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.)
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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.