Rock the Vote

views updated

Rock the Vote

10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 150
Los Angeles, California 90025
Telephone: (310) 234-0665
Fax: (310) 234-0666
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:



Rock the Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, encouraged the young electorate to vote since its founding in 1990. Two years after its conception, Rock the Vote was credited for the second largest 18- to 24-year-old turnout in America's voting history. For the next few years, however, the young electorate steadily decreased. To engage America's youth in political topics they might otherwise show no interest in, Rock the Vote launched its "Yes/No Ballot Box" campaign before the 2000 presidential election.

Launched across various media, including print, radio, outdoor billboards, television, Internet, and even E-mail, "Yes/No Ballot Box" did not use typical partisan rhetoric but presented provocative issues that would appeal more to youth. One ad displayed a chilling photo that looked down a revolver's gun barrel. The young, out-of-focus child holding the gun seemed barely strong enough to take aim at the camera. To the right of the photo, a short paragraph explained both sides of the contemporary gun-control issue. "Yes" and "No" check boxes rested at the bottom of most Internet ads. Whichever box was clicked, the selection's opposite stance opened up. "Yes" or "No" boxes appeared at the bottom of other key-issue images, such as an electric chair, a clear-cut forest, a fetus, and a gay couple, all attempting to spark interest within young voters. Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote, told Business Wire, "Rather than using just words and images, we are using innovative new media to engage young people in the political process." With a budget of $35,000 to $40,000 per television spot, the campaign was conceived by the advertising agency Collaborate.

Despite the campaign's ad industry success, only 28.7 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 election, which was considered to be one of the closest elections in history. This was a significant drop from the 32.4 percent who voted in 1996. According to analysts youth were interested in key issues but not necessarily in who was elected president. Also according to analysts, as well as Rock the Vote organizers, 2000's presidential candidates did not invest much interest in the youth vote as compared with President Bill Clinton's campaigns during the 1990s.


Concerned that politicians would censor some of their best-selling music, members of the recording industry started the nonprofit organization Rock the Vote in 1990 to protect freedom of speech and artistic expression rights. "Censorship Is UnAmerican" was the tagline for the first campaign, which featured a series of public service announcements from Woody Harrelson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Iggy Pop. In 1991 Madonna, draped in an American flag, urged young people to vote on MTV but was later criticized for not even being registered at the time. Despite some early criticism Rock the Vote and MTV's 1992 "Choose or Lose" campaign saw a 38 percent voter turnout for 18- to 24-year-olds, the highest turnout since the voting age was lowered in 1972. Rock the Vote also helped pass the National Voter Registration Reform Act, or "Motor Voter Bill," which in 1993 gave voters more rights and retrofitted the voting system.

During nonpresidential election years Rock the Vote used celebrity endorsements and MTV's free donation of airtime to address other political issues. In 1993 President Clinton signed another Rock the Vote-sponsored bill, the National and Community Service Trust Act, which encouraged political volunteerism. In 1995 Rock the Vote helmed "Out of Order: Rock the Vote Targets Health," a series of award-winning short films, which starred Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Joey Lauren Adams, and Amy Smart. The films focused on health-care issues and won Rock the Vote a Peabody Award.

Despite the organization's awards, young voter turnout decreased every year after the incredible 38 percent turnout in 1992. Rock the Vote organizers believed the decrease resulted from a mutual apathy between presidential candidates and the younger electorate. Robin Raj, Collaborate's creative director, explained to Adweek that the "Yes/No Ballot Box" campaign was an attempt to "provoke and confront kids with issues that might ordinarily turn them off."


"Yes/No Ballot Box" targeted the 18- to 24-year-old unregistered electorate who were not interested in politics but were intrigued by provocative social issues. Democrat and Republican candidates in 2000 were accused by many journalists of demonizing young voters in order to win points with the larger, older electorate. Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate and selection for vice president, was criticized for pandering to religious groups by moralizing the "vulgarity" in pop culture, such as Eminem's music and even the television show Friends. In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Democrats, according to analysts, steered away from anything young, hip, or provocative. Henry Bindbeutel, the twenty-one-year-old heading Libertarian J. Fred Staples' campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, told the Portland Press Herald, "They talk about drugs and teen smoking and violence in schools. It is all targeted at this vision of the young being in some way corrupt."

