From Valentine's Day to Cinco de Mayo, most corners of the calendar have been drafted into service by advertisers, producing such heartfelt rituals as Presidents' Day car sales. Now marketers are exploring ways to capitalize on one of the few occasions that have remained relatively uncommercialized: election season.
The big beneficiaries are groups like Rock the Vote that were formed to engage young people in politics. Keenly aware that young potential voters are also potential customers, brands including Motorola, Ben & Jerry's and 7-Up have signed up to support Rock the Vote this year. Other youth-oriented voter participation programs and campaigns that stand to gain include Cast the Vote, recently formed, and Choose or Lose, the long-running effort on MTV.
"A lot of companies are interested in joining young people in that message to say, 'You guys really do care,' and they want to associate themselves with movements that show that young people really are engaged," said Ian Rowe, vice president for public affairs and strategic partnerships at MTV, part of Viacom.
But the strategy poses risks for the marketers and the nonprofit groups, said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University in Washington. "Genuine political impulses or political activities can get trivialized or get translated into a marketing opportunity," Professor Montgomery said. "You need to be careful about drawing the line."
Rock the Vote predicts 40 percent to 50 percent of the $5.5 million budget it projects for this year to come from marketing partners.
"Looking at this election, there has definitely been an increased level of corporate partners supporting the mission of engaging voters," said Jehmu Greene, president of Rock the Vote in Los Angeles, which since 1990 has been working to draw more young people into the political process. "One of the realities that we face post-9/11 is an increased awareness of public service, patriotism and participation." Ms. Greene said.
The renowned difficulty of marketing to young consumers also plays a role, marketers like Motorola say.
"For Motorola and our efforts toward youth, this is a significant platform," said Jason Few, vice president and chief marketing officer at the Personal Communications Sector division of Motorola North America. "For us, this is an opportunity to be in front of youth in a consistent way for the remainder of 2004."
At least once a week, Motorola will send election news and information to the cellphones of consumers who sign up online. Participants will be quizzed about issues like federal student aid, the importance of Social Security and the effectiveness of the war on terror. Results will be posted online and sent to the participating consumers.
Another Rock the Vote partner, Ben & Jerry's, recently began selling an ice cream flavor called Primary Berry Graham. On Free Scoop Day, an annual promotion scheduled for April 27, Ben & Jerry's stores will set up voter registration tables.
Even World Wrestling Entertainment, more often called the W.W.E., has formed a pro-vote alliance called Smackdown Your Vote!, working with bedfellows that could hardly be more strange, including the Harvard University Institute of Politics and the League of Women Voters, as well as Rock the Vote. Celebrity wrestlers are urging fans to register, and the company's Web site gives links to information like voter registration deadlines and where to vote.
Serving the public good is at the heart of each of these partnerships, the executives involved said. But they did not deny the potential benefits.
"Any company that's honest about it is saying, 'Look, we want to do good, but we also want our name to be associated with doing good,' " said Gary Davis, a spokesman at the W.W.E. in Stamford, Conn. The W.W.E. began looking for ways to demonstrate good corporate citizenship after becoming a publicly traded company in 1999.
"We had a recognition that as a publicly traded company," Mr. Davis said, "we had an obligation to let our shareholders know more about the community activities we undertook."
But branding and political experts said that such partnerships must be thoughtfully managed to ensure that commerce and politics complement each other, not overshadow each other.
"When you enter the field of politics, you enter a minefield," said Simon Williams, president and chief executive of the Sterling Group, a brand consultancy in New York. "There is huge potential damage to be done to a brand."
If consumers do not like the choice of corporate partner or the marketing message, Mr. Williams added, they might conclude that the entire campaign is more about marketing than empowerment. "You have to separate opportunism and opportunists from those who have credentials and credibility," he said.
John Schreiber, president and general manager at Lafayette Productions in New York, an entertainment marketing company, said: "You wouldn't look for Camel cigarettes to become your in-store marketing partner. You wouldn't want to encourage kids to register to vote and smoke more."
Walt Freese, chief marketing officer at Ben & Jerry's in Waterbury, Vt., part of Unilever, said the young people now in the cross hairs of voting groups and marketers tend to be skeptical. "If we come in there for the right reasons they'll respond to that authenticity," Mr. Freese said. "If involvement really becomes an excuse to do nothing more than sell more products, then we could have a problem."
Cast the Vote, a new project of the nonprofit organization Tides Center, has lined up the support of national movie theater chains to show public service announcements on movie screens and in theater lobbies. It is pursuing more partners, though, to help defray costs and extend its reach.
"We have a lot of foundation money, but we could use some big corporate angels," said Beverly Camhe, a founder. "We'll take help wherever we can."
Posted on aef.com: March 25, 2004
Nat Ives, New York Times. March 22, 2004
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