Playing Politics

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

PROMOS TIED TO VOTER registration are the hot ticket this summer as marketers tap the urgency surrounding this presidential election. Activists want to bring 20 million voters under 30 to the polls this fall to counter skepticism left from the hanging chads and Supreme Court pow-wow of the 2000 presidential election, which George W. Bush won by a mere 537 votes. (That year, only 42% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared to 70% of citizens over 25, per Youth Vote Coalition.) A handful of marketers, prompted by civic responsibility and a rapport with young adults, are pitching in consumer promotions, often with a musical bent.

Non-profit Rock the Vote leads the field with its $2.5 million June-November Rock the Vote 2004 Voter Registration Bus and Concert Tour, with four corporate sponsors who paid $1 million each: Dr Pepper/Seven Up Cos., Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Motorola and Cingular Wireless.

“This election will be very close. So many people haven’t made up their minds, and there are so many pivotal issues — war, jobs, inflation, gay marriage,” says Rock the Vote COO Michael Evans. “Plus, the closeness of the 2000 election and the mess in Florida makes people see how critical their voice is.”

So far so good: the Iowa caucus had four times as many voters 18 to 29 as in 2000; turnout for the New Hampshire primary was up 60%. And 30% more young people say they will definitely vote this fall than at any time in the last two presidential elections, per MTV.

It’s against federal law to pay people to vote (with cash, ice cream or concert tickets), so promos focus strictly on voter registration. Stay-informed messages are non-partisan, too.

That’s an especially sensitive concern for corporate sponsors. “As a Unilever-owned company, we [at Ben & Jerry’s] had to be mindful to be non-partisan. The important thing was to get people to vote, and Rock the Vote has that message down very well,” says Ben & Jerry’s Director of Public Relations Chrystie Heimert.

“We have 14 years of experience in non-partisan politics; that’s the only way corporate partners can work with us,” Evans says. “But we need to have an edge and a vibe to appeal to young people. We don’t think young people will come to the political process, so we bring it to them.”

That means music. A slate of headline bands will play at Rock the Vote’s 56 tour stops June 16 through Nov. 2 — Dixie Chicks, Alanis Morissette, Snoop Dogg, Dave Matthews Band (RTV follows his tour for two weeks). They perform for free — a bonus for sponsors. “Corporations could never get this kind of talent for $1 million,” Evans says.

“Rock the Vote has really good relationships with A-list artists,” says David Rudd, Motorola’s director-emerging consumer marketing. Yet another bonus: exclusive ring tones, photos and screensavers for Web and cell phone-based promos.

Besides free concerts, the tour has free food and interactive games. Sponsors host election-themed activities. Brands “participate in a meaningful way,” Evans says. “If this [tour] looked like a showroom for our sponsors, it wouldn’t be credible.”

Elsewhere, RTV Street Teams register voters at concerts, clubs and campuses. Twenty-five leaders earn a stipend for organizing 50 to 300 volunteers each to give out info and register voters. An online “street team” recruited 8,000 members in its first six months, with 50,000 expected by November. Los Angeles agency M80 handles Street Teams.

RTV expects to have one million names in its database by Election Day (it has 400,000 now) and will help sponsors with follow-up after the election. “We’re very protective of the list,” Evans says.

Rock the Vote is a tough sell at first for marketing folks used to presentation decks. “We just ask: ‘How can we make you a little cooler, and you give us the resources to reach young people?’” Evans says. Its four $1 million sponsorships fund 35% to 40% of RTV’s total budget ($7 million to $8 million); RTV Awards bring another $1 million, and foundation and individual donations make up the rest.

Rock the Vote also works with MTV on the network’s Choose or Lose 2004 campaign. A Sept. 20-Oct. 1 “PRElection” lets consumers vote for president in an poll. Participants can register to vote (for real) when they sign up for the poll: A dual registration form approved by the Federal Election Commission lets MTV fans use their PRElection registration to fill out a real voter registration form.

Once registered for the PRElection, fans can enter weekly and monthly sweeps and get access to exclusive music and videos at Sweeps prizes include a trip to the MTV Beach House; a July date with an MTV VJ; tickets to the August Video Music Awards; and appearances on Total Request Live.

MTV had 15,000 to 20,000 registrants by June; two spring shows got the highest ratings ever of Choose or Lose programming.

MTV began Choose or Lose in 1992. This is lead sponsor Cingular’s first year, after a successful 2003 joint promo tied to MTV’s Video Music Awards. Cingular sponsored a May sweeps awarding a trip to an MTV taping in Tahoe, NV.

Cingular’s separate tie-in with Comedy Central’s Indecision 2004 campaign includes monthly questions broadcast on Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn; Cingular subscribers phone in their answers. All told, Cingular’s slate of national and local events includes morning “wake-up calls” from celebrities, election-related contests and text-message surveys, says David Garver, Cingular’s executive director of marketing. “The opportunity [to sponsor Rock the Vote] came to us through one of our handset partners.”

MTV also will give 20 grants of $1,000 each for voter-registration drives by grassroots groups led by young adults. Non-profit Youth Venture administers the grants.

