Getting Out The Youth Vote With A Dash Of Snark

Oct 24, 2018
Originally published on October 24, 2018 7:12 am

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.

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We are deep into an election season when a vital question is who shows up? Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team met people who want to grab young voters' attention by making them laugh.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: A new campaign called Call the Cops started a few days ago, and its 30-second spots are popping up on the Internet. In one, a guy with a laptop is sitting on a cafe patio. He looks disgustedly into his recyclable cup as a stunning young black woman pulls up a chair.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Todd) The coffee here sucks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You know what else sucks, Todd? Voter suppression.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Todd) How did you know my name?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Do you plan on voting?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Why is that?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Todd) Because the parties don't represent me. The system is broken. Am I right?

GRISBY BATES: So the woman whips out her phone and makes a call.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) 911, I'd like to report a raggedy ass hipster who thinks he's going to be the next Tarantino. (Laughter) I know, that's going to happen. He doesn't plan on voting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Can you describe him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, I can describe him. He's white. Good luck with that movie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Todd) Will you please be in it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No, dude.

GRISBY BATES: It's a flip on all the white people - the barbecue Beckys, the pool patrol Pauls, the Starbucks Susies - who have called the police on black people just doing stuff - grilling in the park, using the condo pool, waiting in a coffee shop for a business partner. Only in this video, black people are calling the police on white ones they think are being irresponsible citizens. Tara McGowan heads ACRONYM, the nonprofit agency that commissioned the four videos that are popping up on your mobile devices. She gets that they're taking a risk riffing off whites policing black bodies for this campaign's cheeky reverse parody.

TARA MCGOWAN: There's nothing funny about that, but I do think that tying that to civic engagement and using your vote to really make a stand about what kind of country you want to live in and the direction you want this country to go in, I think that can be really powerful.

GRISBY BATES: ACRONYM works to elect progressive candidates via targeted digital media campaigns. McGowan says Call the Cops is part of the Knock the Vote project, which has a specific goal.

MCGOWAN: It is a program designed specifically for voters who may not vote in all elections or especially midterm elections.

GRISBY BATES: The company approached director Malcolm D. Lee to help write and direct the spots. Lee's work includes "Night School" and last year's hit comedy "Girls Trip." The idea of a direct plea to voters appealed to him.

MALCOLM D. LEE: You know, I think it's just important for people to just be aware. And, like, we're not telling you to vote for somebody in particular but, like, hey - but you got to vote. You got to get involved in the process.

GRISBY BATES: So he sat down with ACRONYM's creative director, Vince Murphy, who, by the way, is black, and devised the "Call The Cops" series. There's the hipster, a suburban mom and a worried black man played by "The Daily Show's" Roy Wood Jr. who's calling the cops on a group of selfie-takers.


ROY WOOD JR.: (As character) Excuse me. Have y'all made plans to vote in November?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, laughter) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Hello, 911.

WOOD: (As character) 911, I'd like to report an emergency in the park. There's three white women just taking selfies - triple-selfie in progress. They're using filters, emojis, the same picture over and over again, wearing pajamas. And they literally have no plans of voting in November.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Excuse me. That's not illegal.

WOOD: (As character) Please hurry. I can smell the avocado toast.

GRISBY BATES: Tara McGowan says most of the responses they've received have been positive. And even if a minority of people are offended, she says, getting their attention is half the battle.

MCGOWAN: If we elicit an emotional response, we think we're doing a pretty good job.

GRISBY BATES: Malcolm Lee wants humor to draw in people who see these spots.

LEE: Once you get people laughing and their mouths are open, you can slip the truth in.

GRISBY BATES: And he says the truth is midterm elections count.

LEE: There's not enough people who vote in the midterms, and those that do, you know, get their person in.

GRISBY BATES: "Call The Cops" videos will run through Election Day. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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