No One Is Good at Targeting Young Women in Political Ads

The problem goes beyond just the College Republicans.

Time declared it "the most sexist Republican ad of the year."

The video ad, released by the College Republican National Committee on Wednesday, parodies the TLC reality show Say Yes to the Dress, in which brides-to-be agonize for 42 minutes over which wedding dress to buy. In the CRNC ad, our protagonist Brittany, an undecided voter, has to choose between two styles of dress: the sleek "Rick Scott" or the frumpy "Charlie Crist."

The resulting ad conjures the somewhat disturbing image of having to choose between wearing two political candidates.

Immediately, feminist writers pounced on the ad, calling it condescending for implying that women can only understand politics through the lens of wedding couture. "It appears to be written by men who learned everything they know about women from reading bridal magazines," Slate's Amanda Marcotte wrote. "Young people ... simply cannot figure out who to vote for unless it's filtered through reality show taglines," New York's Jessica Roy snarked.

Sure, the premise of the ad is stilted and the dialogue is cringe-worthy—but is it sexist?

The ad was written by five young women from the CRNC, including the group's president, Alex Smith. Smith, who helped write the ad, is the first female CRNC chair to be elected since the group's founding in 1892. Smith pointed out to National Journal that the majority of her staff are female, and rebuffed calls of sexism.

"What this really boils down to is a bunch of my friends and colleagues and I writing an ad about a show that we like because we thought that the theme was fitting for what we wanted to convey," Smith said. "It's meant to start a conversation about the issues, and I think we've done just that."

Smith admits that recently the Republican Party has been "absent online and on campus"—something her group is trying to change. The Say Yes-themed ads are part of a series the CRNC is rolling out, spending more than $1 million in digital ad buys in 16 states, along with a $1 million field program.

Trying to get young voters interested in dry political issues in a midterm year—whether that means comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beyoncé, or making a Tinder joke about Sen. Mark Udall—has proven to be troublesome for both parties. Maybe it's time to accept that pretty much everyone is terrible at trying to figure out how to advertise to millennials without resorting to clichés.

Young women may support Democrats over Republicans by a wide margin, but that doesn't mean the Democratic Party hasn't resorted to using clichés in its ads that target young women. Some conservatives commented that an ad released by Democrats in 2012 and starring Lena Dunham didn't elicit the same amount of scorn from media outlets as the Say Yes ad has. In the 2012 ad, Dunham addresses the camera about "your first time"—an anecdote for voting virgins.

Smith says the disparate reactions to the two ads—both directed at young women, both trying to use levity by comparing politics to women's romantic conquests—is hypocritical.

"I think that the double standard here is shocking," Smith said. "A group of conservative, professional women who run a multimillion-dollar organization write an ad, and we're labeled as sexist and derogatory without any further research into why it is that we might have written the ad. A famous actress who's a liberal gets a pass."

Whether or not that double standard is endemic, it's clear that neither Republicans nor Democrats really know how to appeal to younger people in a way that goes beyond stereotypes—the sexually liberated feminist versus the coy, blushing bride-to-be. (The simplest answer may be, appeal to them like you would any other adult.) This is not to say that both parties are equally successful at outreach in general—in 2012, young voters voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin.

It's also difficult to separate a political advertisement from the philosophy it's touting. For some Democrats, the Republican platform—emblemized by the Hobby Lobby decision—is inherently sexist. In that way, it doesn't matter if the Say Yes ad was created by a gaggle of women's studies majors. It still reinforces a philosophy that equates the voting booth with the dressing room.

Making matters worse, the Say Yes ad doesn't remotely deal with "women's issues" but instead focuses on taxes and the state budget, making the bridal shtick even more confusing. The Dunham ad, on the other hand, directly addresses contraception, which is something that plays off the virginity joke.

Maybe if the CRNC ad was based on a reality show where a group of shrewd female CPAs work together to balance a budget, the analogy would make more sense. Better yet, make it about a group of young, powerful, female political operatives working on a million-dollar ad campaign. At least that would ring a bit more true to life.