Here in Connecticut the month of October is peak fall foliage season. It is also peak season for political lawn signs.
While the fall foliage is a beautiful gift that inspires nature photographers, urban tourists and hyperactive children and dogs, the lawn signs are nothing more than a form of physical and metaphorical pollution that rarely, if ever, influence election outcomes.
Local printers across the state love political lawn signs because campaign season represents a sizeable chunk of their annual revenue. Candidates and their campaigns will tell you they “gotta have ‘em.” Eager volunteers all across town scramble to make sure they pick up a sign for their front lawn — two if you can spare it. But there are plenty of sound reasons why they are a waste of money, time and effort.
So, why can’t we live without them?
Lawn signs are not cheap, nor are they cost-efficient. For the price of 500 signs, you could buy two weeks of TV ads on the local cable system and reach 20 times as many people with a message that is far more likely to have emotional impact. Now add to that all of the volunteer labor required to spread those signs all over town. Those are volunteers who could have been working the phone banks or hand-writing postcards. That’s a lost opportunity.
Here in Ridgefield, and in towns just like ours across the state, the roads that get the most traffic (and therefore the most eyeballs) are the commercial streets. Places like Main Street. But 80% of those lawn signs will end up on bucolic residential streets where children play and car traffic is light. Not exactly campaign dollars hard at work.
I used to tell candidates that unless your lawn sign can pass the 30/30 test, it’s a complete waste of money. That means people need to be able to read your sign from 30 feet away, while traveling at 30 miles per hour. If they can’t, then all they saw was a blur. Go ahead and pick any dozen lawn signs at random. Two-thirds won’t pass the 30/30 test. Some candidates never learn. Others just don’t seem to care.
These obvious flaws shouldn’t be news to candidates or their campaign operatives. Political lawn signs have been a suburban staple for decades. Between national elections, mid-terms and off-year elections, lawn signs are as regular as the seasons.
So, why can’t we quit our lawn signs?
I think there are three reasons that we are stuck on our lawn signs, and they combine a little bit of logic and a lot of unconscious psychology.
Reason No. 1
Political lawn signs are one of the easiest ways to let our First Amendment impulses have their turn atop the soapbox. We don’t have to have a podcast, a TV show (or a newspaper column). We don’t have to be especially articulate. But we can let the world (or at least the neighborhood) know just what we stand for. This is who we are and what we believe, and we’re damn proud of it. For a lot of us, that is genuine therapy at a bargain price. It’s good for the soul.
Reason No. 2
Lawn signs are a unique way that many, many ordinary voters can feel empowered that they are actively participating in their candidate’s campaign. Sure, there’s that one-man, one-vote thing, but everybody gets to do that. I want to do more. I want to feel like I’m helping, even if I don’t have the free time to spend my Saturday afternoons volunteering at campaign headquarters. Putting that sign on my lawn is just like I have been officially deputized. I’m playing a “strategic role” in the campaign.
Reason No. 3
Lawn signs feed the irrepressible urge by most of us humans to turn everything we do into a competitive sport. Speaking our minds and supporting our candidates is great, but what we really want to do is WIN! We want to win and we want to defeat the other team. This latter impulse might explain the psychological motive behind the constant lawn sign stealing that is also a standard element of campaign season. It’s not enough for us to fly our flag. We have to steal the other team’s flag. Sound like middle school stupidity? It is. And that is us. What’s even crazier are the numbers of voters who march into campaign headquarters and announce that they need a lawn sign because their next door neighbor has a sign for the other candidate. I guess some people think it’s cool to pick a fight with their neighbors.
I know, sadly, that I cannot talk anyone out of posting a political sign on their lawn if they want one. Nor can I persuade candidates that lawn signs are an ugly, ineffective blight on our landscape that are just a waste of money. And after election day, good luck disposing of these signs in a responsible way.
According to Beyond Plastics of Bennington, VT, 90% of lawn signs are made from corrugated cardboard coated in plastic (to protect them from rain). They are not recyclable. The rest are mostly the soft plastic or vinyl signs, which – like plastic bags – are not very recyclable either.
If I may, however, I would like to ask all of those folks if they would consider doing just a little bit more, if they would consider doing something that might make a real and positive difference. After all, if you have a lawn sign, I guess that means you are an “engaged voter.” So how about driving a senior citizen (or two) to the polls when you go? How about helping a candidate go door-to-door in your neighborhood? How about having an informed, reasonable conversation about the issues with a neighbor in the Stop N Shop parking lot when you get your groceries?
What the heck. Give it a shot.
Mark Robinson is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.