I have recently been reminded, asked, or commanded to vote approximately 6 million times. These nudges have come from the people and places I’d expect—candidates, local officials, civic and political organizations—but also, more so than in any other election year I remember, from the places I wouldn’t. Uber, Nike, Postmates, the ticket service AXS, the New York Mets, and the fast-casual restaurant chain Dig have all reminded me to check my voter registration, at least once in the past two weeks. Others, including Amazon and the home-decor retailer Lulu and Georgia, have nestled links to voting information in their usual marketing emails. Seemingly every time I open Facebook or Instagram, I am greeted by a notification about the importance of voting.
Voting advocacy from people outside of traditional politics isn’t particularly new in the United States—the nonprofit Rock the Vote first partnered with MTV in 1990, producing videos with celebrities such as Madonna and Janet Jackson that implored the network’s young audience to go to the polls. But efforts from brands to get out the vote among their own customers are a recent-enough phenomenon that none of the experts I spoke with knew of any data on how common they are. The trend seems to be a logical outgrowth of the widespread activist marketing that reached a fever pitch this year. All summer, after the killing of George Floyd, brands that sell everything from lipstick to digital surveillance technology weighed in on racism and police violence—even those that profit from the abuse of Black Americans.
Brands’ pivot to registering voters has made similarly strange bedfellows of some companies and their new messages. Facebook, a company whose platform is a limitless abyss of antidemocratic disinformation, is asking its users to do their duty to democracy before fully addressing the ways in which the company’s products have eroded it, both in America and abroad. (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.)
Now, in the face of a contentious election that’s just five weeks away, new companies join the chorus seemingly every day. No matter what they sell or how they sell it, they all seem to be comfortable marketing themselves as advocates of democracy and civic engagement, so long as their customers are willing to do the heavy lifting. Having the right to vote become fodder for corporate marketing is bleak enough. What’s worse is the reminder that even at a time when millions of people are fearful for their future and unsure of their safety, companies will nonetheless find a way to profit.
Getting out the vote in America is really, really hard, and no matter who sends the emails, they can do only so much to move the dial. Relatively few people vote in America, because exercising the right can be onerous and confusing. In the 2016 presidential election, a little less than 56 percent of voting-age Americans cast a vote, a rate that lags behind that of recent national elections in Germany, Mexico, South Korea, and most developed countries. The proportion of nonvoters is even higher among young people, poor people, the working class, and immigrants.
Tactics to encourage voting take many different forms, with varying levels of efficacy. Christopher Mann, a political scientist at Skidmore College who studies voting and elections, says that there is a reliable hierarchy of maneuvers to mobilize voters: The most effective is face-to-face canvassing, followed by personal phone calls. These are things that, by their very nature, brands are unlikely to engage in, because of the resources and manpower necessary to pull them off. Getting out the vote via email, as most of these brands have elected to do, isn’t totally ineffective, but its impact is far smaller.
Mann says he’s not aware of any research on how effective it might be for consumer brands to send out voting information in emails or pop-up notifications. But based on how things go when political organizations use the same tactics, he’d expect it to have a marginally positive effect if done consistently and with links to resources—maybe a 1 to 2 percent bump in registrations among people who receive the information, and a quarter of a percent increase in actual votes.
But in order to achieve even this level of effectiveness, companies would ideally be targeting people who are poorly served by more traditional voter outreach—poor and working-class people who don’t feel included and generally don’t participate in American politics. For many of the brands most vocal about voting, those people simply aren’t their customers. “There’s some perverse incentives here,” Mann told me. “The brands for whom there’s the most payoff for being a good citizen in this regard may have the least impact” on actually registering or motivating voters. That’s because brands that think that these kinds of messages will be beneficial to their image are likely targeting a pool of people who are already well acquainted with the electoral process—people wealthier, whiter, and more formally educated than the population at large. Facebook, a free service with more than 200 million American users, is better positioned to do real good than Sweetgreen, which sells $13 salads.
Emails and pop-up notifications may have a negligible impact on voting when used by most companies, but they have some significant upsides for brands: They’re fast, cheap, and well liked. “Encouraging registration is a way for a corporation to project a civic-minded, nonpartisan image at little cost,” Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies voting, told me in an email. Although messages around how to vote have become more explicitly political during the 2020 presidential campaign, Green told me, the encouragement of voting as a concept is generally unlikely to incite real rage among a company’s customer base, as long as it doesn’t endorse a candidate. So far, none of the major companies has, even though many of them lace their statements with references to the vaguely progressive values likely held by their clientele. Nike, for example, has spent years aligning itself with left-leaning causes in advertising, and its voter-outreach email simply said, “No more sitting on the sidelines. You can’t stop our voice.” The messages end up mealymouthed—these companies are willing to gesture at the maintenance of a minimally functional democracy, but are not willing to say it with their chests. Republicans buy sneakers too.
All of these feel-good public efforts elide what many American corporations are: an impediment to voting, not a facilitator of it. More than 2 million people told the Census Bureau that they didn’t vote in the 2016 election because they didn’t have the time, and state laws vary widely on what kinds of accommodations employers are required to make in order to allow their employees to vote. In some states, in-person voting is restricted to a single date, lines can take hours, polls close as early as 6 p.m., and people who leave work to vote are generally not paid for that time. For those who work low-wage service jobs—people who are more likely to be younger, poorer, and from minority racial groups than the average enthusiastic voter in America—those circumstances are enough to make exercising their right to vote very difficult.
Many companies that blast out emails telling customers to vote are less forthcoming with details of what, if anything, they’re doing to help their own workers get to the polls, even though that can have much more than a marginal impact. A year-long 2018 campaign by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, for example, ended with 88 percent of its employees voting, more than 30 percentage points higher than the nationwide voting rate. But these types of voluntary efforts depend on the benevolence of the company in question. Uber recently announced that it is giving all its employees Election Day off to make sure they can vote, but that accommodation isn’t being extended to drivers, whom the company has fought vehemently to prevent from being categorized as employees. An Uber spokesperson confirmed to me that although the company has made efforts to encourage voter registration among drivers, they will not receive any reimbursement for time they spend voting.
This is all a choice, of course. If they wanted to, American politicians could do the things many other rich nations do: make voter registration automatic for all citizens, allow lengthy early-voting periods, end restrictions on voting by mail, and make Election Day a federal holiday. They could restore the Voting Rights Act to continue the fight against the country’s long history of voter suppression against Black Americans. They could open more polling places and return voting rights to people who have completed prison sentences for felonies. They could do any number of things to meaningfully address the actual reasons so few people in the United States vote, and none of them would require an email from a store that once sold me throw pillows.
As long as America’s leaders decline to make the system-wide changes that would help more people vote, corporations with something to sell will seep into the void. And they’ll act out of self-interest. After all, it’s hard to continue business as usual in a country where the economy and social order are breaking down, as American companies that have also begun voting advocacy in Western Europe have admitted. Even when the people leading some of these companies feel a real moral obligation to encourage participatory democracy, simple corporate outreach efforts won’t fix the structural problems that mar American voting—but they can form the inexpensive basis of a nice little marketing campaign.