Midterm elections are all about turnout: empowering those random demographics who have little else to do all day besides take in ’80s sitcom reruns and consult with telemarketers. Numbers count, and numbers don’t show up to polls between presidential elections, when the most important decision on the ballot is whether the local library can repair its water fountains with public funds.
To add to the expected crowds of old people at the polling booths in two weeks, both the Republican and Democratic parties are attempting to “empower” the “disaffected youth,” by which they seem to mean people my age who don’t earn enough money to be day drunk and might be counted on to reliably vote. To no one’s surprise, these efforts are laughably terrible. On the right, you have the noted arbiters of campus cool, College Republicans, with a “Say Yes to the Dress” ad that’s insulting even for TLC, a cable channel that airs a show about nudists trying to find their dream home.
On the left, you have “non-partisan” Rock the Vote, with an ad featuring Lil’ John that he probably doesn’t even remember making.
And in the middle, you have a bunch of twenty- and thirty-somethings who can’t understand why the campaigns that hire them and pay them with pizza, won’t bother to focus group them (something they could easily do with, you know, more pizza).
For starters, both ads are out of touch with popular culture. The first, in which female brides-to-be are encouraged to “say yes” to ostensibly Republican candidate-themed wedding dresses is, like much of what the GOP releases, right on the cusp of five years ago. The world has since moved on from crying with family members and Kleinfeld’s Bridal employees as people drop six months’ rent on a dress they’ll wear once (not to mention the whole endeavor is not fiscally conservative by any stretch). And “Say Yes to the Dress” has no lasting cultural power, so the snide humor doesn’t still resonate across the chasm of years. Republicans would have been better off parodying Honey Boo Boo, with a commercial where screaming toddler gubernatorial candidates compete in sparkly dresses for a tiara.
The Rock the Vote commercial is more simplistically irrelevant. The ad, which riffs on the song “Turn Down for What?” conveniently ignores that “turn down for what?” is a rhetorical question. You don’t turn down for anything, unless the club closes, and then you take it outside until you’re arrested for urinating in a public way. Accordingly, the question Rock the Vote asks, “turn out for what?” is also a rhetorical one, the answer to which is, of course, nothing. And it’s not as though the creators somehow missed the song’s implications. Vox.com spent 1,000 words Vox-splaining the concept just a few short weeks ago.
Second, both ads treat people who lack life experience — Rock the Vote employees, say, or the co-eds who make up the entire market for navy blue blazers — as though they possess the intellectual capacity of wet bread. There is no market for a web video where women cackle over gubernatorial candidates and bridal gowns. Everyone thinks those people featured on “Say Yes to the Dress,” whose wedding costs will pale in comparison only to the bills from their divorce attorneys, are superficial and vapid. Regardless of what special interest organizations promoting reproductive rights believe, most women don’t pick candidates off a blindingly pink website on the advice of their girlfriends after a bottle of wine and a Women’s Studies lecture.
Similarly, Rock the Vote clearly and firmly believes that all Millennials, not just those of the feminine persuasion, are blindingly stupid. As the ad’s parade of celebrities give their rationales for turning out to vote on a heavily filtered shaky cam, a number of vanity project “youth issues” of apparent consequence are flashed in rapid succession, including such obvious priorities as “sad Earth.” Some of the issues named aren’t even real things. You can’t legislate “global warming awareness” (nor can you technically vote for it), and while your congressperson might have an impact on “deforestation,” it’s probably a longshot, given that most elected officials operate with the same functional ability as a low-level kitchen appliance, and that their limited capacities need to be focused squarely on things that threaten to kill us immediately. Nowhere, of course, are listed any actual priorities for young people. According to Generation Opportunity, a think tank that specializes in youth mobilization, young people worry about unprecedented unemployment and underemployment, the crushing burden of debt, and the unique and terrifying NSA and Obama administration invasions into personal privacy. But according to Rock the Vote, cell phone metadata collection on a massive scale is not nearly as important as, say, a vague reference to human rights.
The Rock the Vote ad earns a further demerit by featuring Lena Dunham, who is perhaps the worst spokesperson for anything in history. And I’m not just saying that because her contribution to the commercial consists of jolting around in a flesh-toned unitard in a sort of upright, arhythmic seizure. I’m saying that because I cannot pinpoint a single political contribution she’s made to her favorite issue of “reproductive rights” — or anything else, for that matter — save for a couple of selfies in the service of Wendy Davis and an “inspirational” book event in Boston. Even among the rather obscure celebrities in the video, she’s an underachiever. Natasha Lyonne, for example, who lists her “turn out” issue as prison reform, likely due to her role on the hit Netflix show Orange in the New Black, has, with her OINTB castmates, made a real impact on how incarcerated women are treated in California and beyond. There is actual prison reform legislation on the ballot in California this election cycle that many of the cast members have promoted and encouraged, and many of her fellow faux inmates have championed charities that help recently-released women find jobs and get support. You or I may not agree with the legislation itself, but we can’t help but notice that some quasi-political celebrities use their fame more wisely than others.
All of this is enough to make my head spin. Fortunately, we’re only a few days out from the midterms, after which both parties can safely avoid communicating with anyone under the age of 65 until they need our help again come 2016.