Behind Operation Black Vote’s Last-Minute Effort to Inspire a BAME and Youth Voting Surge
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ITB and Saatchi & Saatchi explain how they turned around a potent campaign to mobilise voters in just three weeks ahead of the UK general election
Later this week the UK heads to the polling booths for the country’s third general election in less than five years, its second since 52% of the country voted to leave the European Union. It’s easy to see the election as a pivotal moment for the country the likes of which Britain hasn’t seen in a generation, potentially deciding whether Boris Johnson can get his Brexit withdrawal deal through Parliament. And with education, healthcare, workers’ rights and the climate emergency all also at crucial moments, there are multiple battlegrounds for the parties to fight over.
A week ahead of the deadline for voter registration Operation Black Vote (OBV) released a campaign putting real quotes from politicians to use to motivate Britain's disenfranchised youth, particularly Black and Minority Ethnic individuals to register to vote.
Created by Saatchi & Saatchi London in collaboration with talent agency ITB Worldwide, the campaign’s central message is that if BAME communities, and young people in general do not register to vote, others with often controversial views, will speak for them.
Leveraging role model talent Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones, Fast & Furious), Nadia Rose (British hip-hop artist), Ash Sarkar (journalist, political activist), Jermain Jackman (singer - The Voice UK) and Will Poulter (The Revenant, Detroit, Black Mirror, Midsommar), the campaign demanded attention and played its part in the unprecedented youth voter registration the UK saw this November.
LBB’s Alex Reeves asked Emma Shuldham, managing director at ITB Worldwide, and Adrian Ash, business lead at Saatchi & Saatchi London, how they made the campaign punch above its weight and why its aims are so pivotal to this political moment.
LBB> How did you get involved with Operation Black Vote?
Adrian> Simon Woolley (Lord Woolley of Woodford), founder of Operation Black Vote and Magnus Djaba (global president, Saatchi & Saatchi and CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi UK) were the driving force because of their shared passion and desire to empower British BAME communities. Simon approached Magnus for help in the 2015 election which is when the first OBV campaign featuring famous black British actors launched with the slogan, “‘If you don’t register to vote, you’re taking the colour out of Britain”. This campaign was followed with the provocative, ‘a vote is a vote’ poster for the 2016 referendum and the latest campaign is the next step in that journey.
Emma> ITB supports brands and agencies with strategically casting, activating talent and brand partnerships that connect with popular culture. We’ve been working with Saatchi & Saatchi on this project for some time now. When royal assent was officially given for the general election to happen on December 12th, Saatchi CCO Ben Mooge reached out to ITB about the creative campaign for Operation Black Vote. Three weeks later talent was cast and secured, the film was shot, and the campaign launched a week before the registration deadline. We always carefully consider our pro-bono work, but we immediately bought into the creative idea and the positive democratic impact it would have in the UK.
LBB> Can you situate this in the broader context of the BAME and youth votes in the UK? What are the key figures and trends to help people understand why this is important?
Emma> Our industry is addressing diversity and inclusivity in ads more and more and also within the agencies themselves in order for a wider group of people to feel represented. The same applies to young voters and especially for people with Black and Asian minority backgrounds. They currently don’t feel represented and that their vote matters. While they may technically be a ‘minority’ in some of the constituencies, their vote can matter most. If the difference between the leading parties is a few thousand votes – like Lord Simon Woolley pointed out in his recent Channel 4 interview.
LBB> Where did the specific idea for this campaign come from?
Adrian> The focus of the creative brief for this campaign differed from the previous work we had developed for Operation Black Vote. Historically, the campaigns encouraged BAME communities to register to vote because in many constituencies the swing required to change which party won the respective seat was tiny in comparison to the BAME vote. On this occasion, we cast the net wider and encouraged Britain’s disenfranchised youth to register to vote by focusing on subjects and themes, like climate change, gender and sexuality. The Saatchi & Saatchi London creative team had a number of ideas but we instinctively knew the ‘fake views’ idea was the one to go with as soon as we saw it.
LBB> And more specifically, how does that relate to what's going on in this current general election campaign?
