Tapping Millennial Political and Social Passions Ahead of the Midterm Elections

These agencies specialize in Gen Y

Just like the whole of consumer marketing, political campaigns and social-issues advertisers—especially in this midterm election year—have millennials in their sights. And like all brand marketers, they’re getting smarter about getting through to the hard-to-reach demo.

Looking at the numbers, it’s little wonder why millennials are such a target. Those born between 1981 and the early 2000s make up a quarter of the U.S. population, and roughly 45 million are eligible to vote. That is expected to double by 2020, when millennials will comprise 40 percent of eligible voters. Clearly, Gen Y will play a major role at the ballot box in the midterms, and represents a key demo for Democrats and Republicans in the 2016 presidential race and beyond.

For All: SS+K’s campaign for President Obama’s re-election bid

spotlighted millennial voices via Instagram.

“Millennials are at a very important place in their lives, and that has really big implications for the future of government and activism,” says Susan Feeney, a partner at creative agency GMMB, which specializes in political and advocacy ads and that worked on both of President Barack Obama’s national campaigns.

But how can political parties and issues-oriented groups get through to a notoriously hard-to-reach demo? Much like marketing any goods or services, experts say, it all comes down to the synergy of content and platform—putting out the right message on the right device at the right time. That’s easier said than done. Just as brand marketers struggle to engage the millennial audience, politicians and advocacy groups find themselves striving for the perfect tone.

Where platforms are concerned, it is beyond cliché to say millennials are tech-centric, channel-agnostic and social media-obsessed. Study after study bears that out. For example, a recent survey by SDL found that 30 percent of millennials use four or more digital communications devices daily, and the overall group checks mobile phones an average of 40 times per day, making a multiscreen strategy more essential than ever.

It's on Us: Mekanism drew attention to campus sexual assault by enlisting stars like Jon Hamm.

GMMB’s Feeney notes that video remains key, befitting a generation raised on images that play across multiple screens. But remember, this isn’t 1984 or even 1994, when a single, broad buy on the CBS Evening News would deliver a high-impact message across demos. Millennials prefer to be in full command of how, when and where they consume media, as we all have come to know—meaning that a buy across Comedy Central’s programs must encompass their mobile apps as well.

Got Insurance?

This push from Colorado’s CCHI relied on broad humor.

The good—and to some, surprising—news is that this generation happens to be a responsive one. “Millennials are more open to being influenced than most people think,” says Jeff Fromm, author of Marketing to Millennials and president of FutureCast, a millennial-focused consultancy and partner firm of ad shop Barkley.

Fromm says it is a misconception that millennials hate advertising. In fact, many agree that young adults see ads as a necessary mode of communication in our culture, while they have proved they can, in fact, be swayed by messages that speak to their needs in ways they find entertaining and informative. That last term is key. Millennials place a high value on information sharing, even as they have an especially low tolerance for hype, histrionics and hard sells.

Whether touting a presidential candidate, advocating for a healthcare program or raising awareness of a new initiative to combat social injustice, when it comes to crafting content, there are certain rules to follow when it comes to this demo, according to the experts. “They hold you to a higher standard for content,” notes Zac Moffatt, co-founder of strategic consultancy Targeted Victory, who served as digital director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 White House bid. “If your content is not relevant,” Moffatt says, “you get tuned out.”

First Time: SS+K tapped millennial heroine Lena Dunham to get out the vote.

Overly broad or simplistic messages are a recipe for disaster. Pitches, according to those who craft campaigns targeting the demo, must be laser-focused to match millennials’ ideals and interests, providing access to data and tools they can use to take action in the real world. Ad messages should be linked with offline results or expected outcomes, for example, and should avoid preaching or scare tactics at all costs.

Above all, political and issues advertising aimed at young adults must be sincere—and it’s not enough to just sound sincere because this generation, raised on Google, does its own fact checking. “They can spot a phony a mile away,” warns Fromm. “They want to know you stand for something.”

Experts cite “It’s on Us” as a campaign that gets it right targeting millennials on social issues. Designed to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus, “It’s on Us” posits, in plain but stirring language, that this cause should be everyone’s concern. A PSA broke last month featuring celebrities Jon Hamm, Connie Britton, Questlove and others, speaking directly into the camera, each reading from a script that begins, “It’s on us … to get in the way before it happens. To get a friend home safe. To not blame the victim. It’s on us to look out for each other—to not look the other way.” Created by Mekanism for a White House initiative in partnership with Generation Progress and the Pvblic Foundation, the clip got 2.5 million YouTube views in its first week.

“The whole idea of the campaign is to establish shared responsibility,” says agency CEO Jason Harris. The work is multifaceted and runs deeper than a single PSA, he stresses. “By creating a pledge and downloadable toolkits, we want people to make the leap from knowing there’s a problem to saying, ‘You know what? I am going to do something about it.’”

The strategy is on point, seeing as Gen Y is a largely optimistic group that wants to take action for causes it believes in. The “It’s on Us” initiative also earns high marks for avoiding charged language and scary musical cues, and eschewing melodramatic reenactments and upsetting news footage. “I think it is a solid example,” Fromm says of the campaign. “It is no b.s. and takes a clear stand” about working together to solve a problem that, unfortunately, some people would prefer to ignore.

