MoveOn's most effective election ad is a climate ad

The liberal group got 70 ads analyzed and found that Joe Biden talking about climate justice was the best at mobilizing voters.

Joe Biden taps the nose of a person in a polar bear costume during a campaign event in February, 2020. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in part because people didn’t vote. About 40 percent of voting-eligible Americans did not cast a ballot in the 2016 race. Almost half of those 2016 nonvoters were nonwhite, and about two-thirds were people under the age 50. Those are demographics that far more likely to vote Democratic. The outcome probably would have been different had they voted.

A big reason for voter non-participation is politically-motivated voter suppression. But another is a general lack of enthusiasm. That’s why, in the lead-up to Decision Day, progressive organizations have been spending millions on ads that to inspire the 2016 non-voting crowd to get to the polls. And they’ve been analyzing those ads in the hopes of answering an essential question: What works? What actually fires people up enough to increase their likelihood to participate in the election?

The progressive group MoveOn is one of those organizations doing such analysis—and they shared their results with HEATED. Right now, the Democratic-aligned group is in process of running a $770,000 get-out-the-vote ad campaign on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other sites, targeted specifically to non-white voters under age 35 in 14 different battleground states.

There are 24 different ad spots in MoveOn’s campaign, each focusing on a different issue. But in terms of driving voter enthusiasm, one ad is doing much better than all the others.

It’s a clip of Joe Biden talking about climate change.

The 96-second spot features Biden’s speech about his “Build Back Better” climate plan, set to inspirational superhero movie-esque music and cut with photos and video of extreme weather events. The audio transcript reads:

With every bout with nature's fury caused by our own inaction on climate change, more Americans see and feel the devastation. If you give me the honor of serving as your president, we can and we will meet this moment with urgency and purpose.

I think jobs, good paying union jobs, put Americans to work. Building a stronger, more climate-resilient nation. Modernize water and transportation systems. 1.5 million new energy efficient homes and public housing units that will benefit our communities three times over by eliminating affordable housing crisis, by increasing energy efficiency, and by reducing the racial wealth gap linked to home ownership. We’ll launch a new modern civilian climate corps to heal our public lands.

I believe that every American has a fundamental right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I know we haven’t fulfilled that right yet. Especially in low-income, white, Black, brown, and Native American communities. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s necessary. And I’m committing to get it done.

Americans face this historic inflection point. A time of real peril, but also a time of extraordinary possibilities. We’ve seen the light through the dark smoke. We never give up. Always, without exception, every time. We succeed when we try.

MoveOn sent this ad, along with 70 others, to the media metrics company Swayable to figure out their so-called “mobilization score”—essentially, an assessment of how much an ad increases someone’s likelihood to participate in the election. The score is calculated by showing each video to about 2,000 people, and surveying them before and after about how likely they are to vote; how likely they are to take some form of action (like social media posts, donating, or volunteering); and how enthusiastic they feel about the election.

The climate ad not only scored higher than all MoveOn’s other ads—it scored higher than other ads Swayable analyzed this year, said Anne Thompson, MoveOn’s creative lab director.

“We were happy when Swayable said the climate video had generated exceptional results across not just what we had been providing them to test, but all their clients,” she said. “They called out the fact that the overall mobilization for voters generally was exceptional, above the average for any ad that they observed for all their clients this cycle.”

The climate ad’s mobilization score is 3.8, which means it increased average voter mobilization by 3.8 percentage points, which basically means it made the average viewer about 3.8 percent more fired up about the election. For context, MoveOn’s second-best-performing ad—about Biden’s health care plan—had a mobilization score of 2.4. The group also put out ads about a multitude of other issues that had lower scores.

The climate ad’s score was also much higher for the key demographics MoveOn is targeting: voters of color under the age of 35. According to Thompson, the climate ad made the average young Black viewer 5.9 more fired up about the election; the average young Latinx viewer 5.6 more fired up, the average young Asian voter 5.1 percent fired up, and the average young other non-white-identifying voter 5.9 percent more fired up.

Thompson wouldn’t say if she was surprised MoveOn’s climate ad was the most high-performing, but she would say that the simplicity of Biden’s message was worth noting. “He’s just saying, these are my values and this is my plan. That alone is resonating with people and getting out the vote,” she said. “People might not get that that’d be an exceptionally mobilizing message.”

Does this information really do any good, though, now that we’re just a week away from Election Day? After all, as of yesterday, Facebook—perhaps the most important political advertising platform of all—is not allowing new political or issue ads. It’s not like progressive groups or the Biden campaign can push out a bunch of new climate ads on Facebook before the election. (Though as Popular Information reports today, it appears to already be breaking its own rules).

Thompson says that doesn’t matter, because Facebook is allowing all existing political ads to keep running, and there are plenty climate ads that already exist on Facebook that can be expanded or targeted. Plus, she said, this isn’t just about the election. It’s about what comes after.

“This shows us that climate change is a reason people will get to the polls, but it also tells us that they’re expecting the bold action on climate change that those ads lay out,” she said. “It’s telling us what the voters really want in terms of policy in terms of the next administration.”

A fun fact follow-up on tree-huggers

Yesterday’s edition of HEATED was about the outdated stereotype of what an environmentalist is supposed to be, and it was titled “Abolish the tree-hugger.” (I meant the stereotype of the environmentalist as a tree-hugger, by the way—not the actual person. Most of you got that. But just to be clear!)

When I said tree-hugger, I meant the white middle-class loner who values nature over people. But as HEATED reader Jennifer Carman pointed out to me in an e-mail, that’s not actually what a tree-hugger is supposed to be; or at least, not where the term originated. I thought Carman’s point was really interesting and smart—and it made me like tree-huggers a lot more! So I’m sharing an excerpt of it here with her permission.

The term "tree-hugger" actually comes from India's Chipko Movement, a massive nonviolent social protest against deforestation in India in the 1970s. It serves in many ways as a model for the current environmental movement, including by integrating social justice with environmental protection.

I am not remotely an expert on this movement so there are many nuances I am missing, but I do know that one of their practices was to physically put their bodies in around trees so that they wouldn't be cut down, and that the term Chipko itself refers to tree-hugging.

So the popular use of "tree-hugging" in America is really cultural appropriation, and its derisive use is meant to discredit a real and important social movement.

All that being said, your and Heather McTeer Toney's overall point that (Western) environmentalism needs to confront its whiteness and realize that environmentalism isn't just about protecting trees, is right on. But before we abolish the term "tree-hugger" I wanted to add the nuance that we're really talking about white tree-huggers.

I’d love to know what you think, about this or anything else. I’m at emily@heated.world.

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