CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/ROCK THE VOTE; British youth may be too cynical for Rock the Vote

Can Rock the Vote bring British youth back to the ballot box?

Can Rock the Vote bring British youth back to the ballot box?

St Luke’s has been charged with a heavyweight brief - ‘the relaunch of

democracy’ - by Rock the Vote, an organisation set up to encourage young

people to vote at the next general election. Forty three per cent of

under 25s did not vote in the last election.

Celebrity support has already been garnered from the music industry and

the world of comedy, with actors and sports stars also expected to offer

themselves up for the cause before the campaign kicks off.

But are a few famous faces smiling their way through ads enough to

change the pattern of voting in the UK, and how can Rock the Vote

overcome the country’s typically cynical reaction to enthusiastic do-


These two questions were the starting point for St Luke’s when it

pitched for the pounds 1 million account against BMP DDB Needham, M&C

Saatchi and BST-BDDP. And St Luke’s answers won it the business.

The campaign will be modelled on the US campaign which ran in 1992,

using a broad spread of top music industry names like REM, Madonna,

Aerosmith and LL Cool J. But, David Abrahams, St Luke’s marketing

director, dismisses the tone of the US execution, which he describes as:

‘Very rock ’n’ roll and ‘Hey kids - yo’.’

Abrahams promises: ‘We’ve found an effective way of making it credible.

Youth advertising is no longer about being clever, it is more about

hitting the right tone.’

The artists will be invited to inject their ideas into the scripts, and

ads will show the artists in their home environments or in contemporary

landscapes. Charles Stewart-Smith, one of Rock the Vote’s five

directors, says: ‘It is about style as much as content, and we have to

be prepared to be controversial and dangerous.’

St Luke’s campaign will avoid any monolithic commands to put a cross on

the ballot paper, and instead represent voting in different ways, for

example, as a rite of passage, a means of stopping others from getting

the upper hand, or even warning that you can’t complain about the

government if you don’t vote.

Celebrities will endorse viewpoints with which they feel most

comfortable, and diverse names such as Eddie Izzard, Menswear, Steve

Coogan, Radiohead and Jo Brand have already signed up.

But won’t all these right-on media types inevitably give the campaign a

left-wing bias? Rock the Vote is officially supported by all three main

political parties, and takes a staunchly apolitical stance, but the US

campaign has been credited with putting the Democrat, Bill Clinton, in

power, after eight years of Republican rule.

Matthew Parris, a political commentator for the Times who has a history

of involvement with the Conservative Party, is a director of Rock the

Vote. He says: ‘Of course more of our supporters will be left wing, but

there will be no sign of bias in the ads. Party politics and pop music

don’t mix, as movements like Red Wedge found out in the 80s.’

Leslie Butterfield, the chairman of Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, who

has worked on Labour Party campaigns for many years, has been

consistently depressed by how disaffected young people are with the

whole political process, and welcomes the Rock the Vote initiative.

He points out that that seven out of ten young people usually vote

Labour. He says: ‘A campaign aimed at youth is likely to benefit the

left, but even the most cynical right-wing politician could not possibly

discourage voting among the young.’

The political leanings of pop stars are of less interest to young people

now than they were in the heady days of protest in the 60s. Research

done by one of the pitching agencies suggested that pop stars were

assumed to be right wing, because they are wealthy.

Patrick Hanson-Lowe, now a director of Bates Dorland, who worked on the

Conservative Party account at Saatchi and Saatchi, warns that

advertising must take the lead in Rock the Vote’s campaign in order to

ensure fair play. He says: ‘You have to rely on powerful ads driving the

campaign, because you have no control over how the media will react to

the PR, or what line they will take.’

However, Kate O’Rourke, the company lawyer at the Ministry of Sound, and

a director of Rock the Vote, says that St Luke’s was chosen because of

its ‘holistic’

approach to the brief. She emphasises the importance of editorial

support, and does not see the ads as the linchpin of the campaign.

Stewart-Smith concurs: ‘St Luke’s brought so much more than just

advertising to its presentation, it has fund-raising ideas for

merchandising and albums, and is prepared to devote office space to the


Everyone agrees on the importance of media planning and buying to the

success of Rock the Vote. O’Rourke mentions the important role of local

radio, a flexible medium that can take on big campaigns, and which young

people listen to for long periods.

Getting the right message to the right audience using the right

celebrity is crucial. In the US, Rock the Vote was run exclusively on

MTV and VH-1, taking a short cut across the media minefield, but in the

UK, St Luke’s will have to be more inventive.

Professional communicators should be able to get the message across

effectively, and, as Parris observes: ‘Asking people to vote is not so

demanding a request as asking people to buy a BMW.’