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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

May 18, 2012 at 8:30 AM

The politics of yard signs


Campaign signs are the ultimate, well, sign that election season is upon us. But with campaigns going digital and ecological concerns growing, how long will we keep sticking them in our lawns?

SEATTLE — Nothing signals the start of an election year like the first campaign sign driven into your neighbor’s yard. It’s hard to believe that the person that puts the most ink on corrugated plastic has the best chance at winning an election. And with online advertising and social media that may soon be changing.

The wall of old signs inside of Thompson Signs' warehouse serves as a visual political history for the area. (Photo by Lucas Anderson / UW Election Eye)

For Thompson Signs, a local union sign shop in Lacey, that change is not so evident. A family-owned business, Thompson Signs has been printing for 11 years, and has been one of the top vendors for political signs for the last few election cycles.

For its output, Thompson is a surprisingly compact operation: only two men working the printers every day in a warehouse connected to a handful of other small businesses off of Pacific Avenue SE in Lacey. The printers are big machines that make an unescapable sound even in the office, where owner Diana Burton reminds me that she was out working the presses when she first bought the business 11 years ago.

Burton has printed hundreds of thousands of signs each year, for hundreds of candidates; her shop’s walls remind me of a car with too many bumper stickers. Signs for Norm Dicks, Patty Murray, Rob McKenna, Jay Inslee, Hillary Clinton, and a handful of different Obama signs from 2008 form a bipartisan mural of plastic and primary colors on the wall.

For this election cycle, it’s still early. The majority of her sales in the 2010 election didn’t start until June or July. But in a presidential election year, Burton is expecting it to ramp up soon.

Thompson Signs Owner Diana Burton has run the business for 11 years. (Photo by Lucas Anderson/UWElectionEye)

“This will be a big year,” she said.

(Click here to take a look inside Thompson Signs’ warehouse)

As of right now, there are 14 candidates reporting purchases from Thompson Signs, making her the top sign vendor in Washington in sales. The driving force for that: Gubernatorial Candidate Jay Inslee, who has spent nearly $46,000 at Thompson on signs. Inslee’s opponent Rob McKenna has spent about $3,750 total on signs, with $891.34 of that going to Thompson. That’s a big difference.

This is where that change comes in. Looking at other outlets for advertising, McKenna has spent over $70,000 on online advertising, with much of that going to Facebook for ads on the social networking site. Inslee on the other hand has spent only $2,315 online.

Sterling Clifford, Inslee’s communications director, justified his campaign’s advertising choices by talking about efficiency. The utility of a Facebook ad for the amount of money it costs doesn’t level out when considering how early in the election year it is, Clifford said.

The McKenna campaign argues the opposite. With more people getting their political news online, Charles McCray, McKenna’s communications director, says Facebook advertising is the most cost effective way to get their message in front of  their supporters, as well as recruit more.

“Technology is adapting, and our campaign is mindful of that, and is going to adapt in how we reach people along with the times,” McCray said.

Timing is a factor for McKenna as well, as he has been bound by fundraising freezes during the legislative session.

While the two campaigns disagree on the effectiveness of Facebook ads, General Motors has made their decision. According to The Wall Street Journal, the auto-maker, has pulled its $10 million campaign on the site until it can reassess its value.

Unlike some of their other expenditures, both Mckenna and Inslee have kept their sign business in the state. For Burton, having candidates take their contributions from Washingtonians and spending the money out of state doesn’t make sense. Money raised here should be spent here, she said.

“I would hope that any elected official or any person running for an elected position would think that way,” Burton said.

With an automated UV ink printing process, Thompson can put out around 600 signs per hour; dried and ready to ship out. (Photo by Lucas Anderson/UWElectionEye)

According to the Public Disclosure Commission, 11 candidates running for office this year have purchased signs outside of the state; nine of them Republicans.

Gerald Galland – State Rep in the 30th LD (R), Wes Cormier – Grays Harbor County Commissioner District 1 (R), Carol Kavanaugh – District 1 Douglas County Comissioner (R), Shahram Hadian – Governor (R), John Roskelley – Spokane County Commissioner District 1 (D), Chad Magendanz – State Rep in 5th LD (R), Barbara Bailey – 10th LD rep running for State Senate (R), Donald Benton  – 17th District State Senator (R), Robert Morse – 12th District State Rep (R), Kaj Selmann – State Rep 13th District (D), Mark Faith – Franklin County Comissioner (R).

The ultimate end of the sign story doesn’t come until after the elections, when the signs are collected and meet their demise…which too often is the landfill. According to Washington law, election signs must be removed from roadways within 10 days after the election. When those signs are abandoned, says Pat O’leary, WSDOT’s Outdoor Advertising Specialist, most are thrown away by road crews.

In 2008, Burton set up a recycling program for her clients to return any signs to be sent back to the plastic manufacturer for recycling. It was a great idea, but not one sign was returned.

Seattle Public Utilities couldn’t respond without more time to comment on trends on their collection of signs in the area, but in talking to some candidates who have run, maintaining the image of a candidate and ultimately saving money for a possible re-election (or another campaign) is the driving force for saving and recycling signs.

Whether they are in your face, on your lawn, sit in a garage for years after a lost election, or end up in a landfill, the yard sign’s final spot in the election puzzle will only shine through in November.

[do action=”iframe” url=”https://picasaweb.google.com/110537566050832376697/InsideThompsonSigns#slideshow/5743905435919036482″ width=”600″ height=”400″/]

Comments | More in State | Topics: advertising, campaign yard signs, Jay Inslee

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