Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

Warren Kinsella? This one is for you.

As the Ontario election progresses, the campaign signs are going up on properties and bits of public greenspace across the region. Driving Vivian from preschool to Erin’s work, it’s interesting to see the diversity of colours and styles. But the first Conservative sign I see for the riding of Kitchener Centre made me stop and take another look, for all the wrong reasons. I apologize for the angle of this shot, but have a look:


Notice something missing, here? Or, almost? Here’s a hint: what party is Matt Stanson running for? It’s initially hard to say, isn’t it? The Progressive Conservative logo has been reduced to a small square in the bottom-right corner of the sign. Far more prominence is given to the phrase “Your John Tory Candidate”.

The reason I give Warren a hat tip for this is due to eerie similarities between this sign and signs issued by a different party at the federal level, three years ago.

Back on April 1, 2004, Warren Kinsella posted the following:

April 1, 2004 - I wish I could say this is an April Fool’s joke, but it ain’t. Here is a sample of the new Liberal campaign lawn signs. Except, um, the word “Liberal” is nowhere to be found, with the exception of that little squiggle down in the bottom.


The winning-est political party in the history of Western democracy: now virtually invisible. Gone. Vanished.

Make any sense to you? Me neither.

In 2004, Paul Martin was struggling to extract the Liberal party from the sponsorship scandal. His approach seemed to be to try and present a clean slate suggesting not so subtly that the problem was confined to the previous administration and not to the people now in charge. The idea seemed to be to key in on Martin’s personal popularity, and to try to make voters forget that he’d run under the same banner as the previous administration.

Of course it didn’t work as well as Martin hoped. For one thing, the new sign style was quickly spoofed:


Even though the Conservative Party of Ontario was in nowhere near as shocked and disgraced a state as the federal Liberal party was in 2004, it seems that John Tory doesn’t want voters to connect him to the administration which polarized this province between 1995 and 2003. This, in my opinion, is a mistake. In one fell swoop, Tory has acknowledged and given strength to every criticism the Liberals have made against the previous Conservative government.

I know I criticized the Liberals for the irrelevance attacking the Tories’ Harris legacy now that John Tory is leader. I know I’ve praised John Tory for acknowledging the mistakes of the Harris years, but this goes way beyond that. John Tory has shown shame in the Conservative brand. It acknowledges and exaggerates the perceived sin of the previous Conservative administration. It insults current and past party workers. And, most importantly, it shows no continuity between the Harris/Eves administration and the current Tory leadership.

Some people on the conservative Free Dominion website have already noticed this, and are suitably upset.

I as a voter would show more respect for Tory if he simply acknowledged those Harris policies that he thought were a mistake, and talked about how he learned from those mistakes, to come up with the policies he now offers. There’s no shame in admitting mistakes. Learning from failure is critical in achieving success. But refusing to acknowledge any connections to the individuals who made those mistakes does not indicate that you have learned from those mistakes and wish the voters to know what you have learned, but that you wish the voters to forget that the mistakes ever occurred, and that there is nothing for you to have grown from.

Compare the strength of the two different reactions to the same Liberal attack:

Liberals: Harris! Harris! You run the party of Mike Harris!
Tory: So? Yes, Harris made some mistakes, but I’m the leader of the Conservative Party, now. Why don’t you debate my policies, for once?


Liberals: Harris! Harris! You run the party of Mike Harris!
Tory: What? No. We aren’t Conservatives. We’re John Tory party members!

And as Paul Martin’s experience suggests, when you refuse to acknowledge your history, voters start to ask what else you are hiding.

Colour and Branding


Part of the problem of Matt Stanson’s campaign signs could be the choice of colour. A few blocks north, Conservative incumbent MPP Elizabeth Witmer is using signs featuring white text on a blue background. She doesn’t make use of the phrase. Conservative candidate Pina Martino and Alex Yuan both use the phase “John Tory’s Team”, and all three signs keep the Conservative logo small, but all make up for this with the amount of blue ink found on the sign.

The colour blue remains closely linked to the Tory brand, and using the blue to degree these three candidates have used is almost the same as plastering your sign with the word “Conservative”. On the other hand, the blue-text-on-white-background signs of Stanson and Martiniuk (Cambridge) limits the use of the colour and appears to downplay the Conservative connections.

Elsewhere in the area, the Liberals and the New Democrats both make consistent and effective use of their brands. Liberal signs seem to conform to a standard white text on red background, with the Liberal Party logo taking up half of the sign area. The New Democrats continue to use white-text-on-orange-background with touches of green. Normally you’d expect orange and green to clash, but instead it just says NDP. And the New Democrats are especially fortunate that their initials are as identifiable to voters as the full party name. Thus their logo can be fairly small, but still easy to identify. Translating “PC” to “Progressive Conservative” takes a little more time in some voters’ minds.

I would advise some of the Green Party candidates to redesign their signs. Candidates Judy Greenwood-Speers are using green text on a yellow background with no white border and no party logo. These signs look more like they’re advertising landscape design services than the fourth most popular party in the province. The green text on a yellow background is not a bad idea in and of itself, but it does need a white border to set both colours off and catch the voters’ eye.

I’m John Tory! No, I’m John Tory!

The Tories could also have turned this sign problem around by eliminating one word from their catchphrase. Rather than saying “Your John Tory Candidate”, perhaps they should have instead said “Your Tory Candidate”. That ties things back to the Conservative brand and is a nice little pun on the leader’s name to make some voters chuckle and warm up to the Conservative message. Although perhaps another solution is to go all the way in the other direction, as in: “who is John Tory? He’s like John Doe only conservative.”

“John Tory is just your average Ontarian who wants nothing more than to elect politicians who keep their promises, make government responsive and keep taxes low.”

We then go into a Sparticus moment:

John Tory: I’m John Tory!
Conservative Candidate: I’m John Tory!
Elizabeth Witmer: I’m Jane Tory!
Conservative Campaign Worker: I’m John Tory, too!

“You can be John Tory too! Come, join us as we take back Ontario. This message brought to you by the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, your Tory party.”

Might be worth a try.


On an entirely different matter, I’d like to give Warren Kinsella and his fellow Liberal campaign workers a bit of friendly advice.

September 19, 2007 - The minute it hits a buck, the managers of the Ontario Liberal war room are jumping in my car and heading Stateside to Target - pronounced “Tar-jay” - to shop, baby!

I don’t know about you, but for the sake of your local campaigns in Windsor, Sarnia, Niagara Falls, Cornwall or even Toronto, it might not be a good idea to advertise the fact that you intend to forsake local businesses and do a little cross-border shopping…

I will admit some surge of nationalist pride to see our Canadian dollar reach parity with the American greenback earlier today, for the first time in 31 years, and I will admit to looking forward to future trips to see the in-laws coming off a lot less expensively, but I am not looking forward to cashing American cheques and receiving fewer Canadian dollars in return.

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