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Notification incoming: Are you ready to vote?

We have been swapping stories of unusual notifications popping up on mobiles. From Lime imploring young voters to register, to Spotify reminding us to head to the polls on Thursday as part of their civic engagement strategy, brands have been beseeching us to engage with our political system. At the same time, we’ve been pouring over the brochures and leaflets coming through from the London mayoral candidates. 

Technically, in a democracy, every brand has a ‘right to play’ when it comes to pushing for citizens to take part in democratic processes. But with the pressure to vote coming from all angles, some colleagues have been left wondering why brands care about us exercising our rights so much, particularly those from Gen Z

The thing is, civic engagement initiatives are not new. The ‘I Give an X’ campaign, a non-partisan appeal for people to register to vote, has been running for nearly a decade. This year, its backers include celebrities such as Paapa Essiedu, Michael Sheen, and Amelia Dimoldenberg. Spotify has been running voter engagement campaigns since 2016. Their reason? ‘As a global institution, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to show up in a meaningful way for people, culture, the audio industry and our band members.’ 

It’s worth turning to the data to understand why brands are pushing for young people’s civic engagement: we know that voter turnout in the UK looks markedly different across generations. In 2019, just 55% of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared to 79% of those who were 65+. While this is often put down to young voter apathy, the reasons for this disparity are more complex. In the US, an IPSOS survey points to a different truth: young people want to vote, but can’t because of barriers. One of the most common reasons? They couldn’t get off work to vote. 

In the UK, the British Youth Council points to the introduction of Voter ID as a systemic barrier to taking part in the democratic process. For example, an Older Person’s Bus Pass is accepted as a form of ID at the polling station, but a Young Person’s Bus Pass isn’t. And there are many more accepted forms of ID for those who are 60+ compared to those under 60. When you consider that younger people are less likely to have accepted forms of ID such as a driving licence, it’s not a surprise that this becomes a real barrier to exercising their democratic rights.

At TU, we’re also considering how brand and organisations’ responsibilities are shifting –particularly as public trust moves away from institutions such as government and the media, and toward business. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer showed that business is now the sole institution seen as competent and ethical. As governments are increasingly perceived as ‘unethical and incompetent’, business is under pressure to step into the vacuum. In the UK, there is a 13pp difference in trust, with 50% reporting trust in business, and 37% reporting trust in government. 

What’s striking is that respondents want more societal engagement from business, not less–80% and 77% expect CEOs to take a public stand on issues such as discrimination and the wealth gap, respectively. We contrast this with some of our clients, who are understandably nervous about beginning their DEI journeys in public. Especially when it seems both traditional and social media in the UK and US are on a witch-hunt for literally anything going not just ‘woke,’ but ‘DEI’. 

The exam question used to be ‘where does responsibility for societal progress lie?’ Because we operate in a capitalist society, it’s becoming less of a surprise that the answer seems to be ‘with business.’ The big unifying institutions of yore–namely government and religion–are on the decline, and something’s got to fill the gap. And organisations have figured out that certain kinds of social engagement and inclusive advertising show them to be responsible and trustworthy–and build brand awareness and reputation.

But with only 50% of UK respondents to the Edelman Barometer actually reporting trust in business, there’s something to be said for the way people are taking responsibility into their own hands through community organising. The mutual aid groups that popped up during lockdown are a prime example of this. We see marginalised communities educating each other about forming solidarity across intersections. One of the areas of work prioritised by The Rights Collective, a radical South Asian collective based in the U.K., is to offer political education and build knowledge in South Asian communities, with reading circles focused on anti-caste and transformative justice practices. 

And of course, marginalised communities in the West have long been pushing for societal progress outside of institutions through protests and civil disobedience. It’s because institutional success has long been predicated on oppressive, harmful, and even lethal practices: from gender income inequality which worsens when intersectional factors such as race and disability are factored in, to dependency on free labour through the slave trades. 

So while businesses’ responsibilities to society are increasing, there’s something to be said about the authenticity of how they show up, both inside and out. For example, are the same brands pushing app users to the polls also giving their own employees time off on election day to help ensure they go vote? If democracy is a core value, do employees also have the opportunity to actively participate in internal decision-making, such as being meaningfully consulted on policy changes?

Now more than ever, we’ve got to look beyond inclusive branding and study the fine print. One of the core elements of a democracy is having an informed citizenry. That’s hard to do when there is so much media bias and disinformation we’re exposed to on a daily, if not hourly, basis. So find the manifestos for your local candidates. Look up tactical voting and make sure you understand the voting systems we use (because the system has recently changed!) to ensure you use your vote effectively. And go vote. Because ultimately, societal responsibility sits with all of us.


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