Q&A: Christopher Burgess discusses political posters

Their purpose, evolution, messaging, and whether they are dying out

2024 is set to be a historic year for democracy as more than 50 countries around the world are holding elections this year. Considering the birth of the ‘TikTok elections’ and the increasing turn towards digital, it is interesting to see whether print media such as posters are dying out or becoming more effective in political campaigns.

With the UK general election rapidly approaching, MediaCat’s Content Editor Svilena Keane sat down with Christopher Burgess PhD, Head of Exhibitions and Public Programmes at Cambridge University Library. Together, they discussed the purpose of political posters, their evolution through time, and the rise of social media.

Hi, Dr Burgess. Please introduce yourself and your work

Hi, I’m Chris Burgess and I work at Cambridge University Library, where I put on exhibitions and public events. Previously I worked at the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which has one of the largest collections of political material in the country, including the Labour Party of Great Britain’s Archive. It also has a significant collection of political posters which I’ve worked on, including a PhD and curating a major exhibition.

What would you say is the purpose of political posters?

I think they have lots of different purposes, depending on what type of poster they are and indeed the period. During the 20th century, posters just demonstrated that there was a general election happening. It was politics in the street; especially before secret ballots, elections were a very public affair. The introduction of the secret ballots meant that you went into a polling station to vote, and how then did you know elections were happening? One of the things that agents said was, ‘Well, we know an election is happening because posters go up everywhere’. So, it was just to show people that politics was happening, and to make them think about it.

There was a sense that posters persuaded your own voters and party workers that you were really trying. There is quite a lot of discussion in party archives about the fact that posters show that you’re making an effort. Until 1969, you didn’t actually write the name of the party on the ballot paper, so it would just say someone’s name; if you wanted to vote Conservative or Labour, you’d have to know which candidate was represented in the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. The way to do that often was with posters.

The one thing that people haven’t really got down to is, do posters make a difference? Do they actually change the way people vote? And there isn’t any data on that, really. No one can prove it. I did some work on the 2010 general election when I went to interview senior people who’d helped develop the campaigns in advertising agencies. Saatchi & Saatchi did some work for Labour in the 2010 election, and I asked, ‘How do you know?’ and they said, ‘Well, even now with posters, we don’t know. We just get a sense, we get a feeling that it’s good and it’s working and it’s having penetration, but we don’t really know.’ We can’t prove it, which I think is different from social media, where there is more with the data and analytics that’s coming through. There is more of a sense that your message is getting some penetration, which was never the case with posters.

We say that people have a very short attention span now and social media is having an impact on that, and maybe that’s having an impact on the way that people experience campaigns. But if you think of a poster, you only see it for a second. And one of the things that people were discussing, especially in the early 20th century, was how to get the message across quickly. We talk about that now with social media and short attention spans but people had the same conversations about political posters.

Research has suggested that print material is actually more memorable than digital. Do you think that, with the rise of digital content, print materials such as posters could now be more effective?

Maybe. I suppose it’s a different thing between print that arrives through your door via direct mail, which obviously parties still invest in. That would be interesting to see what happens during this election about whether they still invest in that thing. I didn’t see any political posters of the last general election; there might have been some up but I certainly didn’t see anything. Where I live in Cambridgeshire, there’s a few posters up around people’s gardens. I think now there is an increasing personalisation of the political message where it’s arriving on your phone, you aren’t really discussing it with people, and you’re getting your information via a bubble of other people who also hold the same views.

We know from the Cambridge Analytica scandal about the use of Facebook and algorithms to push stories to persuade people how to vote, especially in the US. It is really interesting, the ability to create that really personalised message, which posters could never do. They were appealing to everyone, which is much more sophisticated. Whether it’s more effective, I don’t know, but it’s much more sophisticated.

There’s always been an argument as well, which you get with social media, that posters are dumbing down politics. Politics is more complicated than this. It should be about issues, but posters are never about issues: they’re always about that moment and that’s what propaganda is. You try and appeal to a person in that particular moment about a particular thing, and it’s only pertinent to that moment. It doesn’t really have that same longevity. Would it cut through now more? Possibly, but I doubt it.

Nowadays, posters also tend to be very negative in tone, focusing on tearing down the competition. What is the reasoning behind this?