Emma> Brexit has been the pre-eminent theme for the past three years and is dividing the country. A decision that was made before many young voters, whom are now eligible to vote, could not influence in 2016 as they were too young to vote.
When someone like Stormzy uses his platform to remind his young followers that the upcoming election isn’t just about Brexit or even the lead politicians, but also about policies that affect their everyday life. From education, to health care, to worker’s rights – this election matters to everyone. Encouraging more young voters will create a level playing field where all voices and therefore votes can have an impact on democratic decision making.
Adrian> The exposure and platform the campaign gave OBV on every national news channel, allowed them to talk about why ‘registering to vote’ was so important by showcasing as many as 100 seats in this election are still up for grabs. For example, in Kensington, London, the winning majority for Labour in the last election was just 20 seats. In the Kensington borough, there are over 30,000 BAME people available to vote so you don’t need to be able to do the maths to see the importance of registering and voting in this election.
LBB> How did you go about settling on the specific horrific quotes to use in the campaign film?
Adrian> Sadly, a simple internet search reveals how commonplace the controversial words of UK politicians has become. The challenge for the film was to uncover quotes that related to themes that Britain’s youth and BAME communities care deeply about. Race, gender, sexuality and climate change were key themes we were able to highlight whilst uncovering a spread of real quotes from across the main political parties to ensure that Operation Black Vote remained non-partisan.
LBB> What was behind the choice of the various famous figures in the spot too?
Emma> The team at ITB focused on talent that has a reach with young audiences and is known to address social and political issues across their social platforms. The talent needed to be comfortable speaking to the issue head on and that ultimately by doing so, could cause controversy for them and their image. The heart of the idea was using talent and social influence to drive political change.
ITB’s previous relationship with the talent and their agents helped to make the teams comfortable with the creative idea and we’re so grateful that Nathalie Emmanuel, Will Poulter and Nadia Rose provided their time and platform pro-bono to support OBV.
Adrian> We had a little over two weeks from the election date being announced to getting the film shot and out into the world. Having identified the key themes most important to Britain’s youth and the horrific quotes that demonstrated how out of touch many UK politicians are with these themes, we also drew up a list of key talent we would love to feature in the film. Together with the help of ITB we were able to secure the support of five amazingly talented people (across film, politics, TV and music) who appealed to different youth tribes and were available to give up their precious time with just 48 hours notice.
LBB> How did you expect and hope the campaign film would be received and how has it gone so far? Any surprises?
Emma> Looking at the positive comments and the amount of shares the talent has had on their social platforms, it’s safe to say that this impacted the younger target audience. People tagged their friends with comments such as, “this is why you need to vote”, so it really has sparked conversation.
The day after the OBV campaign launched was the third highest registration count this year. This result was nearly 300,000 registrations in one day, that’s 200,000 more than the day before and the day after. 35% of registrations that day were made by people under 25 years old and 70% made by people under 34. This showed our message was relating to young people, engaging them in the democratic process influenced by celebrities and peers they follow on social media. After Stormzy posted traffic on the registration website immediately jumped by a few ten thousand within the hour of his post, which is more evidence of his influence and the power social media can take.
Adrian> There have been many headlines detailing a surge in youth registration ahead of the November 26th deadline. The Times wrote: “More than a million people under the age of 25 have applied to vote since the general election was called”. The campaign itself was seen by many hundreds of thousands and translated into 50,000 voter registrations in one day alone when it launched.
What has delighted us the most though is the response the talent who were involved for free. The campaign is purposefully provocative to shock people into action but inevitably campaigns like this can polarise and social media provides a platform for people to air their views. The response we’ve seen though has been universally positive to the campaign and their involvement which we hope signals that we’ve struck a chord with the highlighted themes.
LBB> Finally, what are your predictions for the election?
Emma> We hope this will be the highest voting participation we’ve seen in the last decade.
Adrian> If the last five years have taught us anything, this election could still go either way regardless of the polls putting Conservatives in a commanding lead. What is clear though is that the marginality of so many seats simply means the BAME and youth vote could decide who has the keys to Downing Street come December 13th.