What’s in a flag?

Last week in Pingtung, my friends took pictures of scenery, art, and people. I took picture after picture of campaign flags and billboards. Finally, with a touch of bewilderment and skepticism, one of them asked, what can you see from that?

It’s a good question. One of the oldest tropes about advertising is that half of all advertising is completely wasted. The only problem is that no one knows which half is useless. There is a strong suspicion that campaign flags and billboards are simply wasted spending. They usually don’t say anything profound or memorable, and they all blend together. If there are any uses, they seem to be limited.

Traditionally, flags might be said to have some of the following uses. One, they build name recognition. Planting thousands of flags with your name tells people that there is a candidate with your name running. This is not exciting and there are other ways to build name recognition, but you can’t win an election, especially one in a multi-seat district, if you are anonymous. Second, it shows that you have resources to throw at the campaign. One of the first battles for any candidate is to demonstrate credibility. No one wants to vote for a sure loser. Candidates with the money to plant thousands of flags show that they have the money to plant thousands of flags. Having money does not always make one credible, but it is one indicator that you are running a serious campaign and have hopes to win. Third, you might be able to give some simple message about yourself and what you stand for. Of course, most political rhetoric is cheap talk. Everyone wants a better tomorrow. Everyone has love in their hearts. Everyone sincerely asks for and thanks you for your support. But sometimes there is an actual message in those slogans. Fourth, flags can signal your partisan affiliation. The party label might be the most important factor for voters in Taiwan, and it is becoming important even in grassroots elections.

These might not seem like much, but political communication is difficult if you don’t get regular coverage in the print or electronic media. Sean Lien 連勝文 and Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 don’t need to put up billboards. They get plenty of free advertising. A candidate for the second district of the Hengchun Town 恆春鎮 Council will have to wait a long time for the TV cameras to show up at his doorstep. If that guy wants to get a message out, he has to advertise. Leaflets, newspaper inserts, and campaign literature can contain more detailed information, but many people just throw them away. Word of mouth is very effective if you already have an effective person-to-person network to mobilize. For everyone else, flags and billboards might be the best they can do. At least with flags and billboards, a voter might absorb the one simple message involuntarily before glancing at the next object in their line of sight.

Let’s look at a few flags and banners and see what we might learn.


This is a flag for Yeh Ming-shun 葉明順, and it looks about as worthless as any flag you might see. It doesn’t have any slogans or any party labels. It just has a name. Yet I think this might fit Yeh’s needs pretty well. Yeh is an established local politician. He’s served in grassroots offices for about two decades, most recently in two terms as Hengchun Township mayor. Yeh is simply reminding voters who already know and like him that he is running again this year, though this time for the county assembly. They don’t need to look any further because they already have a good choice. The purple and yellow color scheme also sends a message. Yeh certainly isn’t a DPP candidate, and he probably isn’t a KMT candidate. At least if he is a party representative, he is going out of his way to downplay that message. In fact, Yeh is an independent.


Here’s a flag with a similar message. Chou Tian-lun 周典倫 has served many terms in the county assembly, and in 2009 he represented the KMT in a losing campaign for county magistrate. He is reminding his large group of supporters that he is running again this year. His color scheme makes clear at a glance that he is a KMT member and proud of that affiliation.


This one communicates a simple message. You may not know me, but you know me. I’m Lin Ching-tu’s 林清都wife. Of course, everyone knows incumbent county assembly member Lin Ching-tu. If you support him, you should support me.


Here’s another common theme. You like county magistrate candidate Pan Meng-an 潘孟安, and you like the DPP, so you’ll like me. Pan Meng-an’s picture was everywhere in Pingtung. He was by far the most common second person in the picture. Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文 showed up in a few pictures, and I think I saw one picture of a KMT candidate with KMT county magistrate candidate Chien Tai-lang 簡太郎. Interestingly, I did not see any of Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 or Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌.


Incumbent Lu Tong-hsieh 盧同協 does the same thing, but he doesn’t bother with pictures.