To draw younger voters to the polls in 2000, "Yes/No Ballot Box" avoided political banter and focused on youth-centric issues. "Young people have their own set of priorities and it's important for them to see how the candidates respond to them," said Stephen Koepp, executive editor of Time, to PR Newswire. "They care particularly about higher education, about civil rights and personal privacy, about violence they encounter in real life, not in the movies. They know a thing or two about these issues because they affect their lives right now."

The Garin Hart Yang Research Group polled 600 people aged 17 to 24 in October 1999. The survey showed that only 30 percent would vote in the 2000 election. The top issues for that same demographic, according to MTV, were education (58 percent), violence and crime (50 percent), jobs and the economy (46 percent), drugs (44 percent), and health care (38 percent).


In 1991 Rock the Vote supported the National Voter Registration Reform Act, also called the "Motor Voter Bill." Vetoed in 1991 by President George Bush, the bill forced all voting jurisdictions to use the latest technology to maintain a statewide voting database. The Election Review Commission was also created by the bill to educate voting officials about updated voting technologies. The Voter's Bill of Rights, to which voting officials had to comply, was designed for the entire electorate. Among the rights included were "If you make a mistake or spoil your ballot before it is submitted, you have the right to receive a replacement ballot and vote" and "If you are in line at your polling place any time between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., you have the right to vote." President Bill Clinton later approved the bill in 1993.


"Youth Vote 2000," launched by Youth Vote Coalition, was the largest nonpartisan campaign urging young people to vote in 2000. It was composed of organizations such as Campus Green Vote, Black Youth Vote, League of Women Voters, and Rock the Vote. Volunteers placed phone calls and went door-to-door, targeting the electorate under age 30 in college communities of New York, Colorado, and Oregon. Post-analysis showed that the young voters called were 5 percent more likely to vote than voters not called. And the individuals targeted by the face-to-face campaign were more likely to vote by 8 percent. A comparison of the campaign's cost with the final youth-voter turnout showed the cost per vote averaged between $10 and $12.

The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) launched its "Smackdown Your Vote" campaign in 2000. Also partnered with "Youth Vote 2000," "Smackdown Your Vote" featured guest appearances by wrestling personalities such as the Rock and Chyna at the National Republican and National Democratic conventions. "We wanted to find a way that we could use our popularity to highlight activities which affect our fans and our communities," Gary Davis, WWF vice president of communications, said in the Grand Rapids Press. "We've already registered close to 120,000 new voters in the past two months and the response has been great." This number was significantly fewer than the 565,000 of "Yes/No Ballot Box." "Smackdown Your Vote" also focused on familiarizing children under the age of 18 with the election process. Thomas Patterson, an investigator with the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University, told the Sunday Patriot-News Harrisburg that people between the ages of 18 and 19 were three times more likely to know who won the Super Bowl than the Republican primaries. Paula Case, a Kids Voting USA project manager, remarked, "The reason to start so young is so the voting place becomes a familiar place, not a scary place, so voting becomes a habit."


"Yes/No Ballot Box" in 2000 marked a new turn in Rock the Vote's 10-year-old approach to enticing youth to the polls. In the past the organization had focused its main efforts on approaching celebrities to make public appearances or television public service announcements. Collaborate wanted to market the 2000 campaign differently. "Our feeling was kids had been there, done that. Rock stars presenting the message of 'vote' is important, but it is only one tactic and wasn't enough to break through the cynicism," Raj told Adweek. The online portion of the campaign launched September 25, 2000, and the broadcasts began October 7. The entire campaign continued until Election Day (November 7).

"Yes/No Ballot Box" pooled work from several different agencies. Collaborate oversaw the creative aspect, while Pandemonium and Western Images supplied the resources. "Yes/No Ballot Box" also partnered with MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign, along with the Youth Vote Coalition. Because more than 10 media agencies were involved, one challenge was to make "Yes/No Ballot Box" execute seamlessly. "The team worked together to facilitate a convergent production that ensures that concepts not only look the same, but also act the same as people interact with them," Tommy Means, Pandemonium's director of convergent production, told Business Wire.

