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Maine Political Signs Carry Subliminal Messages
10/05/2012   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Every year about this time, you start noticing the little forests of political signs popping up on every greenbelt in the neighborhood. The reason is that there's a candidate who would like your vote. And according to those who scrutinize politics and media, there's also an unspoken message in the signs' color and design. Jennifer Mitchell reports.

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You may notice this season that a growing number of political sign designs out there stray beyond the classic American palette of red, white, and blue.

"I think in some cases they represent the presence of deliberate third parties," says Jon Ippolito, a media and design specialist with the University of Maine. He says that it's increasingly common to see lawn signs clad in purple, orange, and yellow. And green especially, he says, seems to be gaining traction as a symbolic campaign color.

"Green being a symbol both of environmental consciousnes, growth also, and money, in the sense of economic boon," Ippolito says. "So we associate green with a company like Starbucks that represents both the economic and the kind of ecological, you know, Seattle vibe."

That color symbolism within political campaigns may have had beginnings with Jimmy Carter, says Daniel Shea, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civil Engagement at Colby College in Waterville. For his 1976 campaign, Carter surprised some by rolling out green signs in order to portray himself as a candidate of peaceful values.

The color scheme of choice for Republicans, say experts, has always been, and remains, some variation on red, white, or blue - sometimes all three. All these colors, says Shea, can have psychological impacts on voters.

"Red can mean excitement and energy," Shea says. "Blue is often used as a calming color. White is often thought to denote purity and integrity. Of course very few candidates pick yellow, right? Because yellow is danger."

Nevertheless, yellow has a role to play for some candidates. Robert Caverly is campaign manager for U.S. Congressional candidate, Kevin Raye. "The Raye name out in Washington County is synonomous with mustard, and that did play a role in the selection of the colors," he says.

Then there are Arthur Verrow's lemon-colored signs for the District 21 State House race. Verrow's opponent, Will Rogers, has also chosen a non-traditional color schem, black and orange - chosen, he says, because he wanted to make sure that his signs "stood out a mile" from everyone else's.

Orange on a sign, says Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine, may imply industry and energy - reminiscent of road crews or a big business like Home Depot, which also uses an orange color scheme. The color is also a hard one to ignore.

"I'm of the opinion that signs are really for the campaign itself - you know, I don't think any campaign was ever won or lost on the basis of signs," says Dennis Bailey, a political marketing expert and former spokesman for Gov. Angus King.

Bailey's not a big fan of signs. He says too much time is spent planning them, putting them out and engaging in what he calls "sign wars." There's also no evidence, he says, that they tell voters much of anything. But he puts them up anyway because a candidate's supporters insist on them.

"I don't know if the public wants to see them so much, but as something to give the volunteers to do, and something to sort of rally the troops, they're a big part of a campaign," Bailey says.

They work rather like advertising jingles, says Jon Ippolito at the University of Maine. Studies have shown that the more annoying the jingle, the more people remember it. Both Daniel Shea at Colby College and Ippolito agree that there are many ingredients that go into a successful political sign recipe - it's just not clear which ingredients resonate with wich voters, and exactly how many signs do the trick.

Then there's the matter of retrieving all those political signs post election. They need to be taken down from most places within a week after the election. And for candidates who are not successful at the ballot box, all those signs can be recycled for a future run for office. But, on the other hand, they might want to rethink their designs.

Photos by Jennifer Mitchell.

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