take them seriously

Joe Garofoli in the San Francisco Chronicle and Jeff Brady on NPR’s All Things Considered both recently quoted me on whether funny advertisements and web-based games are smart ways for campaigns to mobilize young voters.

I am not aware of research or public data that would allow us to compare the effectiveness of a sarcastic or silly ad versus a serious and information-rich one. Nor have I seen evaluations of games that are designed to promote voting, whether the games are silly and parodic or challenging and educational. (The campaigns may have tested games and various broadcast messages, but they never share the data from such experiments.)

My hunch is that anyone who tries a very light approach is making a mistake. Remember that less than half of the youth population will vote. Heavily represented in that group are young people who are seriously concerned about issues, from their own economic prospects to the future of the planet. Voting is not much fun, but it is rewarding if one feels one can make a real difference by casting a ballot. Potential voters are likely to be people who believe they can make a difference, or at least are open to the argument that the election is important. This is true of all citizens, but young people are especially likely to say that they need more information and explanation before they can vote. Often, in focus groups and polls, they say that the main reason they may not vote is that they feel inadequately informed to make such a serious choice. Thus I suspect that an information-rich, explanatory ad or game could be very effective. But a jokey approach is likely to make young people feel that the election is unimportant (thus lowering turnout), or may offend them by patronizing them.

This doesn’t rule out some use of humor and amusement in various media. But one should always take the audience seriously.