By Ted Johnson
The ad looks like yet another effort to get 20-somethings out to vote: Slacking on a couch, a college-age guy chews on a piece of pizza and motions to a friend to take a look at his laptop.
“Check this out,” he says. “Look at all these presidential candidates talking about change. They are going to change this, change that. You know what I’d like? A little extra change in my pocket.”
“I hear you,” his friend says. “I may just sit this election out.”
“Oh, come on, man, you’ve got a voice. Go use it. You can change history if you just vote.”
“You’re right. I’m voting,” the friend agrees. “How about sharing a slice of pizza for a change?”
Yes, this ad is not a PSA but a promotion for Pizza Hut — and all the better if it does get out the vote.
The presidential election may be a historic moment, but it’s also certain to be a marketing opportunity.
With signs of unprecedented voter interest in the race, companies are jumping on the bandwagon, tying themselves to the election through 30-second spots, online surveys, expert polling, even their own political coverage.
The result is a sometimes odd mix of the trivial and the serious.
IFC, also known as the Independent Film Channel, is even using the election to enhance its branding.
It has created a two-reporter news unit that has been covering the caucuses and primaries, in addition to polling on such overlooked election issues as the death penalty.
The same goes for the cable channel Nickelodeon, which has launched a series of election-year news specials with Linda Ellerbee.
Some 80,000 kids — we assume — participated in an online primary poll to pick a nominee from each party.
Oddly enough, the winners were the oldest contender, John McCain, and the youngest, Barack Obama.
Madison Avenue wizards are not shy about wading into the otherwise bleak waters of a looming recession.
Pizza Hut needed a way to promote a nationwide rollout of affordable pizzas.
All of the presidential candidates were talking about the faltering economy.
And the electorate was starting to tune in in record numbers to the presidential debates.
“Obviously, with the possibility of a recession, the candidates have been talking about the economy a lot, and we thought, ‘We have got this great solution,’” says company spokesman Chris Fuller.
“We had a brainstorming session where we got our ad minds together and came up with the snippets of the candidates.”
The initial result was an irreverent spot that runs through snippets of each candidate at the debates.
A narrator asks, “Are people seeing lower prices now?”
Then we see Dennis J. Kucinich, saying, “More people in this country have seen UFOs ... ” Then the word “Confused?” comes on screen before the Pizza Hut meat-covered pizza choice appears.
The spot, which started airing just before the Iowa caucus, drew the ire of Kucinich supporters, some of whom vowed to boycott the chain. (For one, Kucinich is a vegan.)
“We do know that out of this field, someone is going to be president,” Fuller said. “We are sensitive to that.”
Apparently, the ad didn’t help Kucinich, who dropped his long-shot bid for the presidency on Jan. 24.
It’s also nothing new: Going back to the 1940s, stores boasted of Election Day sales.
In 1976, as Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford faced one another in the election, kids flooded General Mills with mail-in votes to allow the Trix rabbit a bowl of cereal.
He had to wait until the 1980 election to get another.
What is different is the anticipation that this election will bring a groundswell of younger voters — as has been proven in the early caucuses and primaries.
“That is not an opportunity they are going to pass up,” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a research consulting firm based in New York.
“You are dealing with what we call the bionic consumers of the 21st century,” he says.
“This is a generation that is hot-wired to the Internet. They are just more knowledgeable about how to get information.
“They are more difficult to get engaged than in previous generations, so marketers have their radar out, looking for an opportunity.”
There’s the obvious: MySpace, YouTube and Facebook, which have extended their brands into presidential debates and forums.
Less apparent is IFC, which has been looking to capitalize on the word “independent” — the idea that the channel is about much more than independent film but is the “voice of independent culture.”
So it didn’t seem like too great a leap to think that the cable channel would capitalize on the coming presidential contest with election reports, weekly news updates, news specials, polls and blogging.
Two documentary filmmakers, Will Rabbe and Sarah Scully, serve as correspondents for political coverage that “doesn’t fall into the extremes of the political process,” says IFC General Manager Evan Shapiro.
The idea was to serve the “independent mind-set and give them a true, nonfiltered view of the process.”
For example, another reporter for its IFC news unit, Matt Singer, who looked as if he stepped right out of the Sundance Film Festival, reported on the Supreme Court hearings on lethal injection, an issue that isn’t getting as much coverage in mainstream media.
The network also commissioned E-Poll Market Research for a survey that found wide support for the death penalty.
It also asked about seeming contradictions — like whether it makes sense to be anti-abortion and pro-death-penalty.
On the trail, it has tried to dig in to topics such as why John McCain suddenly leapt ahead in the early states.
“Ron Paul is getting a lot of attention,” Shapiro says. “To our people, he is a folk hero.”
And should Michael Bloomberg wage an independent bid for the White House, there would be extensive coverage — perhaps the ultimate in branding by extension.
That makes sense. Less so was the effort by Fantastic Sams to get into the electoral action.
Several weeks ago, reporters were inundated with e-mails offering up the company’s lead stylist, Martha Clemence, to be interviewed about the “Hillary do,” a follow-up to an earlier pitch offering comment on Mitt Romney and presidential hair.
Matthew Yglesias of The Atlantic couldn’t resist poking fun at the press release in a blog post.
Less than 90 minutes later, and after a few more snarky comments from readers, he received a short comment from a “Martha Clemence”: “Mission accomplished.”
Ted Johnson is managing editor of Variety and author of the blog Wilshire & Washington.