Thursday, September 21, 2017

The loneliness of the election hoarding

Every three years the institution of the election poster gives us an object lesson in psychogeography, remaking the country into red zones, blue zones, contested zones. A sign erected on a private fence or put up at one’s window makes an uncomplicated political statement: this is a Tory household, a Labour household, a Green household; the sum of many such statements can mark an entire town or suburb, making class visible in a manifest way. As for the posters in public and commercial spaces, they too make concrete the geographical distribution of the parties’ efforts: who concentrates where, pushing which messages; just as importantly, who is absent, and must be assumed to be working to shore up their consensus elsewhere.

This is how I introduced my first post on New Zealand election hoardings, six years ago, and the premise still applies. But the form is now fully devalued. Local elections (especially in the old country) can still offer some colour and the occasional element of surprise. Not so our national elections, where hoardings have become mere reminders of the existence of parties and candidates, and have ceased to be vehicles of actual political messages. The content of the election campaign, clearly, is elsewhere. In the vastly increased number of Facebook ads, for instance, which have allowed both political parties and sector organisations to quickly produce and distribute short thematic videos on a plethora of topics, and for very little cost compared to the traditional television campaigns.

One unusual thing did happen this year, though, leading to forced and sudden changes in the promotional strategies of both centre-left parties. Having waged its campaign on seamless continuity with National as symbolised by the slogan ‘A fresh approach’, Labour was forced into ditching both the leader and the slogan after a string disastrous polls.

Gone was this.

To be replaced temporarily by this, while awaiting a new set of hoardings showing the new leader. (This time sans deputy.)

Similarly, the Greens, after the departure of their co-leader in far more appalling circumstances, had to abandon both their initial leading image and the slogan that accompanied it.

The Greens’ new designs were remarkably sparse, and whilst not visually unpleasing they quickly descended into a string of empty nationalistic signifiers that didn’t do justice to their campaign.

(I spotted a single poster with Shaw, cutting a lonely figure.)

While Labour came up with a truly terrible new slogan, literally slapped on existing candidate hoardings using a sticker,

some of the Ardern hoardings at least tried to convey basic political statements.

In one of the Labour posters the slogan literally covers the party’s headline policies, a great illustration of the dynamic between hoardings and substantive ideas.

But on the whole Labour had the best-looking and most visually coherent campaign, again, albeit in a rather sorry-looking field. National stuck with the same template of the last three elections, except with English instead of their own departed charismatic leader. I confess to chuckling at this act of wanton vandalism.

And pairing him up with the candidates, just as Key was.

The parallel, thematic campaign featured the somewhat fascistic-looking group of white runners from the unspeakable ‘keep New Zealand moving forward’ television ads,

and scattered appeals to the nation’s wealthier Pākehā for God’s sake to vote sensibly.

Other parties barely featured, at least within the territory I covered (that is to say, South, East and Central Wellington). TOP came up with an extravagantly bad design, as well as with what appeared to be the world’s worst attempt at an acronym.

I literally had to walk for miles to find an ACT hoarding. Though clearly I didn’t get there first.

(Speaking of ACT, I must include in this gallery, by kind permission of Archie Bussink, David Seymour’s amazing ‘give me your electorate vote but please Party Vote National - go the Blue Party!’ hoarding in Epsom. I just must.)

The Māori Party made the unusual choice of putting forward a former leader.

Finally, Winston Peters got the prize for the least self-aware hoarding of the year. Yes, now that you mention it, we are quite tired of your face. Also, your election materials look like they were designed by someone’s relative.

There were, as usual, some contributions from outside the parties proper, which often prove to be the most unusual or interesting. This year I was particularly impressed by the 'we are beneficiaries' series on social media, and was very heartened to see that it made an appearance in poster form. This is the one I saw. Hopefully there were others. But in a campaign that first raised  these issues, then pushed them back down again with great violence, it seems appropriate to give this campaign the last word.