This one combines the previous two themes. On the one hand, she stresses that she is a DPP candidate and associates herself with the popular Pan Meng-an. On the other hand, her husband Liu Hsin-hu 劉新乎 also sends his regards. The party appeal might be more useful since Liu Hsin-hu lost the race five years ago. Also, he ran as a TSU candidate, not a DPP candidate. It’s probably not a coincidence that they decided to put Pan Meng-an’s picture on the flag and not her husband’s.


Kuo Tsai-tian 郭再添 wants to stress that he is not green and not blue. Or maybe he wants you to know that he can work with both sides. Either way, by putting both blue and green on the flag, he is letting you know that he is not a party hack.


Unfortunately, Kuo’s message of not taking sides is undermined by his ally. Hsiao Po-ren 蕭博仁 is trying to win town council votes by associating himself with the popular Kuo and also urging voters to vote for the DPP town mayoral candidate. So much for neutrality.


He Hui-neng 何輝能 lost four years ago, and he’s trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. He is selling himself as a true-green DPP member. This is one of the most traditional-looking DPP flags I have seen in the past few years. He also has one other important message: he is the only DPP candidate from Donggang Township 東港鎮. All of the others are from somewhere else. It doesn’t hurt his strategy that Donggang has more voters than any other township in the district.


The message in this flag is quite clear: “There is no truth at all to the rumors that I am an organized crime godfather.” (Note: Joke)


This one has a policy-oriented message: I will not allow any extension of the third nuclear power plant’s license. He also shows off his education credentials to give some credibility to his implied claim that he understands nuclear power and public policy. He is positioning himself as the serious DPP candidate.


Back in Taipei, here’s another policy ad. Remember Sean Lien’s proposal to move the first funeral parlor out of downtown and over to the outskirts of Nangang? This ad is located across the street from Academia Sinica on the road to the proposed site, and Lee Chien-chang 李建昌 promises to resolutely oppose the scheme. I think that might be a popular stance in that neighborhood.


This is the banner that prompted my friend to ask what I could see in the ads. This is also the local Aboriginal county assembly candidate from Tsaopu Village who appeared in the previous post. The main thing she wants us to know about her seems to be that she is a devout Christian. In the Paiwan electorate, that’s not a bad selling point.


I’m definitely voting for this candidate. His name is Politics Pan! 潘政治


Politics Pan is a Paiwan from Taiwu Township. This is his opponent, who I am rooting against. In the bottom right corner, he has a play on his name which is almost The Great Wall of China.


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Here are a couple of Rukai candidates in Wutai Township 霧台鄉. This is in Haocha Village 好茶村, which was completely wiped out by a landslide a few years ago. The entire village had to find a new site on the border of Machia 瑪家鄉, Sandimen 三地門鄉, and Neipu Townships 內埔鄉 and rebuild. However, they got to keep their Wutai household registrations, so they still legally live and vote in Wutai. The tragedy seems to have steeled the community’s resolve to survive and protect their culture. I came away very impressed that this was not a dying society but instead a vibrant and lively one. Politically, this village is a bit of an outlier. Pingtung Aborigines are overwhelmingly Paiwan and vote 90% or more for the KMT. The Haocha Rukai village has been through a generation of politicization, first with a campaign against the Machia Reservoir and now with the struggle to preserve their village. This experience has led many of them, especially the younger ones (who are now entering middle age) to look outside the KMT. In 2012, Haocha gave 32% of its votes to Tsai Ing-wen; in 2009, 57% voted for the DPP county magistrate candidate.

As for the campaign ads, I admit I don’t really see anything unique or important in them. Maybe I just don’t know the special significance of the key terms, or maybe these are just aimed at name recognition. There did seem to be an awful lot of yellow in this village.


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Here are the two Pingtung County magistrate candidates dressed in Paiwan garb. The message they hope to convey is that, even though I am not one of you, I understand, respect, and am at ease with your culture. Of course, every Han candidate dresses in Aboriginal garb trying to convey this message. It is a lot more effective if the person actually has a long track record of positive interaction with the group. Otherwise, it is (and is usually recognized as) mere cheap talk. In this case, I wonder how well the message came across. These banners are hanging in a Rukai village, but they are the same ones that the candidates put in the Paiwan villages so presumably they are wearing Paiwan, not Rukai dress.


