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This Election We Found Out What It Takes To Inspire The Youth Vote

11/18/2015 03:05 EST | Updated 11/18/2016 05:12 EST
Lynn Koenig via Getty Images
A young woman patriotically with long blond hair holds the Canadian flag above her head, as it blows in the breeze against a pristine blue sky.

Hardly a day goes by without another news piece describing the frenzy with which major brands are trying to attract the coveted millennial generation -- those born between the years 1980 and 2000 whose attention and pocket books are up for grabs.

But while much has been made of millennials' purchasing power, the same urgency is absent here in Canada when it comes to their potential political power.

Young Canadians make up a sizable portion of the electorate -- enough to push any party over the finish line. According to Elections Canada, there were 2.9 million young electors who were eligible to vote in the 2011 election. Way less than half voted.

This election, my firm got to work with students at Carleton University to try to break that trend. I want to share with you the strategy we used, but first I want to go over some of the sobering background when it comes to youth (not) voting.

While there are promising signs youth voter turnout increased this past election, largely out of a desire to fire Stephen Harper, studies show most youth don't show up to vote because youth ordinarily don't see anything worth showing up for. According to Statistics Canada, the real barriers to voting in 2011 weren't being too busy or not knowing where or when to cast a ballot. The top reason given for not voting among 18- to 24-year-olds? Not interested.

So, many political strategists have written off the youth vote as unreliable and not worth the same get-out-the-vote investment as targeting seniors and middle-class parents. It's a Catch-22.

Every now and then, we break this paradigm. Indeed, it seems Justin Trudeau may have broken the ice on youth voting this election on his way to a majority fuelled by higher voter turnout.

At my firm, we spend a lot of time communicating with millennials, more often than not by simply speaking their language in a down-to-earth, memorable and honest way.

But should political parties spend time going after youth in the same way?

"There's no question [youth] can make a difference," agrees Angus Reid Global Vice-President and Research Director Heather Bastedo. "Because of our first-past-the-post system, many ridings are actually won by very few votes."

Have candidates bought in? Yes and no. There was some effort this election, to be sure, and fittingly much of the effort has been led by young strategists and campus leaders in the various parties.

But more must be done. We need to change the mindset of youth when it comes to voting itself to inspire them to vote.

Having set the scene, I want to discuss a case study about how we need to talk about voting with millennials that my firm did in partnership with students at Carleton University. It follows one simple edict: write and talk like a human being. Use humour, irony, metaphor, sarcasm and pop culture to connect. And for God's sake, keep it real.

Working with the Rideau River Residents' Association, we knew we had to come at this goal of getting youth to vote in a different way.

The challenge isn't simply to get youth to vote. First, you have to inspire youth about the act of voting itself. There's no point in getting youth to vote if it's an activity they really would rather not be doing; that won't form a lifelong habit of voting. You have to first sell the benefits of voting before you can push youth to the polls.

Bastedo, whose research has focused on the psychology of youth voter engagement, makes a similar point, arguing, "If you can get young people mobilized on even one issue, it'll make a difference."

Across my work on youth-targeted campaigns -- particularly our FLICK Off global warming campaign and our Stick It To Fast Food initiative -- I've found that one of the best techniques to get youth motivated is to cultivate an "us versus The Man" mentality. So, in those two campaigns, we went edgy, even borderline profane, and targeted The Man, be it companies polluting the planet or Big Fast Food polluting our bodies. It's the same technique filmmakers like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock have used in their documentaries.

In the case of inspiring Carleton students to vote, we're dealing with a relatively engaged, politically astute group. Students might not vote, but they're politically savvy and plugged into important contemporary issues. They are likely to read the paper or maybe get into an argument on Twitter about issues they care about. They might volunteer for a charity or work for non-profits. They care about stopping racism and are more likely than not to be a feminist.

So, how did we seek to inspire youth to vote? We tried to channel that same technique we'd used in the past. So we went with big, bold posters. What did they say?

RACISTS VOTE.

HOMOPHOBES VOTE.

SEXISTS VOTE.

And then, the tagline: "Drown them out on October 19th: get your vote on."

It's a simple, powerful message. My colleague Melissa Pang summed it up very nicely: "One vote may not seem like it matters, but what if it's cancelling out someone else's? What if your vote cancels out that guy on Facebook who's spewing out all kinds of horrid, bigoted crap into your feed? Now will you vote?"

Did it work? Catherine McKenna suggests it did. The newly elected Liberal MP and Minister from Ottawa points to the increase in youth voter turnout on campus and credits an increase of a few hundred more Liberal votes from Carleton as decisive in her underdog win.

It may take a campaign like "RACISTS VOTE" to inspire youth to vote for the first time. The hope is that voting becomes a civic habit. You just need to break the ice.

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