Leveraging the Power of Celebrities

In the minds of many, the youth vote is synonymous with celebrities, and not without reason. Ever since the day that Rock the Vote opened its doors in 1991, celebrity spokespeople have been the face of most campaigns targeting young voters. Through PSAs, high-profile concerts and an over-saturation of media exposure, celebrities have cajoled, encouraged and issued ultimatums to America’s youth about the importance of heading to the polls.
It’s a strategy that has produced mixed results at best.
The steady stream of celebrities that pour into politics every four years has done wonders to build the youth brand that is Rock the Vote, and it can often catapult newer organizations like the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, Declare Yourself, and Vote or Die into national prominence. Such high-profile supporters – and the media attention they garner – are also a big draw for donors, making celebrity-driven strategies attractive to any organization looking to sustain its work. But celebrities are often imperfect spokespeople who can hijack the message of youth organizers at work in the trenches (see: P. Diddy in 2004), and their presence often obscures the truth about youth organizing – that it takes hard work in the field, not a lot of flash and bling, to drive young people to the polls.
There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of peer to peer field strategies in driving young voters to the polls. There is very little evidence – if any – to support the idea that celebrity spokespersons by themselves can increase young voter turnout. In 1992 and 2004, the last two presidential elections to see a significant increase in youth turnout, celebrity campaigns were accompanied by extensive, if under the radar, field campaigns run by independent organizations.
The ineffectiveness of the celebrity-driven strategy is due largely to the manner in which celebrities are deployed by their political partners. Often they are used as high-profile messengers of a fairly generic and uninspiring message blasted across the airwaves. It is very much an older, broadcast model that is of limited effectiveness in reaching and engaging young people awash in a more participatory experience of politics and culture. This may in fact account for the extremely varied results produced by such campaigns.
Sixteen years after Madonna first draped herself in the flag on MTV, this is the bind in which many youth organizations find themselves. Celebrity outreach is necessary to build a brand (which in turn helps with fundraising), but it often takes the place of a real field model that is the true key to successful engagement. It’s time to turn that dynamic around, and thanks to the social web, this just might be the year it happens. Two new partnerships between Rock the Vote and Web 2.0 companies offer interesting case studies in how the social web might forge a more direct (and participatory) link between celebrities and the voter registration of their fanbase.
Eventful and All American Rejects – Incentivizing the Fanbase
Eventful is a relatively new website that crowd-sources demand for a particular event in a specific geographic area. It does so by enabling it users to request that someone – a politician, a band, a celebrity, an organization – hold an event in their town. Users who agree can add their support to the event, increasing the tally of votes (i.e. “raising the demand”). The person or entity requested (artist/politician, etc.) can measure the demand for their presence at a particular location by following the number of votes tallied for a given geographic location. If demand is sufficient, they can then choose to schedule an appearance in a location where they might not normally do so. During the Democratic primaries, the Edwards campaign successfully used Eventful to engineer a competition between his supporters to win an appearance by the candidate. The winner was Columbus, Kentucky, a small town of 229 whose citizens tapped their social networks across the country to out-organize larger cities that might seem like a natural win purely on the basis of their population size. As a result of that organizing ingenuity, the candidate ended up appearing in a town where, in the course of a previous campaign without web 2.0, he would not otherwise have done so, and hundreds if not thousands of loose Edwards supporters became more closely tied to the campaign.
 Whereas John Edwards used the site to encourage his supporters to “demand” his presence in their town, Rock the Vote is teaming up with All American Rejects, a nationally recognized band, to produce a similar competition in which the top five locations with the highest demand will win a concert in their city. The civic innovation in this partnership is that every person who submits a demand for AAR to play in their town will be directed automatically to Rock the Vote’s voter registration widget, where they will be encouraged to register to vote for the first time, or update an old registration. These fans are also encouraged to send emails to their friends about the contest, potentially allowing the tools to go viral within small, geographically dense (music-based) social networks. Theoretically, the higher the demand for AAR in a given city, the more voter registrations Rock the Vote will collect in that city. By incentivizing voter registration with the promise of free concerts, and capitalizing on the peer networks in each city and within the fan community supporting All American Rejects, Rock the Vote and Eventful hope to boost significantly the voter registration rate within that music community. If it works, it is a potentially powerful way of involving the artists more directly in the voter registration process.
DemROCKracy – Incentivizing the Artists
A new partnership with MySpace’s political channel, IMPACT, represents a very similar attempt to drive voter registration through a music community, though in this case the model is flipped on its head in order to tap into the Longtail” of music fandom. In their new contest – dubbed “DemROCKracy” – Rock the Vote and MySpace have created a competition not between the fans, but between the artists. Via the DemROCKracy contest, musicians will compete to register as many of their fans as possible. Those who do so will win a number of prizes including new instruments, and even a chance to headline what is sure to be a high-profile Rock the Vote concert at the Democratic Convention in Colorado. DemROCKracy employs a very different strategy than does it’s sister contest. Participating bands are much smaller (micro-celebrities, really), and have a much smaller fanbase than a national act like All American Rejects, making the prizes, while relatively small, worth the effort on the part of the artists. This reverse incentive, and the actual requirement of fans downloading and completing the voter registration forms (which is not present in the AAR/Eventful partnership), could make this a particularly effective (and relatively cheap) strategy for reaching into niche geographic and cultural peer networks that might cost many dollars per registration to reach with a traditional field campaign.
In effect, the artists themselves will be doing something quite similar to a peer to peer field campaign. With the hope of prizes spurring them on, artists will do real work to reach out to their fans, and in return the fans are likely to help their favorite artists get a leg up and tap their own social networks to do so. This is not an unreasonable request, and the gift economy at work in this exchange is already proven. Even in the age of file-sharing, fans are more than willing to help out their favorite artists by paying for CDs, merch and concert tickets. In comparison to such demonstrations of support, registering to vote is a fairly small ask. At the end of the day, everyone wins, and everyone is registered to vote.
A New Role for Celebrities
For over a decade now, youth organizations that deployed celebrities were caught in a Catch-22. Celebrity spokespeople offered a tantalizingly fast way to build a brand and increase the attractiveness of their organization to donors, yet their inclusion also created a fundamental misunderstanding among politicians and the media as to what it takes to turn young voters out at the polls. Their presence obscured the vital role of traditional, peer to peer field work in engaging young people, and the spotty track record of groups who rely on celebrities contributed to the cynical view of youth participation that dominated the debate before this election cycle.
These new projects by Rock the Vote and their partners offer the potential to reverse that trend by flipping the traditional model of celebrity activism on its head, particularly within the music industry. Instead of PSAs fired scattershot at the broadcast audience of MTV or the local radio station, these projects attempt to infiltrate and activate the peer networks at the heart of a band’s fanbase. Nothing is proven yet, but they offer the tantalizing opportunity to leverage celebrities for more than media attention. It’s time for a celebrity-driven strategy to live up to its own hype.