Meanwhile, Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) is hosting summits headlined by hip-hop musicians to court urban and Hispanic youth. HSAN was formed in 2001 (initially to fight censorship, like 14-year-old Rock the Vote) and this year collaborates with World Wrestling Entertainment’s ongoing Smackdown Your Vote to register two million voters under 30 — their rallying cry is “Two Million More in 2004.”

Separately, grassroots group 1,000 Flowers is running an innovative Nail the Election campaign to woo single women. The Berkeley, CA-based group is distributing “Beauty Kits” to salons in eight states via local groups. Kits have counter displays, voter registration materials and nail files with slogans like “Don’t let this election be a nail-biter!” and a Website ( where women can register to vote (via a link to telecom and financial services Working Assets). All-volunteer 1,000 Flowers gave away 1,000 postcards and nail files in its first week of operation in mid-May.

Ice cream oaths and ring tones

Ben & Jerry’s used its annual Free Cone Day to register voters in about 200 of its 300 U.S. Scoop Shops. Nearly 1,500 volunteers for Rock the Vote Street Teams handled about 10,000 registrations on April 27, RTV’s biggest mobilization to date.

“Organizing so many volunteers reinforced the fact that our social mission really matters,” says Jonathan Kessler, Ben & Jerry’s retail brand manager.

Consumers who took the “Oath to Vote” in shops or online were registered in an ETOV Turn It Around sweepstakes to win an Apple iPod and iMac and a day as Flavor Guru in Ben & Jerry’s Burlington, VT, headquarters. The first 50,000 entrants got a free song download at iTunes. “Pepsi did a million downloads; we could afford 50,000,” laughs Heimert. “Plus, it fit Ben & Jerry’s legacy around music,” with Cherry Garcia, Phish Food and One Sweet Whirled (with Dave Matthews Band). Hawkeye Group, New York City, handled. Ben & Jerry’s hoped to collect 50,000 pledges by October; it got that many in two and a half days.

Co-founder Ben Cohen called Rock the Vote a year ago, when the election first registered on the company’s social-mission radar. RTV’s first question: Can we have a flavor? “The pint is the best portal to the brand, and we use that real estate very sparingly to share a message,” Heimert says.

Ben & Jerry’s created a strawberry cheesecake flavor, then let America Online members vote on its name: Primary Berry Graham. RTV gets a donation for every pint sold; Ben & Jerry’s will sample the flavor at both national conventions and RTV’s bus tour.

This summer, DPSU has shifted its three-year-old RTV sponsorship to Sunkist from 7UP flanker brand dnL. Marketing plans were still in development at presstime.

Motorola helps RTV run “Rock the Mobile Vote,” a nine-month push that dials up traditional grassroots tactics. (After all, half of 18- to 30-year-olds have cell phones.)

Citizens opt-in for “Get Loud” messages and polling questions every other week, and exclusive ring-tones and graphics from RTV musicians. Occasional sweeps award Motorola phones and music. An April 16-May 5 push, dubbed 20 for 20, vied for 20,000 opt-ins in 20 days: Each opt-in doubled as a sweeps entry. Fox Broadcasting star Rachel Bilson fronted the sweeps, which awarded 20 Motorola phones; 20 Cingular Wireless gift cards of $100 each; 100 pints of Ben & Jerry’s Primary Berry Graham; and 100 cases of 7UP’s dnL.

“We wanted to create a database to get this going,” says David Rudd, Motorola’s director-emerging consumer marketing. It has collected “tens of thousands” of names so far and will “blow the top off 20,000” by November.

Sponsorship “allows us to position our brand in a very progressive way,” Rudd says. “We have a shared mission to change the culture — Rock the Vote, by getting people involved, and us, by using technology to make people’s lives better.”

Motorola and Cingular sponsor a “candidate matcher” questionnaire sent via cell phone. Subscribers answer about 10 questions to find out which candidate best matches their own position on issues. Non-partisan?

“We’re being extraordinarily careful about how the questions are drafted,” says RTV’s Evans. “We have a team of attorneys review them to be sure the questions are unbiased, and we link with outside sources to give more information.”

RTV started scouting cell phone partners two years ago. The non-profit met with all the wireless carriers. “Motorola got it right away,” says Evans. “They have a history of pioneering new uses for technology, and as a stalwart American company.

“We try to figure out the next big thing in politics. In 1992, it was PSAs. It was phone registration in 1996, and online registration in 2000. The next frontier is mobile,” Evans says.

If American Idol can draw 15 million votes for its finale, then 20 million citizens seems a reasonable goal for November.

Phone Booth to Voting Booth

  • Activists in Spain used text messaging to draw a crowd of thousands to the headquarters of ruling party Partido Popular the night before March elections.
  • Filipinos used text messaging to organize the 2001 “People Power II” political revolution in five days in 2001, overthrowing President Joseph Estrada. Source: Cingular Wireless
  • Asking a young person (18-25) to vote raises the likelihood they will vote by 8 to 12 percentage points.
  • Young voters accounted for just under 10% of 2004 Democratic primary voters, similar to 2000. Source: Youth Vote Coalition


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