Former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg tried to use memes to engage with young voters last week. It didn’t work.
Feb 18, 2020
This past Thursday, at least 23 popular Instagram accounts — including @fuckjerry, @kalesalad and @fuckadvertisements — posted campaign advertisements for presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, all of which are disguised as memes. While each advertisement is different, they all take the form of a fabricated direct message from the candidate. Each one is deeply ironic and hyper self-aware, and each brands Bloomberg as distinctly out-of-touch — not an out-of-touch Washington elite, but out-of-touch like the memes your grandfather sends you. He tries to come across as well-intentioned — and for a second, it works. But only for a second.
Young voters are spoken about so frequently that it seems almost pointless to reiterate why they matter so much. But Generation Z is officially the U.S.’ largest demographic — and Millennials are the second-largest, beating out the boomers by a population margin of over 13 million. Gen Z is also widely overrepresented on the internet — if you use social media as your main point of reference for what the U.S. thinks, you’ll largely get the opinion of its younger demographic.
Young voters also have historically low turnout rates. College students frequently change their place of residence, which leaves them the option to either mail in an absentee ballot — something out of their way — or re-register in their new district, which is a tedious and extensive process in most states. There are also frequently roadblocks in the registration process: one young voter told New York Magazine that she hasn’t voted in years because she doesn’t own a printer or stamps, and her heavy workload frequently causes her to miss the deadline to mail in her absentee ballot. Many states have been pushing for ease of access to voter registration and voting in general, but until legislation is passed, young voters remain largely ambivalent — unless someone incentivizes them.
Politicians often mistakenly see memes as a cheap means of connecting to younger voters. But the sad reality of campaign memes is that if they’re not done exactly right — and by the right politicians — they’re bound to fail, and fail spectacularly.
Mike Bloomberg failed spectacularly.
The backlash to Bloomberg’s campaign memes was (and is) so strong that several of the accounts that originally posted advertisements have since become private. @thefatjewish, an Instagram account similar to the ones that posted Bloomberg’s sponsored content, commented on @tank.sinatra’s post, saying that the candidate had approached him, asking to post an advertisement, but he had declined because “Bloomberg is a colossal sh-tbag.” Bloomberg’s ad on @golfersdoingthings’ account was met with a sea of “TRUMP 2020” comments; responses to @doyouevenlift’s overwhelmingly agree that Bloomberg “sucks lol”; comments on @fourtwenty’s ad suggest a conspiracy theory; responses to @neatdad’s post simply read “unfollow.”
The complaints aren’t unwarranted. It’s not only that Bloomberg is openly pandering to young voters, it’s that he’s ostensibly attempting to whitewash his background. One only needs to think of Bloomberg’s track record: the 64 women who have sued him for sexual harassment; the blatantly racist audio clip that circulated social media this past week, where he explained the so-called logic behind the also blatantly racist stop-and-frisk policy; his use of prison labor for his campaign; the time he blamed the 2008 recession on the elimination of redlining; the fact that he has no donors but himself; the healthcare plan that calls death panels to memory. A meme doesn’t let you forget a list of misgivings this long — no matter who’s pandering to you.
Campaign memes are made with the explicit goal of garnering the youth vote, and in that, Bloomberg failed. But he achieved something else — something, perhaps, entirely unintended.
Not everybody hated Bloomberg’s campaign memes. Daniel Arsham, a white, 39-year-old influencer, responded to @fuckjerry’s post with a single clapping emoji. Carole Radziwill, a white, 56-year-old Real Housewife of New York City, responded to the same post with a hands-up emoji. Adam Padilla, a white advertising executive in his early 40s, responded to @tank.sinatra’s sponsored post with a simple “Perfect.”
The pattern continues. Melissa Joan Hart, Adrian Solgaard, Selby Drummond and Alison Brod enthusiastically responded to @fuckjerry’s, @sonny5ideup’s, @gaybestfriend’s and @mrsdowjones’ sponsored posts, respectively. Many more positive comments from white, upper-class members of Generation X were made, and have since been deleted; in addition, since so many of the accounts that originally posted advertisements are now private, it’s hard to gather the exact number of supportive reactions. But almost every positive comment came from the same demographic.
A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center reported that more than half of Generation X voted in the United States’ last midterm election — higher than the nationwide average. Another study concluded that while voter turnout among racial and ethnic minorities spiked during the 2018 midterm elections, U.S. voters are still overwhelmingly white. A recent study by EconoFact reported that “voter turnout in the United States is vastly unequal: richer people are more likely to vote than poorer people.”
Bloomberg’s memes may have failed to raise his favorability ratings among young voters, and may have even turned them farther away from him than they already were. But they did incentivize those who were already incentivized: white, upper-class members of Generation X. The youth are still left unaccounted for, and Mike Bloomberg wasted approximately $350 million on an ad campaign to get the attention of those who were already listening.
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A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 print edition. Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]