As midterm elections approach, politicians and activists are urging people to get out and vote, especially in places where races are close. One of the demographics they're most worried about getting to the polls are young voters, who are often seen as uninvolved and/or apathetic.
That's why the "Knock the Vote" project was created earlier this year by ACRONYM, a DC-based organization that uses social media and targeted digital media programs to push for progressive candidates.
"We try to reach people where they are," says ACRONYM'S co-founder and CEO Tara McGowan. Where they are, increasingly, are on their cellphones or tablets, so ACRONYM'S videos are designed to be brief online bites that make you think.
Flipping the (racial) script
The company's current campaign runs through election day and features quick (30 seconds or so) videos that aim to grab the millennial imagination. And maybe get skinny jeans-wearing behinds out of their bean bag chairs and off to the polls. It's called Call the Cops, and it has an interesting twist: in these videos, it's black people calling the cops on white ones who are behaving in a socially irresponsible manner: They're not voting.
The first video dropped last week and shows a hipster with a laptop on the patio of a café. He's staring balefully into his (recyclable) cup:
"The coffee here sucks," he mutters.
Enter a beautiful black woman who seats herself opposite him.
"You know what else sucks, Todd?" she asks crisply. "Voter suppression!"
She goes on to ask Todd if he's going to vote. Todd says no. The parties don't represent him, he tells her. "The system's broken, am I right?"
Quickly she whips out her cell and calls 911 and informs the police Todd doesn't plan to vote.
(Todd responds by asking her to be in his movie.)
ACRONYM'S Tara McGowan agrees the racial profiling we've seen in a lot of real-life videos posted online is nothing to laugh about. "But I do think that tying that to specific engagement, and using your vote to really make a stand about what kind of country you want to live with, and the direction you want this country to go in? I think that can be really powerful."
The company approached director Malcolm D. Lee (Night School, Girls Trip, The Best Man movies), and it turned out the timing was right. Lee says he'd been thinking about how to become more involved politically. He'd called his elected officials and vented on social media, but wanted to do more. The idea of a clever plea to young people to vote appealed to him.
Although ACRONYM does have a distinctly leftward lean, McGowan says they are not advocating for specific candidates. "We are not telling you to vote for somebody in particular. ... But you gotta vote, you gotta get involved in the process."
Lee sat down with ACRONYM'S creative director, Vince Murphy, who is black and originally suggested the call-the-cops idea. There's the coffee-swilling hipster, a suburban mom and a worried black man, played by The Daily Show's Roy Wood Jr., who calls the cops on a group of self-portraitists.
"Excuse me, have y'all made plans to vote in November?" Wood asks.
"Nope," the young women tell him. They also loftily inform the shocked Wood that not voting isn't illegal.
So he calls 911 to report an emergency. "Three white women taking selfies —triple-selfie in progress! Using filters, emojis, same picture over and over again."
Seduce people with laughter — then slip in the truth
Tara McGowan says most of the responses they've received are positive. But even if she gets some negative feedback, she says getting people's attention is half the battle: "If we elicit an emotional response, we think we're doing a pretty good job."
Director Malcolm Lee is convinced humor is the portal for getting people to think seriously about going to the polls. "Once you get people laughing, their mouths are open — you can slip the truth in."
And the truth, Lee says, is that midterm elections count.
"There's not enough people who vote in the midterms," he said. "And those that do get their person in."
Which maybe explains the success of an earlier Knock the Vote campaign, where older voters shrugged off the potential political power of millennials: young people don't vote, they smile. But we do: Every. Single. Election. The message is clear: you want change? Then go to the polls and vote for it.