Of course, building empathy for a cause practically everyone is predisposed to support is far less daunting than developing ads around complex issues. Take the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Ads both pro and con have been everywhere, many of those messages targeting millennials.

When Nail was enlisted to persuade young adults in Rhode Island to sign up for health insurance through the state’s HealthSourceRI, the marketing shop proceeded from the insight that “there’s nothing more intimidating or boring to them than insurance,” says creative director Alec Beckett.

To overcome that, Nail created the tongue-in-cheek “Nag Toolkit.” Bypassing traditional media, the digital initiative was designed to jump-start millennials’ interest by casting their moms—frequent foils for young adults—in prominent roles. Moms were encouraged to sign up for OkCupid, Tinder and Snapchat in order to “mercilessly nag” their millennial offspring into buying coverage. Nail believed the adult kids—devotees of the Onion and Stephen Colbert—would respond in a positive way. “We knew they’d get the joke,” Beckett says. “It was a way for us to broach the conversation without being heavy-handed.” The effort has been widely praised for speaking to the demo in a style it understands.

Meanwhile, the “Got Insurance?” campaign, created by the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative and ProgressNow Colorado Education, was more polarizing. With an eye toward college students, highly sharable digital content followed the misadventures of “Rob, Zack and Sam—bros for life.” One ad begins: “Keg stands are crazy. Not having insurance is crazier. Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills.” Reads another: “Yo Mom, do I got insurance? My girlfriend broke my heart, so me and the bros went golfing. Then my buddy broke my head. Good thing my mom made sure I got insurance.”

While some contended that the ads talked down to their audience, Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement at CCHI, maintains that millennials got the joke. “Our website had nearly 25 million hits, the ads were shared thousands of times on social media, and we received massive earned media coverage worth over $500,000 in publicity value,” he reports.

Likewise, Nail’s Beckett points to the impact of “Nag Toolkit” beyond the campaign. The “right wing’s fury” about moms trying to seduce their own kids “was hysterical,” he says. “It got us tons of free publicity. There are so many desperate media outlets that can be played. You’ve got to wake up the trolls intentionally.”

Indeed, the trolls came out in droves, mostly from the left, to slam an anti-Obamacare campaign from nonprofit, millennial-focused advocacy group Generation Opportunity. Its Web video series “Opt Out” features a weird character with an outsize Uncle Sam mask, reminiscent of “the King” from those old Burger King spots. In one clip, Uncle Sam snaps on a latex glove and prepares to give a twentysomething guy a proctology exam. In another, his face appears between the legs of a young woman visiting her gynecologist. A title card warns: “Don’t let government play doctor.”

Some found the approach crass, even vulgar, though “Opt Out” has its defenders. “I don’t think it’s creepy, as it’s actually shot very beautifully” and the snark might appeal to some millennials, says Bill Green, who blogs at AdVerve. (The ads have been viewed more than 3.6 million times on YouTube.)

Pitching political candidates might be the ultimate test for millennial-focused agencies. The demo distrusts politics and the political class. A recent Reason-Rupe survey found that 66 percent of millennials believe government is inefficient and wasteful, while 60 percent think it abuses its powers.

Issues advocacy—including efforts like “It’s on Us,” backed by the White House—can appear divorced from politics, while ads that promote a particular political candidate are necessarily seen as political. As the midterm elections approach, the experts contend, campaigns would do well to heed the lessons learned from Obama’s 2012 re-election bid.

Because young adults view Washington as “a cesspool,” creative agency SS+K was determined to “sell a politician by not being political,” notes Rob Shepardson, the shop’s co-founder and partner. “They knew Obama, liked him as a person, but were disappointed with the economy and generally alienated from politics,” he recalls. “There was an enthusiasm gap. Our job was to create that enthusiasm.”

So, SS+K fashioned a two-pronged campaign. Quirky humor was the watchword in a spot dubbed “First Time” featuring millennial heroine and Girls creator Lena Dunham. In the bit, she advises viewers to be especially careful when picking partners for their “first time”—first time voting in a presidential election, that is.

At the same time, SS+K launched “For All,” which riffed on the final words in the Pledge of Allegiance. Individuals were encouraged to write brief statements reflecting their views (“Equal Rights,” “Marriage Equality”) on their hands with markers, pose as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then upload the images to Instagram.

Time magazine called the Dunham spot the “most memorable ad of the 2012 campaign,” while more than 5,000 “For All” photos were posted, generating nearly 80,000 tweets. (All told, 1.25 million more millennials voted for Obama in 2012 than in 2008, helping him win important swing states like Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio and ultimately retain the White House.)

The final takeaway, as Shepardson sees it: “Millennials will align with somebody regardless of political labels based on values. Communicate through issues, not through the candidate. Negative ads and politics-as-usual can turn millennials off. They are quite shrewd when it comes to marketing. You need to get to a point or a benefit that matters to them. We had to be very careful not to make one false move and fall back into the traditional way of marketing.” 

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.