Well, the thing about posters is that very rarely are they positive. There’s a couple of examples that have come out which are quite famously positive. There’s a poster that was produced by the Labour Party in 1923 called ‘Labour Greets the Dawn’, and there were crowds of people waking up to this sun rising. The idea of the sun being a really positive thing, and elections being about a new dawn and the birth of a new world. That was quite rare. I was talking to someone about this when I was doing my research, and he was saying it’s just really hard to own the positive.

There’s a great bit in the ’97 general election, Alastair Campbell, in his diaries, writes about the fact that Labour, to some extent, ran quite a positive campaign and he said he talked about this thing where they set up these staged events with lots of really bright, colourful posters which said, ‘Vote Labour, a new Labour’.

But it’s much easier to campaign negatively because trying to persuade people not to vote one way than trying to vote a particular way is much easier. I think mainly it’s been negative, and that’s always been the truth. And even in the early 20th century, political parties were using cartoonists to design their posters. For example, John Hassall, the very famous poster designer and cartoonist who designed ‘Skegness Is So Bracing’, with a jolly fisherman running down the beach.

Source: Science Museum Group

He designed posters during the Edwardian period for the Conservative Party, and some of those were really quite negative, to be honest. So it’s not a new thing for posters to be particularly negative. We like to think politics has gotten more negative, and I think that’s probably not the case. I think it’s a romanticised view of the past. And I think there probably was a period after the Second World War when it was relatively positive. But I think for a large part of the pre-war elections and indeed, post-war elections, British politics have been quite negative.

How have posters evolved through time then, in terms of design and messaging?

Well, they’ve got bigger. When posters first started, it was quite rare to have very large political posters. Changing to billboard legislation meant that you moved from political posters being on advertising hoardings with lots of other posters and the art of the poster maker in that was to try and make your poster stand out amongst all these other posters. But then as billboards got bigger, you separated all that other noise out.

I think the one thing that you do see is they got simpler. They got much better at the clarity of the message and then famously in 1979, Saatchi & Saatchi, who were working for the Conservative Party produced Labour Isn’t Working. And their motto was brutal simplicity of thought. It’s just big black lettering, a white background, and this snaking queue.

I think the message is just very clear. When I was talking before about how to get the message across as quickly as possible, well, that’s the epitome.

With the rise of social media we’re seeing posters go from something just in print to now online. Do you think that we’ll see a lot of this leading up to elections?

I’m sure we will. There’s a debate about whether those things are posters or not. I think they’re more like adverts rather than posters. And obviously, political advertising is illegal on television in the UK so I think these things on social media are more like adverts in that respect.

The really interesting thing about social media is the fact that poster campaigns are really expensive, but anyone can produce any content they want now and release it as part of a campaign. The parties have no control over it. The electoral commission has no control over it. It’s a democratisation of the political communication in some respects, but also it’s the Wild West out there.

Increasingly, even over the past 20 years, there’s been fewer posters on billboards. But what political parties were doing was having poster launches to generate media.

So you’d launch this new poster and invite the press to come up and they would take photos and ask questions. And it was actually more about generating the media event than actually anything to do with the poster at all. The poster might never go up. So, I wonder if that was even a poster as well? I think it’s more a media event than a poster.

Considering this, do you think posters, in a traditional sense, are dying out?

I think they’re dead. I do think there’s a thing about these posters that people put in their garden, but you don’t really see as many. I think that probably is the last vestiges of the political poster, certainly of political advertising in the traditional sense, as we’d known it.

I think campaigning has moved on and I think these things are historical items now. I do think that people like to say that when there’s some new innovation in electioneering that it’s ‘completely new’.

But, actually, it’s not really. I think a lot of the time, like with social media, it is about how quickly you can deliver the message. The people who create the social media campaigns, how quickly can they deliver this message? The people who created election campaigns in the Edwardian period up to 1910 were also thinking, how quickly can I deliver this message?

It’s just that the medium has completely changed. We don’t have posters anymore, but they’re still thinking in the same way. And so, while I think that posters are dead, the thinking that went behind them by parties and by the people who designed them is largely still the same.

Featured image: Markus Winkler / Pexels

Svilena Keane, Content & Social Editor at MediaCat Magazine

Svilena is the Content & Social Media Editor at MediaCat Magazine. She has a joint bachelor’s degree from Royal Holloway University, where she studied Comparative Literature and Art History. During her time at Royal Holloway, she was also the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper The Founder. Since then, she has worked at a number of digital and print publications in Bulgaria and the UK, covering a wide range of topics including arts, culture, business and politics. She is also the founder of the online blog Sip of Culture and a self-published poet.

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