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
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.’