The final week before the midterms has seen a wave of celebrity-driven get-out-the vote videos: Constance Wu and Jimmy O. Yang from “Crazy Rich Asians” debuted a spot earlier this week; John Leguizamo starred in a Spanish-language ad unveiled on Thursday; and Rosario Dawson and Julianne Moore will headline an immigration-themed PSA to hit on Saturday.
The projects were spearheaded by We Stand United, a group formed by Mark Ruffalo, Bruce Cohen, Fisher Stevens, Julia Walsh, Marisa Tomei, Christina Papagjika, Rebecca Chaiklin, and Schele Williams after Donald Trump’s election to try to organize the involvement of showbiz progressives in protest rallies, events, and lately the midterms.
As President Trump and Republicans step up their attacks on Democrats’ embrace of Hollywood, We Stand United is trying to enhance it. Their pitch materials say they are “in a unique position to unite our networks of popular artists, entertainment professionals, and digital media experts with our partners working for social change to educate, inspire, and turn out the vote to win back Congress.”
It’s difficult to measure the impact that showbiz figures have on electoral politics, but if Democrats do well on Tuesday, it’ll probably help refute concerns that celebrity involvement hurts more than it helps.
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The GOP has been trying to counter by turning industry support for Democratic campaigns into a liability. After Oprah Winfrey drew large crowds on Thursday for her appearance with Stacey Abrams, running for governor of the state, Vice President Mike Pence dismissed the star power and tweeted, “This ain’t Hollywood. This is Georgia.”
Those involved in We Stand United say they are trying to take a savvier approach to the use of entertainment figures in this year’s midterms.
Cohen believes that what works is “finding the right grassroots organizations in a state where you want to make a difference, and having them tell you what you need, what the message should be, whether influencers and celebrities will help, and who will be authentic.”
He added, “A lot of times, celebrities and influencers are coming into a state and sort of imposing their ways on the grassroots organizations, but the grassroots organizations on the ground are the experts as to what works and what they need.”
The “Crazy Rich Asians” spot, for instance, was made in conjunction with the New Virginia Majority, a progressive group in that state. The two groups also produced a spot last year featuring Wanda Sykes, a Virginia native, in advance of that state’s elections last year, when Democrats made significant gains. Other spots have been made with groups such as the Working Families Party, Families Belong Together, and March for Our Lives.
“These people who are on the front lines in their communities have a credibility that a celebrity doesn’t, but the celebrity has the spotlight,” Ruffalo said.
The group was formed after Ruffalo, Cohen, Stevens Walsh, Chaiklin, and others helped put together a rally in front of Trump Tower just before the inauguration. It ended up drawing Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cher, Robert De Niro, Sally Field, and Michael Moore, among other big names, and an estimated 26,000 people, along with substantial media coverage.
“For every actor and celebrity that went on stage, there was an environmentalist out there, or a civil rights specialist, a labor person, or someone in health care,” Ruffalo said. The idea was to surround the showbiz activists with “credibility, to help people who are actually fighting the fight have their voices heard.”
They went on to organize other events, like a People’s State of the Union, held in New York earlier this year to counter Trump’s State of the Union address.
For the midterms, the group has been focusing on a mixture of events, social media messaging, and digital ads in ten states.
Last weekend, Ruffalo, Dave Matthews, and Billy Ray Cyrus headlined get-out-the-vote rallies in North Dakota, including ones at the Standing Rock and Turtle Mountain reservation.
The group is set up as a 501(c)4, but Cohen said they don’t spend more than about $20,000 to $30,000 to produce the ads and not too much more on digital buys. The spots are not “overly polished,” Cohen said, but they didn’t want the videos to look like campaign ads.
“They were showing people that video at the door, and that video was inspiring people to go vote,” Cohen said.
He added, “Storytelling, when done right, can make a difference. Showing someone an emotional, researched targeted video that was planned and thought out and filmed, and really works and really gets a reaction from the viewer, that is a more effective tool than just relying on the volunteer who is knocking on the door to convince someone to go to vote.”