Responsible democracy?

Using reverse psychology to bring young people back to the ballot box: insights from the European Campaign of the Year at the 2014 European Excellence Awards



Young generations of Europeans apparently show little interest in politics. We don’t trust politicians and in most pre-election polls in Europe, young people generally express the view that voting will have no impact on their daily lives.

Yet the vacuum that is left by young people’s no-show in elections across Europe should alarm us all. Our absenteeism from elections contributes significantly to our political marginalisation. In a way, we are the victims of our political choices. Aside from the opportunity that this provides to populist parties, young people’s no-show gives no incentive to mainstream political parties to have serious policies on issues that interest us, such as how to provide quality jobs for young people or the cost of education. Our research at the League of Young Voters and interviews with political parties show that, indeed, we are not a key target group.

"Our absenteeism from elections contributes significantly to our political marginalisation"

These concerns were what led the League of Young Voters to ask FleishmanHillard to develop an awareness campaign on the lack of youth participation in European politics, with a specific focus on the European Elections in May 2014. FleishmanHillard proposed an unconventional approach — reverse psychology. Together, we created The Alliance for Responsible Democracy, a fictitious lobby group that sought to raise the voting age to 25. Our objective was to entice young people to stand up for their right to vote, thereby generating conversation around the issue.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance and only a select few were aware of the entity behind the campaign until it was unveiled a month before the election. It was most probably its creativity and efficient use of very little resources that won it the award of European Campaign of the Year at the European Excellence Awards in 2014. 

The campaign reached 5.8 million people, mostly by trolling Facebook and Twitter users as well as through guerrilla marketing. The Alliance enraged young people into becoming vocal about the elections, while raising awareness about low voter turnouts and youth issues in the political sphere and thus attracting attention from the likes of European Commissioner Vassiliou and many high profile Members of the European Parliament and political party representatives.

Yet again, however, young people were the great abstainers in the recent European elections (72% of 18-24 year-olds did not vote), showing that PR campaigns — however creative they may be — are not enough. Calling upon young people’s sense of duty will certainly not change anything. What is needed is the acknowledgment by all, political parties, education providers and civil society that the widening gap between young people and democracy is a joint responsibility.

More and more research on the topic of youth political participation suggests that young people’s political participation is not so much in decline, as in a process of transformation. There are other ways of trying to influence political processes and policies, which young people seem to increasingly prefer. These include “e-participation” tools, discussing issues on social networks, and signing e-petitions.

"Young people’s political participation is not so much in decline, as in a process of transformation."

Young people mobilise behind specific causes and tend to believe in bottom-up participation. Young people need the confidence and skills to be able to demand better political representation and develop a politics that reacts to and reflects their interests. Our next campaigns over the coming years will therefore have to take these developments into consideration and be more creative than ever in order to let young people’s voices be heard and, eventually, bring them back to the ballot box!

Image: European Youth Forum/League of Young Voters

John Lisney

John Lisney works at the European Youth Forum as coordinator of the League of Young Voters, a politically neutral initiative that aims to address the gap between young people and politics. Prior to taking on this role in January 2014, John was the assistant to the secretary general of the European Youth Forum.