'Vote Then Bitch': The Campaign to Get Complainers to the Polls

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A playful ad series celebrates griping as a form of political involvement.

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Real Complainers Vote

Is whining a right or a privilege? The technical answer might be "right," but complaining's a lot more fun—and effective—if you earn your own ire. That's the theory behind the "Real Complainers Vote" campaign created by David T. Jones and his colleagues at Third Street brand and advertising agency and Foundation Content media group, both in Chicago. Their motivation, Jones says, is that chestnut "you can't complain if you don't vote."

"Instead of creating another overly sincere, proud-of-itself voting campaign about making a difference, getting your voice heard—good thoughts, but an old, too well-trod approach—we thought if we sold voting by selling complaining, that might be an eye-catching, attention-getting tactic," Jones wrote me in an email.

To spread the message, Third Street produced a website with this motto: "One nation of complainers, founded by malcontents, indivisible, with bitching and bellyaching for all," from which one can download posters with slogans like, "Don't be a Bitch. Vote then Bitch," "Vote Like an Adult, Whine Like a Baby," "Close the Curtain Before You Open Your Mouth," and "Pick Your Representatives, Then Pick on Them." The website also features a video created by Kyle Shoup, creative director at Foundation, who puts the mission like this: "There are so many dissatisfied complainers out there who are apparently complacent with being the victim or overwhelmed with the idea of being politically active. If you motivate yourself to vote, you'll probably do a little legwork before you hit that booth, and before you know it, you'll pay attention to the world around you a little more."

Last week the Obama campaign issued a TV spot urging apathetic citizens, perhaps the real swing voters, not to stay home. It's a good ad, but Jones's approach to that same constituency might work better. "By exploring the inverse of the old argument and instead of scolding people for complaining and not voting, we celebrate the complaining and explain that all it takes to complain for four more years is five minutes in the booth," he says. "We think that is a bargain and an easy sell."

For a youthful constituency, trendily vintage-looking typography might also be an incentive to pay attention. Shoup explained the design logic went into the admittedly ironic format. "The handmade quality of the elements really lends a retro flair to the piece because we are using methods employed in the past by animators for educational films etc.," he says. "There's a warmth and humor in the execution that helps to make the message fun without being preachy."

Jones nurtured this idea for many years but only presented it to his team 2011. Along with Third Street's Max Mearsheimer and Brittany Mason, he developed the design strategy and a rough script for the video, brought it to Foundation seeking their help, and joined a partnership in March of this year. From that moment, the process zipped along. "Born of just being sarcastic and clever, it grew to a more powerful argument rooted in history," Jones says. "Once we started researching for the idea of complaining, we came to understand that not only do you have to vote to complain, but so many groups had to complain first just to get the right to vote. Complaining became a patriotic notion to us and that really gave the campaign shape."

Third Street worked with the politically active Chicago street artist Ray Noland, along with artists TJ Miller and the VO. They also asked designers across the country to contribute original posters, including Adam Bluming, Danielle Riendeau, Blaise Vincz, and Rebekah Raleigh. "We provided designers with headlines to choose from and gave them free reign to create a propaganda poster that best represented their vision," Jones says.

The campaign has gotten coverage from across a broad spectrum of media outlets, from news organizations like CNBC and Bloomberg, to advertising and design outlets like Adweek and NotCot to social and political organizations like DoGooder and MoveOn.org. They even got placement on "Funny or Die!" "Social media conversations have exploded on Twitter, the night of the third presidential debate," Jones says, "and we were so engaged with so many new followers that Twitter suspended [our] account! I guess they thought we were spam—as if nobody could really type that fast to that many people!"

Are the creators of the campaign themselves complainers? Shoup says that they are indeed "extremely adept at bitching about an array of first-world problems." But he also understands it's important to keep some perspective on what's worth complaining about. "I think we're lucky to have creative abilities that can communicate what annoys us most and hopefully reach an audience that can facilitate change in the world," he says. "We'd probably complain about it though."

And, of course, there are gripes to be made about the reception of the posters. "One of the more amusing parts of this effort has been interacting with people who comment on the campaign... but then complain about the candidates, politics in general, etc.," Jones says. "The irony is totally lost on them. We always reply with 'Great complaint! Now be sure to vote!' But in the end, if someone truly doesn't want to vote that is their choice. They just have to be really, really quiet for the next four years. And listen to all of our complaining."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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