This story is over 5 years old.


A Brief History of Embarrassing Attempts to Get the Youth to Vote

Can some combination of Lil Jon, Lena Dunham, Madonna, 69ing, and wrestlers being angry get young people to vote?
Screenshot via YouTube

Voting is one of the most boring things you can do. You have to find out where you vote, get yourself there, wait in a DMV-esque line, tell the usually very nice polling workers your name, go to the booth where you fill in the bubble or hit the appropriate buttons, then go about your day. You know that voting is important, people tell you that all the time, but also that your vote may not decide anything. That is, your ballot is insignificant, but you should still cast it because what if no one voted? Well, something bad would probably happen, that's what!


Somehow, though, no matter how many times young people are given the message that they should vote, a bunch of them skip the whole deal. Only about 20 percent of US citizens under 30 cast ballots in the 2014 midterms, and though that number is abnormally low, it's generally been true that the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. This is bad! So, for decades, the well-meaning tryhards of the political class have tried to draw young people away from their smartphones/incomprehensible music/genitals and into the voting booth.

That is how we ended up here, at hashtag-69TheVote, a new video from the millennial content generators and treehouse fans at Mic.

The idea here, I guess, is that millennials love 1. puns 2. emojis 3. statistics and 4. sex positions that are more trouble than they're worth, all of which are featured prominently in this video. But judging by the YouTube comments ("This doesn't make voting look cooler, it just makes sex look worse"), the video is not going to be the silver bullet that kills the werewolf of young voter apathy, or whatever.

Unbelievably, this is not even the worst, or even fifth-worse, attempt to attract young voters. Here are some of history's more facepalm-y (as the kids say) campaigns to get the under-30 crowd into politics:

This nonpartisan radio ad appeared just a few months after the 26th Amendment extended voting rights to 18 year olds in 1971 and is an extremely direct appeal to teenagers to register to vote. Back then, commercials of all sorts were basically just white-sounding dudes telling people to do things, so this was pretty solid by the standards of the day.


Less solid was "War Song," which Neil Young and Graham Nash recorded in support of 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. (Sample lyric: "There's a man / says he can / put an end to war.") It wasn't popular, probably because it sucked and was boring, and neither was McGovern. Though the candidate appealed to a lot of young people's left-wing and anti-war sympathies, he ended up losing even the under-30 vote to Richard Nixon, who targeted young voters in at least one ad.

We're going to skip ahead to Rock the Vote, the long-running MTV-backed campaign to get young people into politics. One of its earliest spots starred Madonna and was apparently brought to you by the letter C (for cocaine) and the self-aware slacker aesthetic of the early 90s. Rock the Vote is I'm sure very admirable, etc., but in 26 years of existence, it has never, ever figured out how to make voting cool.

Case in point: This spot from Smackdown Your Vote! that makes me very, very happy not to be in its target demographic. Smackdown Your Vote! is a joint venture from AT&T, the WWE, and Rock the Vote that was started in 2009 and appears to have petered out (its Facebook page has been dark since 2010). The idea was to register voters at WWE events; it also created ads like this one, where John Cena, the most charismatic collection of rectangles to ever come to life, tells you to "get your cellphone out."

Other attempts to target millennials have also fallen flat. In 2004, you had Sean Combs's much-derided-even-at-the-time "Vote or Die" campaign, which he quickly abandoned (in 2015, Combs said of voting, "this whole shit is a scam"). And 2006 saw the birth of Declare Yourself, a group that produced some David LaChapelle–directed videos that were notable for their fucking insanity:


See, what happens here is it's an ad for something that's sorta like Pimp My Ride, then a guy nails his mouth shut! Doesn't that make you want to vote?

In recent years, political ads targeting young people have disappointedly shifted from aggressive surreality and toward a celebrity-dominated model, the theory being that kids love famous people. Most notably, Lena Dunham made a much-derided 2012 video for Barack Obama that compared voting to losing your virginity.

Then, in 2014, this happened:

"Wait, you're Lena Dunham! And you're celebrity fitness trainer Tracy Anderson!" Lil Jon says. "I can't wait to see season four of Girls."

Combine those three sentences with a millennial-targeted GOP ad featuring a whiny dude pumping gas and telling his fellow kids to embrace pro-business policies, and it's no surprise that four out of five young people chose to sit that election cycle out.

Presidential elections are the big ones, and candidates have gone all out to attract millennial support in 2016—Ted Cruz made bacon with a machine gun, Hillary Clinton went on Broad City, and Bernie Sanders, that oddball, spoke to issues young people care about like student debt and the price of college tuition. There are new nominally nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts too, like MTV's Elect This, which has been producing cutting-edge videos like this series where, um, animatronic animals make jokes:

Please vote.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.