The Wall Street Journal, 3 June, 2016
The U.K.’s election regulator wants people to register by Tuesday for this month’s vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union. That is why its TV and internet ads talk about a shiny penguin.
“This type of humor is quirky and random, which could be described as a type of British humor,” said Emma Hartley, head of campaigns at the Electoral Commission, in a statement.
The Electoral Commission, an independent body set up by the U.K. Parliament, is following a classic corporate marketing strategy: trying to be funny. Its goal isn’t to sell candy or cars, but rather to maximize voter registration and participation for the June 23 referendum.
The Commission found in a 2014 study that 7.5 million people weren’t correctly registered to vote. In addition, election analysts and betting websites predict a voter turnout for the EU referendum to be between 50% and 59%, said Matthew Goodwin, a University of Kent political scientist. That would be slightly lower than the 66% turnout for the 2015 general election but higher than that of recent referendums in the U.K., he said.
“Europe has not dominated the minds of the mass public,” Mr. Goodwin said. “It has not been a highly salient issue.” He added that interest could rise as campaigning intensifies in coming weeks.
But studies suggest that Rock the Vote and other voter-mobilization drives have no effect in the U.S., said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who studies voter turnout. “People vote when they’re interested, so the election has to be interesting to the person,” Mr. McDonald said.
U.S. elections are generally run by individual states or municipalities, and political experts say few election regulators have attempted lighthearted voter-mobilization drives. One recent example is Culver City, a California city of 40,000 residents that hired a nonprofit called SeePolitical to create a cartoon bird mascot named Birdie for its April 2016 local elections. Culver City Deputy City Clerk Jeremy Green said voter turnout for the 2016 election was 22%, up from 14% for the Birdie-less 2014 election, though that increase may have been due to the overall effect of the $21,000 public-awareness campaign and not only Birdie.
Ms. Hartley said the Electoral Commission has tried to be funny since at least the September 2014 election on Scottish independence. Among other things, it aired a TV ad that showed a man being violently yanked out of a polling station on a bungee cord after finding out he wasn’t registered to vote. The Commission said that by polling day, 84% of people surveyed said they recognized the Commission’s ad campaign for the Scottish vote.
Ahead of the 2015 general election, the Electoral Commission ran a droll TV ad with the stars of “Gogglebox,” a reality show that showed people watching TV and talking about what they were watching on TV. Its ad ahead of the May 2016 local elections featured the stars of the soap opera “Hollyoaks” talking about how to “do it” for “a couple of minutes.” They were referring to voter registration. After seeing the Hollyoaks ad, some people on Twitter jokingly asked whether they could un-register to vote.
The current television campaign for the EU referendum shows neon signs advertising the coming vote in odd places, such as a forest, a soccer field and a coin laundry. Says the man in the voice-over: “We wanted to make sure you couldn’t miss it, ever. Like a bolt of lightning. Or a really, really shiny penguin.”
The neon signs were also used in the impartial voting guide mailed to U.K. households.
“It stops short of laugh-out-loud humor as we don’t want to detract from the important message,” Ms. Hartley said. She said that besides the penguin, the Electoral Commission’s alternatives for a can’t-miss mascot included a search-and-rescue flare in a red phone booth and a co-worker with a bad spray tan.
Twitter users in the U.K. have seen Electoral Commission ads featuring a penguin on a neon sign, and clicking the ad takes people to the U.K.’s voter-registration website. Ms. Hartley said coming Facebook ads would feature a different animal.
The total budget for the ad campaign, created by the agency MullenLowe London, was £6.4 million ($9.3 million).
About 868,000 people have registered to vote since the public-awareness campaign’s May 15 launch, the commission said.
This article was originally published online here.