More than twenty-five years ago, MTV aired the first Rock the Vote public service announcement, calling on a new generation to protect and celebrate its rights through voting. Every US presidential election since, MTV has used its platform to inspire young people to make their voices heard, designing award-winning campaigns using news programming and PSAs, concerts and grassroots events focusing on the issues affecting young people. In 2008, MTV played an important role in driving the historic youth voter turnout that led to the election of the first black president; in 2012, it created a mash-up of fantasy sports and politics that encouraged young people to draft their own “political dream teams.”
But given unprecedented levels of political gridlock and low young voter turnout since 2008, the way MTV engages its massively Millennial audience is now due for a remix. In 2014, only 20 percent of youth ages 18-29 voted, the lowest youth turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election. Now, just as it broke new ground on youth civic engagement in the 1990s, MTV plans to shift its approach in the 2016 election to focus less on the election-industrial complex at the top of the ticket and more on the economic and social issues that the youngest generation of voters really cares about.
Numbering around 83.1 million people, Millennials make up the largest and most diverse generation in the United States. 44.2 percent are from a racial or ethnic minority group. Despite the scale and diversity of this generation, most Millennials agree on several issues. On the whole, they prioritize economic concerns, including unemployment, the minimum wage, student loans, and college affordability. Climate change also matters deeply to them: 80 percent of those surveyed in a recent USA Today poll said that the United States should transition to mostly clean or renewable energy by 2030. That same poll showed that Millennials agreed by more than a 2-1 ratio that government should invest more heavily in transportation infrastructure. And while lawmakers in Congress have failed to reach consensus on the issue of gun safety, 82 percent of Millennials said they support background checks for all gun purchasers.
Civil rights and criminal justice reform also bring Millennials together. By a margin of 2-1, Millennials told USA Today that they see police violence against black people as a problem. 75 percent said that the government should require police officers to wear body cameras, and two thirds supported reducing prison sentences for people convicted of non-violent crimes such as drug possession. In addition, a higher proportion of Millennials than members of older generations believe that immigrants strengthen the country.
In May, with this data in mind, MTV will launch “Elect This,” a campaign designed to empower Millennials to make real change on a local and national level. Partnering with organizations like Rock the Vote, Change.org, and others, we will ask our audience to elect to have their own conversations, elect to promote new ideas that will produce real action, and elect to flip the bird at the same old politics. By focusing on the issues that unite the Millennial generation—which encompasses young people ages 18 to 35—“Elect This” will engage a less politically partisan generation that just wants to get things done.
An MTV documentary series, for example, will profile young undecided voters who challenge the stereotype of swing voters as middle-aged, middle-class white men from the middle of the country. Viewers will get to know young people from a variety of backgrounds as they decide how to use their vote to tackle the issues that matter the most to them. Leveraging Change.org’s massive platform, MTV will feature petitions started by young people with deep personal connections to certain issues. Viewers will be able to connect with other likeminded Millennials to sign these petitions, and MTV will broaden their reach online and on-air, targeting candidates, media organizations, and political players with the goal of making problems that matter to Millennials impossible for the political class to ignore. Such campaigns on Change.org have succeeded in the past: In 2012, a petition started by three high school students helped prompt the Commission on Presidential Debates to select the first female presidential debate moderator in 20 years.
MTV’s research department will also join forces with provocative animators and up-and-coming music artists to design weekly infographics demonstrating where Millennials stand on the issues and the election. Think Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight meets Adult Swim. Each animated infographic will use music and imagery as a vehicle for political data and social commentary.
MTV also plans to give Millennials tools to create and share viral content, offering potential voters a platform to promote and discuss ideas, challenge the country’s stark political polarization, and highlight issues that Millennials agree on. This content might include user-generated political ads; easily adaptable memes to use when responding to older relatives’ opposing views on Facebook; a website that allows users to convert the total sum of campaign spending into pizza, college tuition, or months of rent; and Snapchat video explanations of complicated political concepts and terms. A good example of the impact this sort of content can have is the increase in Affordable Care Act enrollment among young people attributed to a video created by the White House and the website Funny or Die featuring President Obama and comedian Zach Galifianakis. “Elect This” will leverage popular MTV and Viacom franchises to spread its messaging while giving the audience a seat at major political events in the election cycle.
In a charged election year in which strong support for unconventional candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders suggests dissatisfaction with “politics as usual,” MTV hopes to serve as a model for how to elevate young people’s concerns and focus on the issues. The aim is to create a dialogue with Millennials who care less about political posturing and more about cutting through the broken political system to accomplish the change they know is possible.