If the election had ended last month, I’ll have remembered Democrats’ attempts to reach the youth on the internet as historically lame. Apparently not taking the hint from 2016's “Pokemon GO to the polls” gaffe, Democratic strategists forced the memes on the internet, and the internet struck back with a savage pillory of reaction memes.
But more recently a familiar group of operatives have been toiling away at a campaign that has not, so far, been laughed off the internet. It is now a robust, deliberately sneaky product placement campaign hell-bent on deploying the kids of TikTok into exercising their rights.
This has been a season for Democrats attempting to insert themselves into online culture, and looking pretty weak: think Michael Bloomberg’s land grab—“Meme 2020”—in which he paid memers to haze him with Instagram frat humor. A less tryhard Biden-Harris campaign is currently offering yard signs in Animal Crossing and enlisting fashion influencers on Instagram. Last year, the Warren Meme Team (not officially affiliated with Elizabeth Warren’s campaign) memorably published a wonkish seven-page, appended manifesto for Snapchat lenses that got ratioed on Twitter and ended in a KnowYourMeme page that opens with the phrase “widely mocked.” The takeaway was a cautionary tale: tread carefully in the minefield of meme warfare.
But while Bloomberg’s memers dropped out (some even deleted their posts), the Warren Meme Team—now incorporated under the name Bigtent Creative—has migrated to TikTok, and seems to be doing well this time around. Or, at least, isn’t being roasted. I suspect this is partly because on TikTok, advertisers can be all but invisible, and the presence of covert sponsored content doesn’t sit as badly with its users.
The Meme Team started in November of last year, as a loose collection of volunteers assembled by engineer Misha Leybovich (who’s now selling satellite internet for SpaceX). People broadly disliked seeing cheap, pandering, and frivolous memes for a candidate who was serious about fastidious legislative reform. Where most memes rely on some sort of emotional relatability, early Meme Teamers seemed to be trying a more academic, reverse engineering tact. Chatting with them was a bit like hearing from the crew about to enter Biosphere 2, filled with hope and wonder of exploring the limits of human knowledge. Meca Francis, 23, a recent double major in global studies and communications, joined after interviewing Leybovich for her dissertation on the role of memetic forms in politics. On a phone call, Francis touched on memes in art history, religion, and the writings of Richard Dawkins, expressing the still somewhat under-appreciated power of the form, in an unbroken stream of consciousness.
“It’s almost functioning in a way that language functions,” she said. “We argue over what things mean, and simultaneously, we create meaning.”
Francis went on: “We use these things simultaneously as they use us, in terms of exercising power, in terms of looking at power dynamics, which political affiliation is able to reach the masses—to mobilize and to organize and to engage using memes. And so in that way, I believe they’re incredibly powerful. Because they give you a tool to shape public perception, to transmit information. Especially among GenZ. We’re very, very skeptical of traditional media. And traditional media forms like newspapers and even your local news hour—they’re still around, but really not quite as the significant, not quite as impactful. And if there’s anything to be learned from this presidency, and potentially the ones to come after, it’s that digital media is where it’s at.”
Ironically, it’s that kind of academic, reverent thinking that the most successful political 4chan memes—reductive, inflammatory, and intentionally disposable—avoid at all costs.
But of course the Warren Meme Team wasn’t just a conceptual experiment. It was a political campaign, albeit one that failed doubly: once on its own merits, and again when Warren dropped out of the race in early March. The Meme Team of her namesake was not discouraged.
“Its intention was always to support whomever the eventual nominee was,” current Bigtent CEO Ysiad Ferreiras said in a phone interview. After Warren dropped out, they retired the maligned Warren Meme Team title and briefly renamed themselves “Lefty Lenses.” They started probing ideas like digital pandemic rallies. “We started experimenting with so many forms that we realized it was a big tent,” Francis said.
Hence, Leybovich created Bigtent as a creative agency in June, when Biden was the sole but as-yet-unnominated Democratic candidate. At first, the incorporation was just to process one source of funding. That changed in July, when Leybovich handed over the company to Ferreiras, former COO of the peer-to-peer messaging platform Hustle, which has provided tech for the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. (Hustle declined to comment for this piece.)
Bigtent’s clients now include get-out-the-vote nonprofits VoteSimple and VoteAmerica, as well as Fellow Americans, a nonprofit aiming to sway Republicans to vote against Trump. (But no, he says, they’re not paid by a particular campaign.) Ferreiras said that they’ve now worked with around ten groups.
Under Ferreiras, the post-Meme Team Bigtent has figured out how to use TikTok marketing. Bigtent is more or less replicating the music industry’s beguiling, precision-calculated strategies, sometimes detectable only by electron microscope, with, in my opinion, awesome and terrifying potential. The aim (often successful) is to get users to sell a product without knowing they’re doing it. Typically influencers get a loose guideline, and they incorporate the product (a song, a Snickers bar) into what looks like a video they’d make anyway (a joke, a dance, a rant.)
