On October 5, Yahoo News published a headline that, like many this year, makes it feel like we are just barely skimming the surface of reality: How Tana Mongeau's offer to send nude pics to Biden voters violates election law, it reads. The article that follows is a 350-word explainer on Mongeau, an influencer, who upon laying her body at the altar of American democracy, was reprimanded for daring to suggest an illegal exchange of commodities for votes.
Upon further investigation, it turned out Mongeau was only joking—access to her nude photos still required payment, for Biden and Trump voters alike. "Obviously no one needs an explicit photo of me to go vote and make a change in our country," she said.
Mongeau’s offer, if a little too direct, was just another in a long line of naked celebrities, raunchy hashtags, and many, many Instagram posts that have formed the rise of the sexy voter campaign. This new method of political marketing, uncannily close to regular corporate advertising, is meant to inspire people to civic participation through the allure of sexual imagery.
Brands, people-brands, and regular people have all seized upon the trend—the online dating site OkCupid launched a new ad with the term VILF (a play on MILF); Hollywood stars made a nude video montage to explain voting; Broad City actress Ilana Glazer posted a series of provocative Instagram photos of strangers with the hashtag #horny4thapolls; lingerie site Yandy.com debuted a sexy mail-in ballot costume and a set of “VOTE” pasties.
The lines between labor and leisure are already blurred on the internet, where both our gaze and the images we produce to attract the eyes of others are highly prized commodities. Sexy voting content takes advantage of this ambiguity, and continues to dissolve the barrier. Democratic participation, exhibition, and commoditized performance become one—all in a deliciously dystopian whirl of arousal and obligation, pleasure and purchase, civic duty and sex.
Instagram has ensured this process is seamless. Each time you open the app, it now reminds you to vote, and its algorithm provides a handy filter that distinguishes voting-related sexy posts from regular sexy posts with a special label. Nevermind that Facebook, its parent company, works tirelessly to destroy political representation for non-corporations and install an oligarchy—what’s important here is that the user can generate content that reflects their freedom of choice.
The sexier the content, the better. Influencers, the majority of whom are women, create millions of dollars of revenue for the app, and the sexualization of their images is key to their profitability. In an era concerned with dismantling glass ceilings and condemning sexist representations of women in culture, self-commodification on social media platforms has emerged as a sort of third path, one that allows profiting from your image while remaining empowered by it. And so, sex as a tool of commercial exchange remains firmly fixed.
The principle behind risqué voting ads is the same as the one behind any such ad: sex sells. And in an election as urgent as this one, any way of attracting attention is on the table. Whether political power is something that should be sold, and whether bodies should be the currency—these feel like pressing questions. But it seems they have already been answered.
Voting has been commoditized without sex too, of course. More than in any previous election, corporations have infused election talk into their strategies of selling us shoes or decorative pillows or salads. Voter messaging helps “raise brand awareness, strengthen relationships between employees and shareholders, and even open dialogue with elected officials,” writes the Harvard Business Review.
There is something about the trifecta of voting, sex, and advertising, though, that really captures the zeitgeist. It makes sense that in a culture where we increasingly see sexual bonds as expressions of our personal autonomy rather than acts of synthesis and commitment, the sexualized body can easily be justified as a tool of transaction. It makes sense that in a political and economic system that demands we understand freedom on an individual scale, we are content to conceive of empowerment and liberation as simply the existence of choice—the choice to exploit one’s own body, the choice between two candidates, one evil and the other utterly commitmentless, the choice to buy this “VOTE!” merch item or that one.
All the while, our choices, political ones more than any, are fragile and constricted. As the plentiful, very legal assaults on voting rights (through gerrymandering, voter I.D. laws, felon disenfranchisement, and legislative lobbying) show, “the law”— that mighty edifice standing between Tana Mongeau and her eager Biden-voting customers—is pretty flimsy when it comes to protecting the integrity of our elections. A few thousand hypothetical votes purchased by Mongeau’s boobs are pitiful compared to the number of mail-in ballots that simply won’t be counted in Wisconsin because of a recent Supreme Court decision, or the number of Americans who won’t ever reach the polls because their centers are underfunded and understaffed, or the number of votes in contested districts that won’t have any power because the district itself has been redrawn to strip them of it.
Where the law and the institutions it upholds are shoddy, capital is omnipotent. Social capital, cultural capital, sexual capital, capital capital. Bodies, desires, politics—it’s all up for grabs, and we’re all cashing in.
Every few hours, an amorphous, unaffiliated political operation that has mistaken me for my mother shoots me a text. HELLO ROXANNE, one reads, WE CANNOT BE COMPLACENT. Instead, they urge, I should donate to their campaign, which will allow them to “reach” even more voters—to ask for more donations, presumably. This, you see, is how Joe Biden will win.
The campaign industry is booming, at the moment; its phone bankers and texting robots will be siphoning off money from fearful voters until November 3 dawns. It’s a bizarre ecosystem, where strategy consultants, psychic mediums, and shady security firms all line up to profit, where circular little business ventures fundraise so that they can fundraise even more.
Central to the ethos of modern-day canvassing is the idea of the “smart” campaign. Advertisements, now, are “micro-targeted” so as to better sway voters; texts blast out at times promised to optimize engagement; emails are A/B tested by the word. This is the political campaign reinvented, modernized: We are no longer in the stone age of door-to-door outreach, but in an era where we can measure voters’ hopes and dreams, while Nate Silver calmly maps out our future.
So goes the history of political campaigning, as commonly told: With the rise of technology, campaigns chose data analytics over boots on the ground. The apparent resurgence of on-the-ground, grassroots campaigning on the left in recent years is often positioned in opposition to the high-tech campaigns of the establishment; when AOC went door-to-door as she fought for her now-historic upset against Joe Crowley, it was called “old-school.”
Yet this all overlooks the history of the smart campaign. Long before targeted advertising, data and information was being organized for political use. The real distinction being drawn, here, is whose hands it falls in.
Data collection was central to New Left organizing back in the 1960s, for instance—as a political tool, not a product to be sold. In a study of the grassroots Economic Research and Action Project, historian Jennifer Frost notes that organizers with ERAP, from Chicago to Newark, used sophisticated databases to map out the needs and views of constituents. As they canvassed homes for political campaigns and for recruitment, organizers conducted formal surveys on social services, employment, and housing across communities; in many cases, the collected data was used to prove housing violations or other wrongdoing, as well as informing campaign strategy.
The New Left’s smart campaign, then, was not a rudimentary style of politics. It was one that represented community, rather than corporate, control of information. Such projects treated data as public resource, one to serve and inform those that it represented, beyond the interests of any particular candidate.
Now, every so often, a study appears to remind us that hyper-targeted political messaging and big-data voter persuasion are basically ineffectual. What is glazed over, though, is the deeper issue here: political messaging is being served up by private vendors, based increasingly on their analysis of consumer data sold to them by data brokers. Whether or not it wins the election is hardly relevant.
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