Posters: the art of campaigning

They’re going up all over campus.

Bikini-clad girls, 1980s-era fighter pilots, the stray dominatrix, here and there a nubile Britney Spears, spray-painted names emblazoned on bed sheets – these are among the latest sights in the semi-annual round of self-promotion that we call College Council (CC) election season. The examples mentioned above are just a few of this year’s campaign posters.

The campaign poster is, of course, nothing new. Whether at a small liberal arts college like Williams or on the national stage, politicians have found the poster to be a very effective means of communication.

Jim Irving ’05, candidate for class of 2005 representative, said that because it is impossible to reach out in person to every voter, the poster is “the best way to get the word out.” Irving puts his posters in places with high traffic flow – stairwells, laundry rooms and the like. Every Williams student can probably attest to the vast number of posters covering the entranceways to their dorms; on some doors, the count reaches into double digits. With such a vast accumulation of propaganda, it’s no wonder that candidates try to one-up each other with clever slogans and eye-catching designs.

The poster, most candidates agree, should somehow capture people’s attention in a memorable way. Nate Winstanley ’04, candidate for all-campus representative, said that it was important to have “a poster that people remember.” Winstanley should have no problem with that – one of his posters shows him bare-chested and pantless (but with shorts on) amidst a throng of girls dressed in nothing but bikinis. Despite certain carnal preconceptions that might cross the average collegiate mind when looking over this photograph, the reality is far less libidinous.

According to Winstanley, who lives with nineteen girls on the third floor of Pratt, the picture was taken last November. His suitemates, he said, “like to do girly things,” like having snacks on Sunday nights. These weekly gatherings started out with themes, eventually progressing to a “Naked Snacks” in November; despite the name, absolute nakedness was never achieved, though everybody did strip down to his or her underwear. The picture plastered all over campus is the result of that night of partial nudity.

Winstanley said he has gotten some negative feedback – specifically, two e-mails accusing him of exploiting women for the purposes of his campaign. He went on to say that though he understands such concerns, the picture “was all in good fun” and completely consensual.

There were also problems with people stealing the posters, something current CC co-president Joe Masters ’02 declared “sketchy” at last week’s College Council meeting. While the theft of these bikini posters may be tinged with shades of creepiness, Winstanley was not overly peeved; after all, even stolen posters reach potential voters.

Theft or destruction of posters has not been a problem for Winstanley alone. Karen Untereker ’05, candidate for class of 2005 representative, said that posters were “an integral part of my campaign, and that’s why the other candidates tore them down.”

Despite these problems, politicians stick with their posters. Some, like the presidential candidates, have employed them in a large way – literally. Mayo Shattuck ’03 and Susan Combs ’04, on the one side, and Ching Ho ’03 and Mark Rosenthal ’03, on the other, have festooned the campus with giant bed sheets displaying their names in spray paint. These sheets hang from the imposing heights of Morgan East and the Frosh Quad, fluttering in the wind like so many banners on a chivalric castle. Ho said that such large posters were intended mainly to spread name recognition and served only as a “primer” for smaller, more detail-oriented posters.

Shattuck and Combs, said Shattuck, started off with posters that laid out their issue-based material first, trying to communicate their “projects and goals to the student body.” Recently, they have switched to lighter and more humorous material.

Has the campaign poster changed at all at Williams over the years? Current CC co-president Sarah Barger ’02 said though she has seen campaign posters evolve in her four years at Williams; the role of visuals has become more significant since her first year, but the amount of paper spread over campus has markedly declined with only two presidential tickets this year. Much has remained the same, however. Giant bedsheets with candidates’ names painted on them, for example, were a part of Barger and Masters’ campaign last year. This continuity makes sense; the fundamental characteristics of the campaign poster – being memorable, simple and attractive, and getting the candidates’ message across – have no reason to change.

But do the posters work? I asked potential voters at this year’s presidential debate about the effectiveness of campaign posters. Some, like Adam Schumaker ’05, told me that posters did indeed affect them.

“They get the name out,” said Schumaker, and they have the added benefit of letting the reader know whether the candidate’s and his sense of humor are compatible. Mark Gundersen ’04 had similar thoughts.

“The posters do actually influence me significantly,” he said.

Not everybody saw good things in posters, however. Kalona Foster ’05 can’t stand them.

“I think they’re just awful,” she said, going on to decry the offensiveness and waste of paper she feels campaign posters embody. She’s not alone in this displeasure. Many people I talked to found certain posters distasteful and trivializing. Davis Parker ’05 said that some were only good for eliminating candidates.

Some students, though, find the posters funny – but hardly useful. Neal Anderson ’04 spoke succinctly for this group when he said what he thinks of campaign posters: “They bemuse me.”

“They’re usually good for a laugh, but they don’t help me learn about the candidates,” agreed Jane McCamant ’05.

Ultimately, the true value of the campaign poster, at least for the candidates, will be shown when the votes are counted and the students have spoken. Whether a candidate’s effort was successful or in vain – we’ll find that out in the next day or two.