Take for example Surfaces’ “Sunday Best,” which the early TikTok creative agency FlightHouse tweaked with dance-cue sound effects and paid an influential dancer to choreograph. It spawned reams of copycat videos, driving the song, months after its release, to the top of Billboard’s emerging artists chart. (TikTok ruler Doja Cat was similarly promoted.) Scrolling through the tens of millions of teens pumping their arms in time feels at once like watching a global party and capitalist mind control.
Sometimes the ad is right there, as a link overlay, on the video. The middle ground is maybe an influencer telling you to use a sound, which you can do by clicking the link on the bottom of their video. It’s sort of like clicking a series of lolcats and eventually arriving at a pet adoption agency. In Bigtent’s case, those are voter registration links which influencers post in their videos, and which Bigtent uses to track how many signups they’ve garnered. If Democrats figure out how to leverage this strategy it as successfully as the music industry has, they may one day meme, or influence, or whatever.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with product placement—and Ferreiras acknowledges that that’s precisely what this is—especially if creators are sharing helpful information for decent money, which, Ferreiras predicts, will rise like Facebook’s ad rates. (Ferreiras says Bigtent’s pay ranges from $100 to $1500, depending on engagement; five TikTokers who spoke to Gizmodo would not name rates but generally agreed they were paid fairly). Like most brand deals, they’re one-off placements, selected by creators whose understanding of brand identity exceeds their years. They might be political commentators or comedians or just charming personalities, but Bigtent tends to focus on contracting creators of color averaging more than a million followers . “This aligns with people’s identities,” Ferreiras said. “You already care about voter registration, here’s a few bucks, slip that in.”
In one of the most obviously paid-for Bigtent voter registration videos, dancer/comedian Quen Blackwell (3.7 million followers) twerks to WAP with the overlay “tiktokvotes.com.” The song cuts to a record scratch, interrupted by Cardi B, saying: “I don’t want to make everything political, but we have to vote. Are you gonna vote?” The video has 1.2 million views (which is within Blackwell’s average range) but 142k likes, about half that of her videos with comparable numbers of views. Still, that’s several times the number of likes as the president averages on Twitter.
If the off-brand “tiktokvotes” domain name doesn’t tip off viewers to some strategic involvement, clicking through the link to the edited WAP track retrieves an inventory of nearly 400 videos using the clip, many of them very similar to Blackwell’s. The video marked “Original” was posted by an account called @votesounds (created, Bigtent tells me, by Bigtent itself). Check out what else @votesounds has posted, and you’ll find a catalogue of other slightly-edited pop songs with the “TikTokVotes.com” overlay.
There’s no disclaimer, but it’s clear that a third party is involved—tiktokvotes.com leads to a page for the nonprofit Register2Vote (with a Bigtent logo at the bottom)—and Blackwell doesn’t typically offer political statements. Unlike memers pumping out photoshopped Bloomberg DMs, it works in the way that En Vogue singing “Free Your Mind” for Rock the Vote on MTV probably did in 1992. Blackwell is using her cool for a good cause, without shilling for a particular candidate. Nobody’s selling out or proselytizing an alien belief by telling Americans to participate in the democratic process, even if the way that message is bought and sold and the electoral process itself are both flawed.
“Think about 18, 19, 20 year olds who aren’t really on political TikTok and are just scrolling on foryou page,” Maya Nepos, a 21-year-old creator who works with Bigtent, said in a phone interview. “And then they see one of their favorite creators being like, hey, you should you should go register to vote. That would be super cool.”
You’d think telling people to registering to vote might not be as replicable as a viral dance, and it’s not; but unlike the rarefied villas of Instagram, where envy is capital, TikTok is more oriented around common interests, be they plants or witchcraft or social justice. 17-year-old Taylor Cassidy explained the logic of voter registration through TikTok this way:
“You’re seeing somebody you already know and you already follow. I wanted to present voter registration in a fun way to where [followers] might think to themselves, Taylor thinks voter registration is cool. So I should go register to vote.” Taylor’s pull isn’t just that she’s cool; her two million followers are also here to watch the educational Black history videos she makes on figures like boxing heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and astronaut Mae Jemison.
This is not to say that perceived coolness is irrelevant.
Ferreiras considers this less of a marketing situation than community-based canvassing.“I grew up as a Dominican in the Bronx,” Ferreiras said. “Politicians would come in from outside the neighborhood, tell us to vote, and not come back until four years later.”
“I think that does give me the insight that you need somebody from that community to understand how people are communicating with each other,” Ferreiras continued. “What are the slang terms? What are they going to think is cool or not? Do they even use the fucking word cool?”
How is this different from showing up in a digital neighborhood months before an election? Objectively, I can’t argue that it is. But maybe this is pedantic. Ferreiras isn’t running for president.
