The video is filled with lewd innuendoes, sly suggestions and incessant repetition of the number 69. It’s narrated by a young woman and man who keep saying things like “insert” and “on top” and “niiice.”
They’re not talking about sex. They’re talking about voting.
This is the premise of an actual public service announcement aimed at getting millennials to vote this year. Released this month from the news start-up Mic, the advertisement is based on the premise that, according to Pew Research Center, 69 million millennials and 69 million baby boomers are eligible to vote this year — hence, the excuse for some sex jokes. The video squeezes in other pertinent statistics and actual information about issues of interest to young people, but they’re sandwiched between cheesy, suggestive jokes.
“Sometimes it seems like [baby boomers] are afraid to try new positions,” a narrator says, “but we’re ready to go down on history.”
The #69TheVote campaign is Mic’s response to young voters’ historically abysmal turnout rates. It’s a problem campaigns and civic organizations have been grappling with for decades — at least as far back as 1956, when the Eisenhower campaign ran a television ad featuring a young woman declaring “I’m a college girl, voting for the first time!”
Despite the notable uptick in young voters when President Obama was first elected, less than 20 percent of young people under 30 showed up to the polls for the 2014 midterm elections. It was the lowest youth turnout rate recorded in a federal election, according to CIRCLE, a Tufts University center on voting research.
But many efforts to lure the youngsters to the polls — with marketing campaigns that attempt to speak their language — have been memorably mortifying.
“Come this November, just don’t blow it . . . Unless you’re into that,” the narrators for that #69theVote PSA utter with what sounds like a wink and a smirk.
“This doesn’t make voting look cooler,” wrote one YouTube commenter. “It just makes sex look worse.”
Cory Haik, Mic’s chief strategy officer (and a former Washington Post employee), explained, “We wanted to get people’s attention” with the video. “I think you have to get in their face in some kind of way, make something that breaks out, which is really hard to do.” And “several thousand” people clicked through on the campaign’s link to register to vote, she said.
As with any voting bloc, there’s a fine line between speaking directly to millennials’ interests and awkward, blatant pandering. Candidates and campaigns want to engage young people on their level, but one emoji too many and the message reads like a note from a mom who just learned to text.
They want to show young people they’re fluent in pop culture, but the Hillary Clinton campaign could only play Rachel Platten’s pop hit “Fight Song” so many times before it became a joke among the reporters and staff who can never get the tune out of their heads. (The song “represents how Hillary Clinton will never give up, and she will do everything she can to make sure families get ahead and stay ahead,” the campaign’s director of millennial media defensively told Yahoo News last week.)
Efforts to woo young voters picked up steam in 1992, when Bill Clinton became the first presidential candidate to appear on MTV, which launched a voting activism program, “Choose or Lose,” that same year. He talked about being a Leo and his first rock-and-roll experience, “going nuts over Elvis Presley,” while wearing what the New York Times called “an awful-looking flowered necktie.”
Rock the Vote, meanwhile, had recently formed, and it enlisted Madonna for an ad in which she wrapped herself in an American flag while hamming it up with some buff backup dancers. Then it found its signature formula: Line up a dizzying number of celebrities, drop them in front of a neutral background and have them name-drop the issues that will get people to vote.
According to one study that tracked voting in the places Rock the Vote ads ran, they actually did increase turnout by a few percentage points.
And then there are the efforts to talk directly to young voters that are so off that they are remembered not for their positive impact but for their ability to induce cringes.
Take “Crush on Obama,” the viral music video of 2007, created by the YouTube channel Barely Political. The spoofy slow jam certainly got buzz, with “Obama Girl” Amber Lee Ettinger cooing and writhing over her fondness for the then-senator from Illinois. But Obama later said the song upset his daughters.
This election cycle, a 31-year-old rapper known as Aspiring Mogul gifted the world with the Ben Carson rap, which rhymed “Carson” with “awesome” and promised that “if we want to get American back on track, we gotta vote Ben Carson, a matter of fact.” The campaign spent $150,000 to air the song on the radio in Atlanta, Miami and Detroit.
Carson later said he was “horrified” by the song.
Even established hip-hop stars have struggled with their outreach efforts. In 2004, Sean “Diddy” Combs launched a “Vote or Die” campaign — which quickly inspired a “South Park” parody in which Combs stalks and threatens to kill a reluctant voter.
That same year, Norman Lear’s voting advocacy group “Declare Yourself” created an ad mimicking the then-popular MTV show “Pimp My Ride.” The PSA was called “Phat Ride.” It had shiny hub caps, scantily clad ladies and a black guy in gold chains saying, “Yo what’s up, player?” Then a man screws his own mouth shut, symbolically silencing his own opinions.
Exactly the motivation you needed to get out and vote, right?
The swing-and-misses aren’t just limited to presidential races, of course. Take the “Say Yes to the Candidate” videos that ran on behalf of 2014 GOP candidates including Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. In a surprisingly on-point imitation of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress,” young, beautiful women shop for their perfect wedding gowns. The Republican candidates represent the sleek, affordable dresses, while the Democratic competitors are expensive frumpy messes.
“Rick Scott is becoming a trusted brand,” the blushing bride says as she checks her rear end in a mirror.
As Stephen Colbert summed it up at the time: “This ad shows that the modern GOP finally understands the real concerns of women: weddings!”
American University professor Jennifer Lawless, author of “Running from Office: Why Young Americans are Turned Off to Politics” said that video is the best example of a “mortifying” effort to talk to young women. And yet . . .
“I’m sitting here, years later, remembering it,” she said. “If an ad like that generates more mainstream attention . . . It is putting a conversation about voting in popular culture, and that has its benefits.”
So maybe Clinton should keep on playing “Fight Song,” no matter how many people roll their eyes. Lately, her youth-outreach tactics have included snapping selfies with Kim Kardashian, selling T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Yaaas” and dropping references to Pokémon Go.
When the hosts of a hip-hop morning radio show told her she was pandering, she asked, “Is it working?”
Donald Trump seems less concerned with specifically targeting young voters. Considering the low rates at which young people vote, and the polls that show Clinton trouncing Trump in voters under 35, his campaign may have decided its efforts are better spent with older voters.
As Trump said to one young protester in his audience this month:
“Go home to mom. And your mother is voting for Trump!”