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Opening Arguments Against the Excessive Use of Campaign Signs

Last week’s columns got a bit academic and philosophical. However, from your Facebook comments, a letter to the editor and even someone who told me they listened to Tuesday’s podcast on the way to an event we attended last night, it is clear that you embraced it. That is selling your short. You opened my eyes to perspectives not previously considered so thank you.

Let’s take a breather from the complex though and revert back to answering more commonly asked questions I get on the campaign trail.

Past questions are if the Chronicle’s forum is important (it is, but not for the reason you might think), if the Chronicle’s endorsement of candidates matters (it’s an influential publication overall, but its editorial board’s impact is limited) and if you should run for office (you shouldn’t).

That leads us to signs. The question I usually get asked isn’t about their effectiveness but rather the question is usually from supporters of candidates I represent asking why we don’t have more of them.

Now that I know how astute you are from the response to last week, I can already assume you’ve already picked up on two competing conclusions. The first is that I don’t think highly of campaign signs as a form of advertising. The second is that some people do value them. I get that, but here’s why we’re essentially talking about road trash on sticks.

Advertisers understand intentionality. Another way to put this is that professional persuaders merge what something is with what something does to create changed behavior.

There’s a fascinating example from this in George Felton’s timeless textbook Concept and Copy. Felton states that as many as 40% of McDonald’s customers arrived at the restaurant within 10 minutes of having been exposed to a McDonald’s ad.

Take a moment to reflect on that because it’s a remarkable statistic. This ad could be on the radio or a billboard, which is a form of signage, yet the number demonstrates the quintessential example of understanding intentionality.

It merges what something is - an ad that is likely to reach you when you’re hungry such as on a road trip or leaving work - with what something does which is the ad’s promise of satiating that craving.

The result? Over four in 10 give in to the persuasion and the drive-thru line stretches around the block.

Compare this behavior to how we choose a candidate. We’re hungry three times a day, though my pregnant wife would say even this is underselling how many times a day a person should eat.

Given this high frequency rate of performing the action, our involvement in the decision making process is quite low. To frame how to measure involvement another way, think of buying toothpaste versus buying a car. The former is low involvement while the latter is quite high.

The process for choosing a candidate is infrequent with elections every two years while the involvement in that choice is usually high. It is the antithesis of what makes McDonald’s billboards effective.

That’s not to say that infrequent, high involvement choices don’t use signage. The obvious example is lawyer billboards that line major highways. The intentionality behind these signs is to merge the high involvement choice of choosing representation with the infrequent event of a car accident in the areas where they are most likely to happen. Try U.S. 19, counselors.

There’s one important factor here that needs to be considered: return on investment. Billboards make sense for lawyers because the attorney stands to make much more than what the signage costs if even one sale is converted given the high reward crash cases can yield.

A 4’x8’ campaign sign, the largest county code allows, is between $50-$80 depending on quantity and vendor per side. This means the total cost of a double-sided sign including lumber could be as much as $180. This is an insane amount of money for a single ad especially considering it contains no meaningful persuasive message or ability to target likely voters making the return on investment to the candidate much lower than other forms of outreach.

Everyone knows at least one person who only votes for who they see signs for. Advertising doesn’t work in absolutes, therefore I can’t tell you they are completely ineffective.

When it comes to trashing our roadways on a biannual basis though, I do wish more candidates understood just how limited of an effect campaign signs have on the electorate.


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