The yard sign seems the political staple of every campaign season. The yard signs that dot our landscape have been a time-honored tradition for many decades. In fact yard, signs have been around since at least 1912 when supporters of presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson plastered them all over their hometowns as part of a campaign to promote the underdog candidate from Princeton University. In more recent election cycles yard signs have become ubiquitous – even standard-issue – props in campaigns across America, although they are often deployed with little fanfare or analysis about whether they work. This piece tries to shed some light on yard signs’ effectiveness by exploring the research that has been done over the past fifty years.
Table of Contents
ORIGINS OF YARD SIGNS
Like most campaign strategies yard signs originated with Paul Fennewald, who made his living in direct mail fundraising for nonprofits, when he was asked how to promote a referendum in Butte Montana in 1952. Fennewald came up with the idea of asking supporters to put yard signs promoting the referendum on their lawns. This strategy proved so successful at an increasing turnout that yard signs soon became standard issue items for political campaigns across America
Yard Signs and Voter Turnout
Since 1972 yard signs have become an essential aspect of local campaigns. It is not surprising that yard signs became popular during this period. Local registration requirements in the 1970s made door-to-door voter contact obsolete since you didn’t need to be registered at an address in order to vote in local elections. As a result yard signs became key tools in local electioneering because they allowed candidates in low turnout races to make contact with thousands of voters who might otherwise ignore their campaign, or whose support could tip the balance of power on city councils.
Yard Signs and Fundraising
In 1976 Richard Nixon was facing a fundraising disadvantage when he decided to counter by relying heavily on yard sign promotion. McCain’s yard sign advantage over George W Bush was well advertised during both the 2000 Republican primary and the general election that followed, but yard signs have also been used to help Democratic candidates raise funds during the last three Presidential cycles.
MARKETING THE YARD SIGN
Political yard signs have a short shelf life. Their effectiveness at getting a message to a specific voter is almost completely reliant on how long they are visible from public roadways which means that yard signs only work if people like seeing them in front yards and not everyone does. In addition, yard sign visibility is often dependent on their placement within or between intersections where they might be more likely to be seen by cars speeding down roads, rather than people walking along sidewalks or mowing lawns, these factors explain why yard signs do not always convey messages effectively and may contribute to messages being missed entirely.
Yard Signs and Reputation Building: How yard signs are perceived by voters is an important yard sign issue. To be effective yard signs need to communicate the right message to the right voter at the right time, but research has shown that yard signs can also shape public perception of a candidate’s image even if they don’t build any familiarity with their name or their specific policy stances.
Yard Signs and Candidate Effectiveness
Yard Sign statistics suggest that yard signs appear effective, but this may only tell half the story yard sign effectiveness data measuring yard sign placement vis-a-vis where people vote suggests that yard signs are most effective when placed in areas with historically high turnout.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON YARD SIGN EFFECTIVENESS
The value of yard signs is debated regularly in the yard sign industry, but yard signs have become an essential aspect of local campaigns. Yard signs are so common today that they may do little more than indicate a generic level of campaign organization rather than communicating any specific message to voters. This suggests yard signs are unlikely to be effective at increasing voter turnout, but yard signs remain ubiquitous because 1) yard signs are relatively cheap 2) yard signs are easy for candidates to get distributed 3) yard sign visibility can significantly help candidates who rely on grassroots campaigning strategies over television advertising.
More people see the signs at intersections than see them along sidewalks or in yards. The more high traffic areas near high population densities will be where most of these signs will be seen, which is why they’re mostly found along major roads and at intersections. It’s also important to remember that not all areas have an equal number of voters that live there. Although a candidate might be able to place one thousand signs in a yard, it’s likely that only about 10% of those yard signs will be seen by actual voters.