CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ELECTORAL COMMISSION - St Luke's tries to provoke a reaction with its gritty and harsh spot

If ever there's a hard, cynical and disenchanted audience for advertisers to try to reach, it's the 18- to 24-year-olds who make up the nation's youth. So when the Electoral Commission asked St Luke's to find a way to engage this audience and encourage registration for the annual electoral canvass this autumn, it knew it had to do something visually different to jolt its audience into action.

"We did a lot of research and it was clear it's not an easy market to crack," the director of media and public affairs at the Electoral Commission, Anne Hinds, admits. "There was no sense of civic duty."

The Electoral Commission's goal is to remind young people of the importance of registering in order to vote. But is it talking to a deaf audience? While it is not all doom and gloom, the figures still tell a sorry tale. "Only 39.4 per cent (of 18- to 24-year-olds) voted in the last general election," Hinds says. The worst offenders were women; Mori figures show that while 43 per cent of men voted, only 36 per cent of women took part. Compare this with a 70 per cent voting population in the over-55 age bracket, and the apathy among the younger generation is clear.

However, the number of young voters is not decreasing, it is just small.

The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds voting in the 1997 general election weighed in at 39 per cent, a similar turnout to 2001.

To engage the young voters St Luke's devised a visually arresting campaign.

Its gritty 50-second ad features a central character running through a variety of obstacles clutching a card marked with a cross - representing the power of his vote - which allows the protagonist to overcome increasingly insurmountable obstacles.

The commercial was shot in a big hanger off a green screen, as the copywriter, Matt Janes, remembers. "We had the poor actor running around at high speed and on treadmills while we were throwing dirt and leaves at him," he says.

The rest of the ad is computer-generated, with the end result being a fairly abstract but eye-catching spot likely to stand out in a cinema.

For Hinds, the medium of cinema is specifically designed to attract the core audience. "You can wrap the ads around whatever is this season's youth film," she says.

The idea of the spot is to shake the target audience out of its voting apathy. "We wanted to do something that causes a reaction," Janes says.

To this end, the composition's tone is skewed towards maintaining a gritty and vaguely disquieting feel - and for this reason the grating, distorted soundtrack was specifically chosen. "It was really difficult to find a piece of hard dance music that would unsettle people," Janes confirms. "But everything was designed to cause a reaction."

Still, will it be engaging enough to catch the attention of a traditionally apathetic audience? "Hopefully people won't be able to ignore it," Janes says. "We're trying to just make an assault on their senses."

This assault follows a broader range of initiatives by the Electoral Commission as, in the longer-term cultural landscape, the voting issue has to be continually addressed. "We can't just pick it up and drop it," Hinds confirms.

A range of important initiatives is already in place, including a campaign bus that visits campuses with a specially produced guide to voting. It was also distributed in the main towns and cities holding the May local elections.

As far as Janes is concerned, he'll be just as happy if people disagree with the ad's strategy, as it will have broken the apathy barrier and got people talking. That has to be a good place to start.

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