New York Times July 13, 2004


While partisan political ads continue to dominate attention, a rapidly growing number of nonpartisan campaigns from recently created groups are trying the tactics of Madison Avenue pros to register new, and especially young, voters.
Today, Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter-registration group started by the television producer Norman Lear, will raise two giant billboards in Times Square, showing Christina Aguilera and André 3000 with their mouths held shut, next to the message, "Only you can silence yourself."

"We're approaching a cause as a brand," said Howard Benenson, chief executive at Benenson Janson in Studio City, Calif., the Declare Yourself agency. "It's not any different than any corporate American company," he said. "It's all about creating a brand of passion for consumers."

The great unregistered are receiving pitches from groups with wildly divergent world views, including Cast the Vote, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, Redeem the Vote, Voter Virgin, VoteLoud, Voces del Pueblo and Punk Voter. Rock the Vote and Choose or Lose, continuing campaigns that were established in the 1990's, are veterans by now.

But all the vote marketers are searching out their targets with a sprawling set of marketing strategies, like sending interactive text messages to cellphones, selling tie-in merchandise like $20 designer T-shirts, creating Web logs and producing performances by everyone from the Rza of Wu-Tang Clan fame to the Rock 'N' Roll Worship Circus.

Political analysts said the newly pervasive voter-registration drives reflected lessons from the 2000 election, which showed that a few votes can decide large events, as well as a widespread sense that the coming election holds especially high stakes. But the efforts stem, too, from indications that young people, the targets of many of these campaigns, are increasingly engaged in politics.

In the Iowa caucus this year, for example, 17 percent of the participants were under 30 years old, up from just 9 percent in 2000, according to the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

"You've never seen this number of different groups out there," said Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager for Howard Dean and author of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a book on engaging voters.

"Twenty years ago it was all done by the parties and only by the parties," Mr. Trippi said. "Compared to today, it was nothing."

Nelson Warfield, a Republican consultant who was press secretary for Senator Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996, agreed. "The phenomenon of multifaceted sales pitches is broader this year than ever before," Mr. Warfield said.

Of course, partisans are also trying to sign up new voters. The Republican National Committee, for example, has deployed Reggie the Voter Registration Rig, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck barreling across the country with interactive multimedia displays, Xbox video game consoles and a sound stage inside. The truck has delivered Ed Gillespie, the Republican party chairman, to a guest appearance on the MTV show "Total Request Live"; visited Costa Mesa, Calif., for the Orange County Swap Meet; and today will park outside the Dunkin' Donuts Civic Center in Providence, R.I., for a World Wrestling Entertainment event.

But the attention-getting campaigns from nonpartisans lead to questions about who benefits from registering young voters. Ian Rowe, vice president for public affairs at MTV, said that the most common assumptions, that the young tend not to vote but lean Democratic when they do vote, are not evident in the polling MTV has conducted in conjunction with its Choose or Lose program.

"This year, the audience is split and undecided," Mr. Rowe said.

And although the most recent poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics, in April, found that college students favored Senator John Kerry over President Bush by about 10 points, the Republican Party says it is not concerned.

Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman at the Repulican National Committee, said, "We support any and all efforts to get more people involved in the political process."
The nonpartisan campaigns are trying to carve a new place for voting in youth culture, said Ana Marie Cox, who writes the political Web log called Wonkette.

"They're trying to give voting cultural cachet," Ms. Cox said of vote marketing in general. "Like it gives you social capital in the same way that buying a Britney Spears album or getting a tattoo does. But the problem is, voting isn't ever going to make you seem cool."

While the Declare Yourself campaign ventures far into the territory of hipdom, using not just celebrity performers in its ads but David LaChapelle, the fashion photographer, to shoot and direct them, its creators said they were not trying to play the cool card.

"Cool was never an adjective on the table," Mr. LaChapelle said. "What's different about this campaign than just Madonna voguing in a flag is that this is really hard hitting: it's going to be scary if you don't use your voice."

The aim was to respect youth culture, not necessarily reshape it, said Andrew Janson, chief creative officer and co-chairman at Benenson Janson.

"The main thing is that they do not want to be preached to," Mr. Janson said. "The second thing is you want to find an aggressive area that sits within your ballpark."
To that end, the image of Ms. Aguilera, with her mouth sewn shut in ribbon, and the other celebrities will also appear as ads in magazines aimed at young people, including Fader, Interview, Rolling Stone and Us Weekly. Other ads feature performers like Amber Tamblyn, the star of "Joan of Arcadia" on CBS, and La Toya London, a finalist on the third season of "American Idol." The spots directed by Mr. LaChapelle include parodies of makeup and pet food commercials before turning a sharp corner to depict the sealing, bolting or muzzling of stars' mouths.

The commercials will appear first on a special Web site operated by Yahoo, then be distributed around the country for station managers to run at will as public service announcements. The Times Square billboards appear in space donated by Clear Channel Outdoor, part of Clear Channel Communications.

Mr. Lear, the Declare Yourself founder and producer of television shows like "All in the Family," said that selling the young on voting was paramount because it could influence their lives for years ahead.

"This is based on the same research that has been borne out on Madison Avenue, that if you get young people buying a Chevrolet, they're going to stay in the General Motors family," Mr. Lear said. "The same thing is true of voters: if you get them to vote the first time early, the chances are far greater they will be lifetime voters."

Unfortunately, getting young people to do anything is never simple, said Ms. Cox, who in addition to writing Wonkette will cover the Democratic National Convention for MTV News. "Maybe the best way to tell people to vote is to say voting has no carbs," she said.

By Nat Ives

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