Collaborate designed the Internet advertisements, which played something like an interactive television commercial. Powered by Unicast's proprietary technology, the Web ads preloaded into the viewer's browser so that when the ads were clicked they played immediately. Each Web ad lasted an estimated 20 seconds and took the form of an interactive debate. Advertising space was donated by websites like,, and E! Different issues were conveyed by different images, such as an overflowing ashtray appearing beneath the copy "Ashes to ashes" for the smoking issue. Viewers could click on either "Yes" or "No" depending on their stance regarding the smoking issue. Whatever choice was clicked, the opposing argument was then displayed on the website. Eventually the ad directed the audience back to Rock the Vote's website, where they could register to vote, read more information about key issues, or send the ad's content by E-mail to a friend.

Other key issues were abortion (conveyed by the image of a fetus), capital punishment (an electric chair), hate crimes (a burning cross), and the legalization of marijuana (cannabis leaves). Five different 15-second television spots broadcast the same "Yes" or "No" ballot boxes transposed over similar images. Also 8 million E-mails were sent. "This effort is based on confrontation. Confrontation to create interaction. Maybe that will get more kids to register and vote," Raj told Business Wire. "Contrary to the conventional wisdom that people don't care about issues, we find people, and especially young people, are more engaged on issues than rhetoric."


The "Yes/No Ballot Box" campaign, even though it did not draw more young voters in 2000 than voted in 1996, was still successful from an ad industry and Web marketing standpoint. The overall campaign registered 168,000 voters online; Rock the Vote registered 565,000 total. The campaign reached 20 million viewers and earned Collaborate the Interactive Media Andy Award in 2001, along with a Silver Effie in 2002. Hilary Fadner, Unicast's director of corporate communications, said in Electronic Advertising & Marketplace Report that the ad's "click-through rate [was] six times the current average for banners."

Most analysts did not attribute the decrease in young voters to a weakness in campaigning but to the youth's disinterest in the 2000 election. Some journalists speculated that both parties assumed the youth would not vote and therefore simply ignored them. The youth, in turn, ignored the election. "George W. Bush and Al Gore may be the human equivalent of Sominex to most young people," Bruce Horovitz wrote in USA Today. "But one thing appears to have cut through teen boredom with the presidential contest: Rock the Vote."


Bernstein, Roberta. "Picture This." Adweek (eastern ed.), December 4, 2000, p. 26.

DePledge, Derrick. "Even in War Times, Voter Apathy Persists among Young Americans." Gannett News Service, October 9, 2002.

Dill, Mallorre. "Click the Vote." Adweek (eastern ed.), October 9, 2000, p. 34.

Elliott, Stuart. "Campaign to Use E-Mail to Promote Youth Vote." New York Times, September 25, 2000, p. 19.

Goldberg, Danny. "Papa, Don't Preach." American Prospect, January 1, 2001, pp. 17-19.

Holzwarth, Dean. "WWF Invades the Political Arena." Grand Rapids Press, October 14, 2000, p. C8.

Horovitz, Bruce. "Rock the Vote Aims to Click with Young Electorate." USA Today, October 23, 2000, p. 5B.

Jacobs, Heather. "Propaganda and Satellite Try to Rock the Vote." Shoot, November 10, 2000, p. 7.

Johnson, Mark. "Youth-Voter Push Seen as Flop." Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 14, 1997, p. A2.

Kattleman, Terry. "All's Not Quiet on the Western Front." Advertising Age's Creativity, December 1, 2000, p. 46.

Raine, George. "Local Ad Agency a Big Winner in N.Y. Competition." San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 2001, p. C4.

Weichselbaum, Simone. "American U.: Youth Vote Rate up in 2000." Eagle, November 20, 2000.

Weinstein, Joshua L. "Youths Speak Out: 'Nobody's Rocking the Vote This Year' Series: Campaign 2000." Portland Press Herald, November 6, 2000, p. 1A.

                                            Kevin Teague