Here’s an ad of Pan Meng-an posing with Huang Chao-chan 黃昭展, who is running for legislator. Wait, there is no legislative election this year!?! This is something I’ve never seen before. Pan is an incumbent legislator. If he wins the county magistrate election he will vacate his legislative seat, and a by-election will be held to fill it. Pan is such an overwhelming favorite to win that Huang is simply assuming there will be a by-election. That might just be bravado. What’s stunning is that Pan is going along with it. Candidates are almost always wary of looking overconfident; they usually want to cry that they need every last voter to turn out. It’s not even that Pan desperately wants Huang to replace him. Here is another ad of Pan posing with another contender, Chuang Jui-hsiung 莊瑞雄. (I saw another of Pan posing with a third possible candidate, but I couldn’t get a picture in our moving car.)



Just to further confuse me, we ran across this billboard of KMT party list legislator Su Ching-chuan 蘇清泉, who isn’t running for anything.


Going back to local elections, here’s a sound truck for a Hengchun Township mayoral candidate passing by the old city wall. Hold on, Hengchun had a city wall? (Warning: digression coming.) First, how did that happen? Hengchun couldn’t have ever been that large of a town, and you had to have permission from the central Qing authorities to build a city wall. For all of you who don’t know where Hengchun is, yes you do. Hengchun is the township that contains Kenting 墾丁, on the southern tip of the island. Of course, there was no beach resort during Qing times. So how did Hengchun geta city wall? Second, how the hell did I not know that Hengchun had a city wall? I need to get out more. Going back to the first question, as Mrs. Garlic and I strolled along the top of the wall, she pointed out that, from the defensive posture, it must have been built to defend against Aboriginal attacks. That seemed reasonable to me. A plaque informed us that it was built in 1875. I don’t know if this is what happened, but I’d like to think it happened something like so. In 1874, Japan sent an expedition to Taiwan and scared the hell out of the Qing court. Local Hengchun leaders, sensing an opportunity, petitioned the court for permission to build a wall to protect against, ahem, Japanese incursions. Much like Washington DC funded all kinds of projects after 9/11 in the name of homeland security, the Qing court hastily approved the petition, and Hengchun built its wall against the Aborigines. Hey, it’s a plausible story.


Let’s look at one last flag. This candidate is running for Hengchun town council, and his flag tells us that … Ok, I have to admit, I can’t glean any useful information from this flag. It’s pretty though.



5 Responses to “What’s in a flag?”

  1. Jenna Cody Says:

    Also an interesting note – Lin Qing-Tu’s wife (Lin Tsai Fengmei? It’s hard to read backwards) writes that in Taiwanese, not Chinese. She uses ㄟ instead of 的, a sure sign of the language she’s trying to convey.

  2. jsmyth Says:

    This was awesome, great work. I live in Gongguan (Taipei) and have detested the dearth of policy indicators in the ads here. There’s a lady dressed as a musketeer, a lady telling her constituents she loves them, a guy thumbs-upping with his cute granddaughter and saying he’s doing this all for the children, etc. I have been fascinated by how few KMT candidates are using blue in their signs, and how proudly DPP candidates are employing green and Tsai Ing-wen, even here.

    Today was the very first time I saw Sean Lien in a councilor’s ad (on a bus, with Lien looking very thin, whether through Photoshop magic or otherwise). I haven’t seen a Ko sign at all but that’s to be expected given how little campaign finance he has. It’s interesting how much he’s been able to power his political career on television media attention and Internet enthusiasm, since before he was even a politician.

    • jsmyth Says:

      Oh yeah, and another KMT lady is pictured standing next to a cartoon character that I think her campaign invented itself, both of them waving.

  3. An amusing Changhua City campaign banner - Synapticism Says:

    […] weird reason, Frozen Garlic offers an insightful English language analysis here. Additionally, both Frozen Garlic and Michael Turton have good posts demonstrating the madness. I’ll probably get around to […]

  4. Yes We Copy - Synapticism Says:

    […] weird reason, Frozen Garlic offers an insightful English language analysis here. Additionally, both Frozen Garlic and Michael Turton have good posts demonstrating the […]

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