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Why do brands care if you vote?

It’s about democracy, but it’s also about the bottom line.

Levi Strauss joins a huge new voter turnout campaign leading up to the 2018 midterms.
Levi’s

On Monday, as reported by the New York Times, nearly 150 companies, including Walmart, Levi Strauss, Lyft, and Southwest Airlines, announced a joint “Time to Vote” campaign, encouraging Americans to vote in the midterm elections coming up on November 6. The campaign includes national ads and company-specific promotions, but it’s mostly about major companies giving employees dedicated time to leave work and go to the polls.

CEOs from participating companies emphasized to the NYT that the effort is nonpartisan, though Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario said in a subsequent LinkedIn blog post, “We know Russia interfered in the last presidential election, and, flush with its success, will likely do so again. That’s why Patagonia is making it a priority to encourage everyone to vote in this year’s enormously important midterm elections.”

It’s true that Americans are really bad at voting. Only 56 percent of voting-age Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, which was up from 2012 but still less than 2008. In a midterm year, things are generally worse — only 41.9 percent of eligible voters came to the 2014 midterms, a fairly steep slide from 45.5 percent in 2010 and 47.9 percent in 2006.

But in the Trump era, Americans have gotten really good at talking nonstop about politics, and brands have gotten really good at weighing in. Though, again, this campaign insists it’s “nonpartisan,” the participating brands are largely ones that have seen the #resistance turn into sales or have been applauded by their customers for “taking a stand,” plus a few brands that had been quiet until the full brunt of Trump’s anti-Chinese-imports trade war descended this quarter.

It’s a brave new world: one where brands are the government while the government refuses to be the government.

What kinds of companies are participating, and why?

The vast majority of names on the list of participants have previously expressed some kind of stake in seeing the Trump agenda take a hit, even though today, all they’re expressing is the intention to make it easier for their employees to participate in the midterm elections however they may choose.

The CEO of Kind Snacks has spoken openly about his disgust for Trump’s immigration policies, and the CEO of the coffee company La Colombe said in an interview earlier this summer, “My employees know I’m a fucking commie.” One odd note is the consumer credit report agency Experian, which was one of the main vendors of personal Facebook data solicited by Trump’s presidential campaign but has recently pivoted its “Ask Experian” consumer advice blog away from simple credit card cash-back tips and started publishing things like “Trade War: Here’s a List of Products That Will Cost More.” (Its only comment on the campaign seems to be one vague tweet with a “Vote: It’s really important!” GIF.)

Alongside Patagonia — which has a history of environmental activism and leaned hard into the “brands take on Trump” movement by suing to protect national parks and publishing a letter entitled “The President Stole Your Land” — the list includes dozens of outdoor brands, ranging from giant corporations like the North Face and Dick’s Sporting Goods to local stores like Woodstock, Vermont’s Elevation Clothing, and Jackson, Mississippi’s Buffalo Peak. A fly-fishing shop is on board, as is a zip line company in Las Vegas.

The CEOs of Gap, Eileen Fisher, Levi Strauss, and others participating in Time to Vote were among those who spoke up about Trump pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement last March. Last year, Lyft donated $1 million (the company is valued at $7.5 billion) to the American Civil Liberties Union following Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, and it joined a group of tech CEOs who criticized Trump’s border separation policy earlier this summer.

The list also includes several companies that haven’t weighed in on Trump in the past but have recently seen threats to their profits by way of his proposed litany of new tariffs. That includes companies like Walmart, which still sells plenty of Make America Great Again merchandise on its website and in stores, as well as the frozen food giant Tyson, the home sound system company Sonos, and the iconic early-aughts mall culture brand Abercrombie & Fitch.

Slightly more interesting: The PR and communications firms FleishmanHillard, Golin, Levick, and Peppercomm have also joined. FleishmanHillard has cornered the market on crisis management counseling for companies that invoke the president’s wrath on Twitter. Golin president of global corporate communications Scott Farrell told PR Week in August 2017 (following Trump’s “both sides” comments on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia), “Millennials want companies to take a stand. A measured risk needs to be taken, and whichever way you want to go, you can’t sit in the middle anymore.”

When Nike announced its Colin Kaepernick partnership earlier this month, this is exactly the same sentiment marketing analysts and branding “experts” used to praise it.

