choose the regular photo, the one they saw every day.
How does this relate to yard signs? Let’s say that you are paying no attention to the local sheriff’s race. But every day on your way to work, you pass a “Jed Clampett for sheriff” yard sign. On Nov. 4, when you go into the voting booth, you’re more apt to vote for Clampett, because the name is simply more familiar to you, according to Sibicky.
Milan Kecman/The Plain Dealer
Candidates often after tempted to add messages and graphics to their signs. Big mistake. Needless words, small lettering, a script typeface, a photograph and a white background doom this sign (pdf) and make it unreadable from the street.
“You don’t even really think about it,” he added. “It’s a classically conditioned response. All things being equal, we like the familiar name.”
Of course, the mere exposure effect works only for races in which we haven’t bothered to learn the names of the candidates, which, unfortunately, may be most of the races for many voters.
Aside from helping a candidate actually win, supporters have other reasons for putting up yard signs. At their very basic, they give a person a voice in the election, and opportunity to be heard, even if it’s only by drivers shaking their heads. Also, signs allow us to socially identify with a candidate or party, filling a need to belong, said Sibicky.
Whatever the reason, signs remain popular, and Dale Fellows isn’t complaining. He’s president of Morgan Litho in Cleveland, which will produce more than 100,000 signs for this election.
Yard signs are cheap, as low as couple of dollars each or less with large orders, said Fellows. They usually make up a fraction of a campaign’s advertising budget.
First-time candidates often make the mistake of trying to put too much information on a sign, said Fellows, who often helps candidates with their designs.
Signs need to be simple, he said, with the candidate’s name as big as possible, in block letters. The fewer the words, the better. Contrasting colors – yellow and black, blue and white – are best, with the darker color on the background.
Ohio Rep. Carol-Ann Schindel, a Republican from Lake County, worked with Fellows two years ago during her first campaign, a victory over a Democratic incumbent.
“I made the rookie mistake, and I tried to put my whole message on the sign and realized that it kind of cluttered things up,” said Schindel.
With Fellows’ help, the signs got simpler (with just her name and office being prominent) and incorporated a distinguishing yellow-on-burgundy theme.
“We decided to make sure it was something people could read from 20 yards away,” said Schindel.
On the other side of town, Rep. Dennis Kucinich has turned his yard signs – “DENNIS!” in black letters on a yellow background – into a powerful trademark.
“To build a brand around your first name is a pretty powerful thing,” said Matt Dornic, a Fairview High School grad who founded 3 Dog Communications in Washington, D.C.
The bright color adds another positive: a bright, almost floral feeling, said Dornic. “It works, especially in the fall, when Cleveland starts to get cold.”
That was intentional, according to Kucinich. “We never get enough of the sun in Cleveland, so I created a sign that would provide for kind of a sunny moment,” he said.
Kucinich said signs give his campaign something no other advertisement could. “This is better than a paid billboard, because it’s a personal endorsement,” he said. “It shows that I have support at the neighborhood level.”
Every candidate can say that, at least until after the election, when supporters forget to take the signs down.