Sunday October 21, 2012

Like cider doughnuts and the World Series, political lawn signs are an autumn staple.

Some observers view the signs as unsightly, and, in this age of social media, antiquated, but year after year there are variously colored signs emblazoned with various names on lawns throughout Berkshire County.

This year the names are Romney, Obama, Warren, Brown, Pignatelli and Laugenour.

Many of the signs spreading the names of Berkshire County candidates are the product of a guy named Kaplan, a free-lance designer who works out of his Pittsfield home.

"Ben Kaplan is the local guy," said Donna B. Mattoon, who works in Mayor Dan Bianchi's office now but who ran her brother Tom Bowler's successful campaign for Berkshire County sheriff two years ago. "But there are people all over the Internet who can do it for you."

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli agreed, giving the nod to Kaplan while noting that several others are in the lawn-sign business.

"If you want to go local, Ben's the man you want," said Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox who is running for re-election in the 4th Berkshire District.

In addition to lawn signs, Kaplan, 58, designs pencils, glassware, clothing and bumper stickers, among other things. He has been in business for more than 20 years and, in conjunction with other contractors, he said he has designed "hundreds of thousands" of lawn signs, including nearly 5,000 for Bowler -- at $2 apiece -- in 2010.


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Kaplan said he's aware of the perception that lawn signs are ugly and might become obsolete in the near future because of the popularity of social media. But he still believes in their promotional power.

"I don't know the future of lawn signs," he said. "There are a number of ways now for people to get their message out there. Television, radio, newspapers, Facebook, billboards. I think they are all useful. And while I know [some] people don't like lawn signs, they serve a specific purpose, which is to improve name recognition.

Candidates rely on lawn signs to spread their name recognition in the Berkshires and beyond.
Candidates rely on lawn signs to spread their name recognition in the Berkshires and beyond. (Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
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Nate Winstanley, president of Winstanley Partners, a marketing firm in Lenox, said he thinks lawn signs are here to stay."I don't think they'll ever go away," he said. "They're kind of iconic."

Nate Winstanley, president of Winstanley Partners, a marketing firm in Lenox, said he thinks lawn signs are here to stay."I don't think they'll ever go away," he said. "They're kind of iconic."

Nate Winstanley, president of Winstanley Partners, a marketing firm in Lenox, said he thinks lawn signs are here to stay."I don't think they'll ever go away," he said. "They're kind of iconic."

Pignatelli said he doesn't know whether lawn signs will become obsolete, but he likes them. He isn't as comfortable with social media.

"I hope they don't go away," he said of the signs. "And I'm not oblivious to social media; we've begun to use it here. But what scares me about social media is that it is so impersonal. We seem to be getting away from that in this country.

"I like the personal connection with voters," he continued. "I think lawn signs help define a community. They let other people know who you support. I know when I drive around, I see a sign on someone's lawn and I think, ‘Oh, so this guy supports so-and-so.' I don't think any social media can replace that."

Laugenour can't really say whether or not lawn signs will be obsolete in the near -- or far -- future, either. But, he said, lawn signs are a distinct and unique American concept.

"People in other countries don't have a clue what I'm talking about," he said, chuckling, referring to political lawn signs. "The only place you'll find lawn signs is here [in America]."

Henry Boldon, a Pittsfield resident, has the opposite view of the signs.

"They're kind of unsightly, and I just don't think they serve a purpose in the Internet age," he said.

Kaplan said he's worked with political veterans and neophytes on lawn signs, and he's comfortable with both.

"People come in, and they have a camera-ready photo that we can use immediately," he said. "And we have people that have never done anything like this in their lives."

Kaplan said he's prepared to give as much or as little input as a client requests. But he has one major rule.

"Less is more," he said. "You have people driving down the road, and they don't have a lot of time to read lawn signs. ... When Jerry Doyle ran for mayor [of Pittsfield] years back, we had a lawn sign with one word on it: ‘Doyle.' That was it. Because he had name recognition. People knew who he was."

Kaplan also wants his signs to be vivid.

"It should stand out, be colorful," he said. "You need to attract people's attention."

Kaplan said the oddest item he's ever put a name on isn't a lawn sign.

"I did a wedding for a couple and put their names on chopsticks. And years ago, I did a promotion for the old Hilton Hotel, where I designed custom fortune cookies for an event hosted by them.

"People," he concluded, "can be very creative."

To reach Derek Gentile:
dgentile@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile