Mock the vote

AARP tries to get edgy, but comes off confusing

The American Association of Retired Persons tried to turn on baby boomers …

The American Association of Retired Persons tried to turn on baby boomers …

The American Association of Retired Persons hit the airwaves hard last election with an edgy new image it hoped would impress the baby boomers.

With Web-animations and two TV commercials punctuated by the tagline “Don’t vote,” the powerful seniors’ lobby was aiming to help voters learn more about candidates. But several observers told SN&R that the message probably backfired.

Launched in September, the nationwide ad campaign—which also appeared in newspapers—directs audiences to the AARP’s voter-information Web site,

“Initially, it made me stop and say, ‘Who in the world would say don’t vote?’ It made me listen again and again,” said Betty Williams, president of the Sacramento branch of the NAACP. Once Williams figured out the real message, “Study and then make the appropriate decision,” she thought it was good advice.

Others are not so sure. “I think that it was a confusing message because of the URL,” said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. “It sounded like they were trying to discourage people from voting.”

The AARP said the ad targets all voters but especially those ages 45 and up.

In one “don’t vote” commercial, six middle-class people set against a white backdrop blend sarcastic and sincere tones to deliver their two-part message: “Don’t vote,” and then later, “until you know where the candidates stand on the issues.” The diverse crowd of varying ages and ethnicities beat the stand-alone phrase “don’t vote” into viewers’ brains seven times in about the first 10 seconds, before revealing the second half of the phrase.

“People often pay scant attention to commercials,” said John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Unless the message is clear, people might misunderstand it.”

Williams thinks that the potential to miss the message can’t be pinned to “one person, race or gender,” but “a person with English as a second language could have misconstrued it if they didn’t hear the whole thing.”

“Most of AARP’s members are fairly well educated and would understand the irony in that title,” said Fred Lynch, a Claremont McKenna College government professor who has studied the AARP for about six years.

Mark Beach, AARP California’s associate state director of communications, thinks the message rings loud and clear. Not getting it is not likely, said Beach: “It’s possible, but I don’t think so. If so, then perhaps they shouldn’t be voting.”

“Irony and subtly do not always translate well on television,” Pitney said. “There’s no black-and-white answer to how well informed you need to be to vote. Even the most sophisticated voters might have little knowledge of some of the down-ballot races.”

… with a counterintuitive message to voters.

Trudi Schaefer of the League of Women Voters of California said: “My concern is that there are many issues and many candidates on the ballot. Everyone should feel that it’s important to vote, and people should not stay away from the polls for fear of not knowing enough.”

“People shouldn’t feel intimidated about voting, but often they do.” Alexander said. “I know that [the AARP’s] intentions were good, but there’s a lot of concern around election time about voter suppression.

“You don’t need encyclopedic knowledge to be an informed voter. You don’t have to be well informed to be a confident voter. A voter can make confident choices without reading every word of every proposition on the ballot.

“That’s what a lot of people do. They use shortcuts—interest groups relying on information about who’s funding campaigns, endorsements from public figures, or relying on the opinions of others who have studied the issues and who you trust.”

“Social Security,” “Health Care Reform” and “Retirement Security” flash in bold black letters on a white background during’s introduction. Voters pick their state to see who’s running for what. The AARP provides a link to a voter guide, assigning “supports” or “opposes” checks to candidates on issues like universal health care and prescription-drug costs. They also transcribe Q-and-A sessions with candidates that agreed to comment on those issues.

But navigating the white space of quickly leads to, littered with “Sign up now!” ads.

Lynch calls neutral and fairly objective. He believes that the AARP educates voters in earnest, but notes its desire for attention. “I think they take their mission seriously,” he said, “but I’ve noticed the heightened visibility of their organization via their ads and their logo. No doubt about it.”

Beach doesn’t deny that the AARP is working hard to woo boomers. “The ‘don’t vote’ campaign is certainly edgier than anything we’ve done in the past, in part because we believe boomers are more receptive to such a campaign,” he said. “AARP communications and membership benefits are constantly evolving to appeal to this large and influential generation.”

More boomers means more money for the AARP. According to an AARP annual report, membership fees, which totaled $229 million in 2005, are one of the lobby’s largest sources of revenue. The AARP spent $67 million for membership acquisition in the same year. Because AARP members don’t last long, the organization has to grab seniors at a rapid pace, added Lynch.

The AARP is a nonprofit organization. Well, except for the for-profit part called AARP Services that co-brands and sells to its membership health insurance, financial products, travel services and more.

The lobby sees services as benefits for members, said Beach. He pointed out that all “profits” go back to the AARP’s mission.

The mission in 2006 included, “Strengthening an already strong brand and integrating it throughout AARP’s work. We will make significant investments in developing products and services that speak directly to the way the Baby Boom Generation lives. Members trust and choose AARP’s market-changing benefits, products and services,” according to the annual report.

Showing boomers their snazzy side is a relatively new development, according to Lynch. “CEO Bill Novelli is the man behind AARP’s transformation,” he said. Novelli, founder of the public-relations firm Porter Novelli, is considered an expert in PR, marketing and professional branding.

Beach explained: “Once you have their attention, that’s when you can deliver your real message.” The “don’t vote” message “was a marketing strategy,” countered Alexander. “And not a very good one.”