Over the past few months, Bigtent A/B tested and tweaked. They kept making Snapchat and Instagram lenses a la Meme Team days, except now under the moniker “Lefy Lnz,” creating both a super-popular BLM fists crown (an official Snapchat “favorite”) to a Biden placard for your head.
They followed TikTok creators’ advice and dropped the “tiktokvotes” URL for more TikTok-colloquial domains: “noangrycheeto dot com” or “wearescrewed2020 dot com.” (“TikTokVotes was cool for a hot minute, and then it wasn’t,” Ferreiras said. “It was too corporate-sounding, and we need something crazy and fun and silly.”)
They also deployed duet chains to further their reach, with a list of handles instructing creator after creator to duet the previous video, exponentially boosting the view count somewhat organically. (Duet chains seemed to work, especially with Bigtent’s sound “Vote brah”—a version of Hovey Benjamin’s “Bruh”—which has been used in over 300 videos. The top ten posters have over one million followers each.)
It does not matter whether I like this content; it is not for me. Sixteen years ago, Rock the Vote might have found me at a Phish concert, which is no longer the case because I now hate Phish, and incidentally am a registered voter who doesn’t need convincing to cast a ballot. The kids who think a “vote brah” video loop is cool today will, in a decade or two, probably look back with similar levels of horror—but in the moment it’s working: All of the above posts have around or above 20k likes, which is pretty good when you can safely say a flop for a creator with a one million+ following is less than half of that.
So there’s a glut of kids and young adults on the same platform who have become totally desensitized to product placement, and no shortage of agencies willing to participate in a shadow economy for a piece of the action. It’s darkly fascinating, and, where Bigtent’s efforts are concerns, fairly anodyne. But is sharing a political message this way (albeit a positive one) even legal?
“I think [the videos] are just interestingly creative in the sense that they’re trying to reach a much different demographic,” former FEC commissioner and California state senate candidate Ann Ravel told Gizmodo in a phone interview, referring to the youth.
But generally, organic-looking content does worry her. FEC regulations have stagnated, mired in a pre-influencer era when ad money flowed directly to a billboard owner or newspaper, meaning that legitimate organizations employing influencers and propagandists alike are legally free to spread paid messaging. And without a quorum—the minimum number of commissioners needed to act on campaign finance violations—the FEC can’t do a thing this election cycle—leaving regulation to the whims of feckless social media companies. (When asked about potential disclosure rules a few Bigtent videos in particular, an FEC spokesperson told Gizmodo that the “question does not intersect our agency’s regulations.”)
“It’s totally unregulated, and everybody knows it,” Ravel said.
In cases when a video is sponsored by a 501(c)(4), which is required to disclose donors, Bigtent will require a (subtle) disclosure. For example, creators add the hashtag #FApartner to posts commissioned for Fellow Americans. Not exactly a model of transparency, but this is the sort of far from the only bit of political sponcon that’s technically acceptable under current FEC regulations.
“Even [Bloomberg’s Meme 2020 campaign], to some degree, circumvented the purposes of the law because he was contributing such a large amount of money and placing it in a way that wasn’t clear,” Ravel said. “The whole purpose of campaign finance law is to have clear disclosure.” (The meme accounts at first disclosed that the memes were sponsored by Bloomberg in potentially ironic captions like “I don’t get it ?? (Paid for by @mikebloomberg),” but they were convincing enough that even Facebook implemented stricter disclosure rules.)
Bigtent’s campaign does not say, but very clearly is, aimed at securing a Biden victory. Would any of the Bigtent creators take money from the Biden-Harris campaign, look into the camera and say “Vote for Joe”?
Mostly, the answer was no. Comedian Alan Chikin Chow, says that he’d only go so far as voter registration because his channel isn’t “divisive.” Taylor Cassidy said that she doesn’t want to turn off people by endorsing one candidate because she (sweetly) hopes that people from the opposing side might change their mind. And even at 17, she knows to select brands carefully.
“I only take brand deals that I feel are a good fit for my taste,” she said. “So, for example, I wouldn’t take a deal from a brand that sells handmade soccer balls because my channel has nothing to do with soccer, I don’t play soccer, and I’m not like incredibly athletic.”
Alicia Luncheon, a 30-year-old prosecutor-turned-criminal defense lawyer seems like a better candidate for a Biden ad on paper; her channel, the Luncheon Lawyer, is styled around greenscreen commentary on political news headlines, and her Bigtent video is an argument against voting for Trump.
“I don’t know that I would,” she told Gizmodo. “That’s not really the vibe on my channel.” Even though she self-identifies as “pretty anti-Trump,” she still criticizes Biden and Harris’s records. “I don’t feel like just because you support the Democratic Party that you can’t say anything negative about the Democratic Party,” she said. “We’re not in a cult.”