What will the companies actually do to increase voter turnout?

Participating companies are taking a range of actions to encourage voting. As reported by the New York Times, Patagonia will shut down all of its stores and its corporate headquarters for all of Election Day, and Levi Strauss will give all employees at least three hours to vote (corporate employees get five, for whatever reason). Lyft is offering ride discounts and giving free rides to the polls for people in “underserved communities”; the company is partnering with the nonprofits Urban League and Voto Latino to decide what falls under this umbrella.

Walmart’s efforts, meanwhile, amount to the company making an informational website with information that is already more than readily available.

Levi Strauss is the only brand (so far) with plans to air a television ad for the campaign — during NFL broadcasts on Fox, no less. Nowhere does this ad say “vote against Trump’s candidates,” but it is soundtracked by Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” which means images mostly of women and people of color, including two women putting on niqabs, play while Franklin sings, “You better think, think what you’re trying to do to me,” in the background (and, of course, “Freedom!”). The ad walks the line between “nonpartisan” and “pointed” about as politely as a brand can without coming off as toothless and smarmy.

Brands have increasingly weighed in on politics since the 2016 election, but we’ve seen big companies publicly engage with national elections before

Massive get-out-the-vote campaigns are not new, and brand involvement in them isn’t entirely new either. Rock the Vote started partnering with MTV in the ’90s, and companies like Spotify, Giphy, TaskRabbit, and Western Union sponsored a campaign almost identical to Time to Vote in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

While brand involvement in politics gets more attention now — e.g., publicity firestorms around Nike’s partnership with Kaepernick, the famous fashion houses that refuse to dress Melania Trump, almost every major internet company going head to head with Ajit Pai’s FCC over net neutrality, major airlines publicly severing ties with the National Rifle Association, and so on — big corporations have had the right to deliberately try to sway their employees’ votes since the controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission showdown of 2010.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the conservative PAC Citizens United, saying that the First Amendment protected political spending as “free speech,” and gave corporations the power to pay for political ads and to explicitly promote candidates to the people they employed. In 2012, Murray Energy, Koch Industries, AGS Software, and Westgate Resorts openly told their employees to vote for Mitt Romney.

This particular campaign looks less like that and more like the vaguer strategies we’ve seen in the past — like “Mine the Vote,” a voter turnout campaign organized by lobbyists for the National Mining Association that primarily encourages employees to take time off and vote (however they want!) and exercise their rights as citizens, but also lists recommended candidates (Republicans and conservative Democrats) on its informational site. It’s been around since 2004 but only recently started using the language “Keep American Mining Great.”

Will this effort actually work?

In 2016, Bernie Sanders claimed that when voter turnout is higher, Democrats win. There’s little solid evidence that this is true, though there is plenty of evidence that the GOP believes voter suppression will help it win big at this year’s midterms. If these brands really are signing on in a sincere effort to boost democracy (or thwart the president’s agenda) — not just to snag goodwill and extra cash from millennials — it’s really impossible to say if they’ll be of any help.

Studies have shown that campaigns like these rarely work, mostly because being informed that voter turnout is low has a negative effect on an individual’s perception of the social pressure to vote. We want to be told that voter turnout is high, that we are accountable to the people around us, and that they will notice and be disappointed if we don’t vote.

What could actually make a difference, though, is companies giving their employees time off to get to the polls. Concerns about not being able to leave work or make the time to vote are the No. 1 reason Americans give for not voting, and if enough big-name companies start explicitly granting that time, it could become the new norm. People are also more likely to vote if they’re pushed to discuss their actual logistical plans for making it to the polls, so in that way, Lyft’s promise of ride discounts is not a bad idea.

As it stands, at least 26 states have laws requiring employers to give employees time off to vote, though most come with restrictions and aren’t strictly enforced. That this is the first we’re hearing from many of these companies on this issue is notable. And we should be careful with credit here — Walmart in particular has been guilty of violating state law around giving employees any breaks at all, while Lyft and the broader gig economy have done away with the idea of downtime.

In any case, this year’s midterms are shaping up to be different from the midterms of recent memory. Recent Pew polling showed 78 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans saying the election “really matters” and that the outcome is important to them.

Pew doesn’t poll brands, but you can just follow the money to see how important it is to them as well.

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