Sign Pollution

Today I am going to be as bi-partisan as I ever am and simultaneously air a pet peeve. Read along and you may just be a bit surprised.

I am not a big fan of political yard signs. Until recently I lived in a picturesque rural North Carolina county. If it had nothing else it has plenty of pretty land! Every election is was disfigured by what I called sign wars.

Now before you think I’ve gone off the deep end and am un-American let me define what I call sign pollution which is the effect of sign wars. I have absolutely no problem with someone putting up the campaign sign of a candidate(s) they are supporting on their lawn. I regard that as part of free speech and freedom of association; both rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. My complaint is with signs in common areas.

While a rural intersection, (and this problem exists to a lesser degree in densely populated areas), may not always be picturesque and certainly isn’t the prettiest part of the county, a plethora of campaign signs all over the place doesn’t enhance whatever beauty there was!

There are two reasons I call this phenomenon sign wars. First there are often multiple signs for the same candidate in extremely close proximity. This takes three forms. Often there are simply multiple signs for a candidate at the same intersection randomly placed, as if simply more was better. Another strategy is that if your opponent has a sign you place one on either side of it. The latest strategy I have seen is stringing multiple identical signs one after the other along the roadside. For someone of my age it is reminiscent of the old Barbasol signs, except they were all different and communicated a message. (This is a rare case where the good old days actually were better; or at least they made more sense.)

The other variation has an almost Freudian connotation (although female candidate use it too); it combines sign wars with size wars. Instead of utilizing standard size lawn signs the battle is between mini-billboard signs. I guess some candidates think size matters. It kind of like if I shout louder than you, I win the argument. To me it’s all quite juvenile.

Here is where I get bipartisan. This is a case of a pox on both houses, (in fact on more than just the big two). The election was over well over a month ago and a friend of mine devoted a respectable part of his December 15th op-ed to pleading for the candidates to get their signs off the roads. He was not talking about out of people’s front yard. That is not where the problems exist; win or lose almost everyone has cleaned up their lawn by now. The signs that remain out there are from candidates of both parties. They include signs for candidates I supported and those who I was vehemently against. It is not limited to Democrats and Republicans. In fact in the part of North Carolina where I live Gary Johnson had more signs in common areas than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

That leads me to another point. To clean up a quote from a late political mentor of mine: “Signs don’t vote!” Unless a sign is on someone’s property it means nothing. If you put a sign on your front lawn it means you support the candidate, will vote for them and may have donated to and/or volunteered for them. Intersections and road shoulders don’t vote.

Political scientists have proven that signs are largely ineffective and certainly do not deliver the bang for the buck that several other campaign tactics do. For years I have asked intelligent candidates why they are investing so much in signs. One of the two reasonable answers is that it gives some otherwise rather useless volunteers something to do. The other is that they feel it makes their supporters feel they are actually doing something. For first time unknowns signs can generate some small name recognition but the research shows candidates they get little return on their investment.

If office holders (who are politicians and candidates) were smart they would outlaw signs other than on private property. They would have more money to spend on more effective campaigning techniques. Since municipalities often end up footing the cleanup bill they would make their jobs as public officials easier. As incumbents they would pick up a slight edge over an unknown challenger. Sounds like a multi-faceted win for them to me.

I guess it all goes back to something our parents taught us when we were little kids: When you are done playing, pick up your toys.

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One thought on “Sign Pollution”

  1. I share your irritation Larry. I’ve long thought that there should be a law which requires candidates to clean up all their signs by the Friday after election day.

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