Political signs endure as viable election tactic Good ones help, say experts, but pay heed to color, location, size

October 20, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Janet Owens believes in the power of signs -- all 1,790 of them.

The underdog county executive candidate's red, white and blue placards have plastered windows and sprouted on Anne Arundel lawns and roadways from Brooklyn Park to South County since late July. If signs were votes, Owens would be declared the winner over incumbent Republican John G. Gary.

As candidates across the country invest millions in high-tech television and Internet campaign advertising, that old cardboard staple, the political sign, endures. It won't make or break a would-be political career, election experts say, but a good sign campaign can only help. That means paying attention to color schemes and location, and yes, size matters.

But it isn't rocket science. Think of campaign signs as Pavlovian signals on a stick. Or silent cheerleaders. The idea is simple: People cannot vote for you if they don't know your name.

Owens thinks of her signs as concrete proof of support.

"The signs represent so many steps," says Owens as she rushed to another appearance. "There's designing the sign, getting them made, getting permission to put the sign up and then getting workers to put them up. It shows all these people support you."

One thing is certain, with two weeks until the general election, candidates ranging from town sheriff to U.S. senator are bombarding the public with rectangular, visual reminders.

"It's a cheap form of advertisement, and if it's well-located, it's worth a lot," says Paul S. Hernnson, a University of Maryland, College Park professor who wrote a 1995 book, "Congressional Elections: Campaigning at Home and in Washington."

"In some cases, it's better than watching a TV ad and glazing over," Hernnson says.

The idea of political self-marketing with banners, posters and notices dates to the Revolutionary War, at least, says Harry Rubenstein, a museum political specialist at Smithsonian Institution.

"The question is, when did people take broadsides and put a stick in them?" Rubenstein says. "I don't know the answer. I don't think anyone does."

The earliest example of a campaign yard sign found in the Smithsonian's "We the People, Winning the Vote" collection is a black, orange and white "This House Sold on Goldwater" sign from the 1960s.

Signs were once the main method of campaigning. As recently as 1992, candidates nationwide running for the House of Representatives spent more on yard signs than newspaper advertisements, according to Hernnson's research. Today, candidates are increasingly likely to spend more on television, radio and direct mail.

Gary, who has a lot of name recognition after years in local politics, spends less on signs than on any other form of campaigning.

"Signs don't vote, people do," says the county executive, who has about 600 signs around the county. "You put out enough of them to let people know there's a campaign going on, and that you're alive and breathing. Instead of littering the roadsides, we did a better job of getting good locations for them."

The benefits of signs can be unpredictable. Twenty-eight percent of people questioned in an informal exit poll conducted by government students from Anne Arundel Community College said signs helped them decide who to vote for in the primary.

Judge their usefulness for yourself. John A. Cade, Republican state senator in Anne Arundel who died in 1996, spent hardly anything on signs, but was elected to six terms. On the other hand, Larry S. Gibson, the dynamic campaign manager, is known for smothering areas with signs to the benefit of such clients as Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

As with all things political, candidates need a strategy. Experts say success depends on design, color, location and message.

Choose colors that stand out from the background, they say. That means no forest green signs in the middle of foliage, no sky blue signs high on telephone poles. Avoid depressing black and white.

You can't go wrong with the traditional colors of Old Glory.

Never put your photograph on a sign.

In Phoenix, Ariz., a justice of the peace candidate learned that a few years ago when her portraits on signs started growing mustaches and losing teeth.

Rein in your vanity, experts say. Make voters remember your name and the office you're seeking. The bigger the sign, the better. Put them in the most visible locations.

That means in Carroll County, along Route 140 in Westminster and Finksburg. In Howard County, target the Shell station on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City. In Anne Arundel, along Route 2. In Baltimore County, York Road and the Beltway exit in Towson. In Baltimore City, Franklin and Mulberry streets.

Blanket an area, but don't be sloppy. Voters hate litter.

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