How Do You Mobilize Latino Voters in Swing States? Try Irony

PHOTO: Cuéntame Founder and Director, Axel Caballero (third from right), meets with his team. From left to right: Daniel Dronsfield, Luis Moreno, Raul Preciado, Axel, Carolos Miranda, and Patricia De Borba.Joshua Busch/Brave New Foundation
Cuéntame Founder and Director, Axel Caballero (third from right), meets with his team. From left to right: Daniel Dronsfield, Luis Moreno, Raul Preciado, Axel, Carlos Miranda, and Patricia De Borba.

In Spanish, the name of the Culver City, California-based organization Cuéntame can be used to say "tell me a story" as well as "count me" or "count on me."

The main goal of the group is to foster community online around Latino issues and encourage readers to join in the conversation. And in keeping with its name, Cuéntame has also been focused on voter registration and turnout for the election that will culminate tomorrow.

The organization "is helping to lay the groundwork for a powerful progressive Latino coalition" says Josh Busch, a spokesperson for Brave New Foundation, the group that seeded Cuéntame.

Cuéntame boasts about 500,000 supporters and 100,000 social media followers across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr, according to Busch. On Facebook alone, the group reaches 1 million users weekly.

Cuéntame's "get out the vote" campaigns have caused a stir. For the election in 2010, the group made headlines with the tagline "Don't Be a Cabrón: Vote!" In other words: Don't Be a Jackass: Vote!

Cuéntame's current campaign, "Latinos Don't Vote" was launched to counter the dominant narrative that the Latino community is not enthusiastic about voting.

According to Cuéntame's founder and director Axel Caballero, the counter-intuitive messaging aims to both combat negative stereotypes about Latinos and prove that the community will go out and vote. Videos for the campaign use irony to ridicule anti-Latino labels.

"A lot of the organization are like, 'Here's all the stuff, just register to vote,'" said Caballero. "There's no next step to that. There's no reason; there's no story."

He says that rather than doing full-fledged voter turnout campaigns online -- like the organization had done in the past with weak results -- today Cuéntame is working together with other pro-Latino groups to create specialized media.

For one voter registration campaign this year, Cuéntame partnered with organizations in the swing states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada to register 50,000 Latinos to vote, as well as combat voter suppression in those states. The group created 25 videos to be used by a dozen coalitions (representing 400 organizations) to amplify the electoral work of the organizations on the ground.

At its inception, Cuéntame was created "to mimic what the Sunday table was for Latinos. "Where you go with your family, friends and cousins to talk about politics, art, music and social things," said Axel Caballero, the organization's founding director. "Really it's a way to organize in the same manner and to really relate to the community and build that community around particular topics."

The nonprofit grew out of Brave New Foundation, maker of leftist, independent and quasi-sensational documentaries such as Outfoxed, Iraq For Sale, Walmart: The High Price of Low Cost and Koch Brothers Exposed.

Cuéntame may have inherited Brave New Foundation's for-the-people, working-class viewpoint, but the organization has its own distinct brand.

Days after Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070 was signed into law in 2010, Cuéntame's popularity surged with the launch of its "Do I Look Illegal?" campaign. Within a month, it sold 15,000 T-shirts bearing the words, with celebrities joining in, too.

"It was the right message, for the right audience, at the right time," said Caballero.

It is important to note that even though social media is finally being integrated into wider marketing and messaging campaigns, Cuéntame – conceived and created for social media – was a pioneer of engagement and storytelling through digital platforms.

The social media landscape has also evolved. Voters can no longer understand an election simply as a "YouTube election," says Caballero, where YouTube is the default and performance is measured in views. Platforms represent "wildly different" audiences.

"It's about the audience and where they are at," said Caballero.

He measures effectiveness not by how many views or hits pieces of content get, but rather by how content is used. For example, take a video that explains how to use a voter guide: "We don't expect that video to suddenly do millions of views. But for that particular particular person who grabbed the voter guide and saw the video, it mattered."

Similarly, in swing states, Cuéntame has focused its energy to create relevant media that mobilizes Latino voters specific to where they are and what matters locally.

It's about "telling the story and getting that particular person counted," he said.

Through high-production video and visually focused digital media, Cuéntame is an increasingly strong voice on Latino issues.

"As long as you have the right message at the right time to right audience, people will engage," said Caballero.