Lil Jon's Goofy Rock the Vote Video Might Actually Work

Celebrity-studded ads are easy to mock, but there's evidence they can increase turnout—to a point.

Here's a pretty dumb idea: Get a bunch of celebrities, put them in a YouTube video, rewrite an overplayed hit song, and drive young people to the polls. Just look at this:

See, they all put "Lil" in front of their names, because ... well, anyway. The video earned snarky reactions like this one:

The critique seems straightforward enough. So many of these youth-voting pushes come off as either hopeless pandering or hopelessly ridiculous—I'm looking at you, "Vote or Die." Pundits have been writing Rock the Vote off as at best harmless and at worst a waste for a decade. (For what it's worth, Rock the Vote spokeswoman Audrey Gelman shakes the haters off: "Mocking sincerity is so 2005.")

But what if ... it actually works?

It's certainly true that youth turnout could use a boost. Looking just at presidential elections, the voting rate from ages 18-24 has crested when, as in 1992 and 2008, there was a young, charismatic, liberal candidate on the ballot. But Obama is old news, and Millennials have soured on him somewhat.

Voter Turnout Rates by Age, 1988-2012
Pew Research Center

There's not a great deal of research, but what there is suggests this video might not be so crazy—though it might also not be the most effective way for Rock the Vote to drive turnout. Political scientists Donald Green and Lynn Vavreck found that this sort of advertising—nonpartisan (we'll return to that) and specifically targeted at young voters—really does make a difference, or at least it did in 2004 in a contentious presidential election. Green and Vavreck calculated that young voters targeted by Rock the Vote ads had 2.7 percent higher turnout.

This case is different in several respects. First, it's not for a presidential election but for a midterm, and overall and youth turnout both tend to plummet in non-presidential years. Second, the ad is for the web—it's three and a half minutes long—and won't be running on TV. There's not much research on web ads specifically, although there's anecdotal evidence that a viral ad doesn't necessarily turn into an electoral win, as Senators Christine O'Donnell and Carly Fiorina can tell you. What is clear is that ad effects of all types fall off very quickly, so that while videos like this might generate some enthusiasm, any oomph they might provide now, slightly less than a month before the election, may have fallen away by November.

How about the personalities in the ad? One might guess that an ad featuring—in addition to Mr. Jon, of course—Fred Armisen, Lena Dunham, and Devendra Banhart might be catering more to the white hipster audience, and white voters are usually most likely to vote in midterms. In reality, though it might not be who the celebrities are that matters most. As Sasha Issenberg noted in 2010, strategists have found that an anonymous, friendly volunteer reminding voters to head to the polls is more effective than a big-name personality.

One good way to get young people to vote is peer pressure. In the 2010 election, political scientists found that when Facebook users' friends were shown with an "I Voted" badge, they were more likely to go to the polls.

These are all good reasons to think that this video might not change the course of the election. But it might encourage a few more voters to get to the polls, and that's tough to argue with. Besides, if Lil Jon says you should go to the polls, you probably should—after all, he always tells the truth.