I Can’t Handle Brands’ Voter Activism Anymore

According to my inbox, nobody wants me to go VOTE more than the brands. In particular, some of the sensible women’s clothing brands whose emails get shuttled into my inbox: “PSA: Go vote tomorrow,” Madewell sent me yesterday, followed up with another reminder today: “You vote, we vote!” Everlane also wants me to vote. “Closed 11/3 for democracy,” the subject line of their email read, leading a message about how their workers have the day off to vote. (These Everlane workers who get the day off to vote don’t include the customer experience workers Everlane laid off earlier this year amid a nascent union drive effort, of course.)

Facebook and Instagram have been telling me to vote every day for the past several months, and Facebook has started affixing warning labels to posts that have been rated as false by third-party fact-checkers. But if memory serves, Facebook is intrinsically a hellpit of disinformation, and for me, no amount of GOTV efforts or cute “VOTE!” stickers on Instagram can really change that.

Amanda Mull wrote about brands mediating voter registration for The Atlantic in September, and this week’s marketing email push to urge people to vote feel like an extension of that: these brands claim to be advocates of democracy, but in the end, the onus is still on the consumer to do the heavy lifting. (Of course, the American government could change all of this if they implemented something like automatic voter registration, but that’s a topic for another day.) As Mull notes in her piece, these efforts are likely wasted on these customers; truly disenfranchised voters aren’t the ones getting the emails from Dig and Postmates urging them to do their civic duty:

But in order to achieve even this level of effectiveness, companies would ideally be targeting people who are poorly served by more traditional voter outreach — poor and working-class people who don’t feel included and generally don’t participate in American politics. For many of the brands most vocal about voting, those people simply aren’t their customers. “There’s some perverse incentives here,” Mann told me. “The brands for whom there’s the most payoff for being a good citizen in this regard may have the least impact” on actually registering or motivating voters. That’s because brands that think that these kinds of messages will be beneficial to their image are likely targeting a pool of people who are already well acquainted with the electoral process — people wealthier, whiter, and more formally educated than the population at large. Facebook, a free service with more than 200 million American users, is better positioned to do real good than Sweetgreen, which sells $13 salads.

Getting out the vote is, on its face, a genuinely good thing. (I mean, if you believe that electoral politics alone is a salve.) But there’s a bigger problem besides companies stepping up to do voter registration or GOTV outreach in lieu of us having a functioning government that doesn’t actively disenfranchise voting: It’s the naked cynicism of brands using Election Day as marketing for themselves.

Thinx, the period-underwear startup, closed its offices on Election Day. But it’s pitching itself to reporters this week for a different reason: It wants people to write about how it’s giving away its leak-resistant underwear to poll workers. “For people working the polls who are on their period, or experience bladder leaks, this underwear will be a great solution to getting through long poll shifts; Thinx is the first period/bladder leak underwear company to run a giveaway like this,” a pitch to reporters read.

It is hard for me to square a supposedly authentic desire for having your employees go vote when it’s synced up with a press push to get people to write about poll workers peeing in your product. (Especially when this story is how I came to really know about this particular company in the first place.)

California’s Proposition 22 is the most egregious example of companies doing voter outreach that ultimately benefits themselves. On the ballot today, Prop 22 would make drivers and couriers for gig economy companies independent contractors according to California law, superceding a new law called Assembly Bill 5 that would treat drivers as full-time employees, mandating that companies give them benefits, health care, and minimum wage protections — costs that would weigh heavily on the bottom lines of gig economy companies that already lose money.

Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart and DoorDash have spent more than $200 million to ram through Prop 22, making it the most expensive ballot measure ever financed in California, which has an estimated 1 million gig workers. (By comparison, the anti-Prop 22 crowd has spent, like, a tenth of that $200 million on anti-Prop 22 marketing, primarily from labor unions).

Instacart and Doordash users have found “Yes on Prop 22” fliers in their orders. Uber customers have been bombarded with messages that say things like “Ask your driver why they back Prop 22.” Drivers have also been subject to the messaging, which some argue amounts to scare tactics. Some Uber drivers filed a lawsuit last month, claiming they’ve been receiving in-app warnings about what would happen if Prop 22 failed, videos of drivers talking about why Prop 22 matters, and messages reading “Prop 22 is progress,” where they hey had to click “OK” before proceeding in the app. (A California state superior court judge dismissed the case.) Both Uber and Lyft have claimed they’ll have to slash their driver headcount or stop operating in California entirely if they have to reclassify their drivers as employees.

If Prop 22 passes, argues tech writer Brian Merchant in One Zero, it may lay the groundwork for a permanent underclass of gig workers, setting the stage for a new era of worker exploitation. “It’s not the right time to cheat essential workers out of protections they desperately need,” Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation and the “No on 22” campaign, told the Wall Street Journal last month. “They’re out there, putting their health, even their lives, at risk by continuing to work.”

I don’t need a fast-casual salad place or a VC-funded athleisure startup to encourage me to vote. I doubt the rest of their clientele needs the reminder either. I think it’s nice that a lot of these places are taking the day off to let their employees vote, but are their employees, who mostly live in coastal metro areas like New York City and San Francisco, marginalized voters? Do they need the incentive of extra hours to stand in line like voters in Georgia could have used during early voting this year?

Well, what DO you want the brands to do, you’re maybe wondering. Good question! I want them to leave me alone. I certainly don’t need companies to do something that on its face appears like voting awareness but is wrapped up in bad incentives. Companies would be far better served — and would be better serving their customers — by simply not adding to the frenetic noise of days like today.

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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