Local election advertising through Auckland’s history

Most readers will have received their voting papers for the current local elections, and everybody will surely have seen the masses of leaflets, hoardings and newspaper or social media ads from the various candidates. Electoral communication is one of the fundamental tools which allow voters to navigate the intense competition between ambitious candidates – but it wasn’t always this way. At the first local election in Auckland, for the brand-new Borough of Auckland in 1851, the soldiers in the Fencible settlements voted for their officers and the civilians voted for their neighbours. In the Epsom East ward, the farmer Joseph Newman defeated another settler, James Williamson, by four votes to one. In the second election, a year later, the novelty value had disappeared: six wards out of 14 had only one candidate to choose from. And seven had none at all.

Image: A personal message from Robbie's Team of United Independents. From: Elections - Local Government 1958-1962. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

As Auckland grew in population and social complexity, candidates for office were no longer necessarily known personally to the voters. They depended on press coverage, election signs and their own advertising efforts to make an impression. One way of doing this has traditionally been the public meeting, advertised beforehand in a newspaper and held in a public hall, where a political hopeful would attempt to deliver a speech through the heckles and catcalls of the local rowdies and malcontents. This was the spectator sport of politics for many decades, but audiences tailed off in the television age. Graham Bush, in Labour’s lost loves, an analysis of the Labour campaign in the 1971 Auckland City elections, reports an average of 23 attendees at the Party’s public meetings. But almost half of these were fellow Labour candidates themselves. Events like this are still held, but the importance of the ritual battle of verbal abuse between politician and voter has declined – and perhaps it is no coincidence that local bodies have become more diverse over time.

Image: Vote F.C. Chandler. From: Chandler Collection. Research North Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

Another form of electoral communication is the simple leaflet, which we generally know as a folded piece of glossy A4 with a professional photograph of the candidate and a list of policy pledges and biographical details. The advantage of this piece of physical collateral is that it communicates the message of the campaign without offering an opportunity to heckle back, while reaching the sorts of people who are too busy, home-bound or disinterested to attend a campaign event. The downside is that, unless it stands out from the crowd, a mailshot is likely to be dismissed as a piece of junk mail. In 1965, Mayor Dove Myer Robinson avoided this trap by distributing a letter to householders in a typeface that gave the impression of being handwritten – and if the recipient saw through this charade, they might be taken in by a signature and postscript in cursive. This, naturally, was also printed. 

Image: A personal message from D.M. Robinson. From: Elections - Local Government 1965. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

Other formats of collateral have also been used over the years: in Australia, campaigners hand out ‘how-to-vote’ cards with the names of their ticket of candidates. This tactic, useful in an election with a complicated voting system and a vast array of candidates, has also been used in local polls in New Zealand. Below is a selection of similar cards used in 1965, giving the name of the ticket, the names of the candidates for the Councils and (now-abolished) special purpose boards, and precious little else. Unlike traditional leaflets, these are printed on stiff card and are small enough to be kept in a pocket or wallet until they are needed to assist the voter in identifying their preferred slate of candidates. Nowadays, the political affiliation of candidates (if any) is routinely given on the ballot paper, so the expense of printing these cards seems less justifiable. One of these examples even features gilt edges!

From: Elections - Local Government 1965. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

From: Elections - Local Government 1965. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The reverse of the small-is-beautiful approach is the choice to spend money on lengthy pamphlets discussing the precise policy objectives of the candidates. Sometimes these come near the status of manifestos, and it must be wondered whether the cost of printing and stapling these publications has ever been worth it. However, even if most voters barely skim-read long pamphlets before throwing them in the bin, they do create the impression of a detailed, responsible and policy-oriented political approach. However, the United Independents’ 1956 effort lightened the mood halfway through the manifesto by featuring a sweepstake competition in the centre page. Voters were invited to win a cash prize of £100 by correctly predicting the relative positions of the United Independents’ Auckland City Council candidates in the final voting tally. Further research is required to find out whether this reward was claimed.

Image: This is the winning team. From: Elections - Local Government 1958-1962. Ephemera Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

Perhaps the most creative form of electoral collateral is the ‘fake newspaper’, a multi-page communication produced in newsprint and designed with a masthead to make it look like a local paper. The content is usually written in a third-person journalistic style, and the articles selected to show off the candidates’ activities in their local area. In 1944, the Labour Party made an effort at this style of publication in a piece of advertising for their slate of candidates for the Panmure Township Road Board – the masthead reads ‘The Tamaki Labour News’, using three different typefaces for four words. In 2010, mayoral candidate Colin Craig published a ‘Supercity Update’ which he paid the NZ Herald to carry as an advertising insert, thus giving it similar status to their other inserts. Some readers may have initially assumed it to be a news publication produced by the Herald.

Image: Supercity update. Research North and Research Central Collection. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Finally, candidates often advertise for themselves in newspapers. Sitting office-holders may do this at any point in a term to give notice of their services as advocates for local issues, so there are blurred lines between this sort of advertising and electoral campaigning. These two ads appeared in an election special of the New Zealand Herald in 2010, the first time the ‘super-city’ polls took place in Auckland: many candidates purchased ad space on the pages covering the races in their wards and Local Board areas. This issue is held in physical format in the North and South Research Centres for Auckland Libraries. Two of the common stylistic choices in these ads are the ‘tick-in-the-box’ image and the selection of slogans. Slogans are not very common on roadside hoardings (although there are exceptions to this rule) as they would be difficult to read at speed. Full-scale leaflets, meanwhile, offer greater scope to expand on the ideas summed up in the catchphrases printed in the limited space of the newspaper advert.

Image: Classifieds. From: New Zealand Herald, 14 September 2010. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

The colour and pageantry of an election period is one of the bizarre rituals of the age of democracy, with substantial spending and effort going into the struggle to make matters of governance engaging to the layperson. The ephemera held by Auckland Libraries in our heritage collections is a goldmine for printed electoral communications such as the ones we have seen today. But if anything, modern campaigning is growing even more ephemeral, being based around TV advertising, disposable roadside election signs – and, most recently, social media posts. 

Perhaps, in 50 years or so, people will be remembering the creativity demonstrated in politicians’ TikTok accounts.

Author: David Hoggard, Research Librarian


PapersPast. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers   

Bush, Graham W. (1974). Labour’s Lost Loves and the 1971 Auckland local body elections: a research paper. Political Studies Department, University of Auckland.

Bush, Graham W. (1971). Decently and in order: the government of the city of Auckland 1840-1971: the centennial history of the Auckland City Council. Collins for the Auckland City Council.