The Burns Effect: because to talk about politics to young people it is not necessary to be young

The dystopian scenario came true: the politicians are on TikTok!

Montgomery Burns is the famous character of The Simpsons, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and Homer’s despotic boss. In the imagination created by Matt Groening is also the oldest man in town and leader of the local section of the Republican Party.

In an episode of season 6 (“Who Shot Mr. Burns“- Part 1) Mr. Burns introduces himself to Director Skinner dressed as a young man, complete with a hat and a grunge t-shirt. Skinner, who recognizes him immediately, asks him how he believes that a 104-year-old man can really look like his own. elementary school student.

The famous frame of this episode has become, over the years, one of the most popular meme bases.

The Burns Effect and Politicians on TikTok

We will call that part of political communication that is created for a young target and whose result often borders on the cringe “Burns Effect”.

The electoral campaign for the 2022 Italian political elections offers us numerous cases of the Burns Effect, among the most famous: the landing of Silvio Berlusconi on Tik Tok, the message of Carlo Calenda which lists all the clichés of the platform and the inaugural video of Matteo Renzi which looks like a real parody of himself; Much has been said and written about the use that Italian politics is making of social media to speak to the audience of Millennials and the elusive Generation Z.

@Silvio Berlusconi

What must be the tone of voice right? How does it present itself? What do kids really care about?

Often politicians and their staff focus on a communication strategy that tends to place close to young people, using the (stereotyped) linguistic codes of children and “youthful” gestures and themes.

The result is there for all to see: the Burns Effect is guaranteed, with the inevitable trolls of the users.

Between slacktivism and the desire for change

For the avoidance of doubt, and not to defend the Italian politicians on Tik Tokwe can say that talking to certain targets has never been easy: first of all there is the chronic disaffection with politics and a generational resignation that is difficult to scratch with promises and electoral programs.

In the 2022 Italian political elections pollsters estimate a turnout voting between 65 and 70% and those under 35 who will go to the polls will probably be around 50%.
In short, do young people care little about politics because they feel underrepresented?

Or is it because the issues they hold dear are practically absent from the debate?

The reasons for an ancient phenomenon and transversal to Western democracies are many and varied; even social “activism”, which on several occasions over the past 20 years, had taken the place of the good old function of “militancy” seems to have disappeared.

The slacktivism (lazy activism, that of copying and pasting appeals on social networks), increasingly takes the place of old-fashioned militancymade up of political initiatives and battles to the sound of banquets in the center, posters, processions and flyers.

However, do not fall into the mistake of thinking that Generation Z is indifferent to the causes: the young people of today they are more likely to sign petitions, join causes and participate in demonstrations than previous generations.

Also thanks to the spread of social media, messaging apps, websites and dedicated groups, to aggregate around causes, and hot issues on the agenda of public opinion, today is paradoxically simpler and more immediate than in the past.

READ ALSO: Brand activism at the end: in the future more dialogue and less polarization

Dear politicians on TikTok, speaking to young people does not mean speaking like young people

To speak to the younger generation, politicians should stop mimicking young people: the Burns Effect does not help their cause but makes them speckles.

Children are not children: there is no linguistic “code” to get closer to them and make us more sympathetic to their eyes.

The kids rightly want to be treated as adults even in language: it is therefore good to be present in the platforms they use most but without wearing any grunge hat or inventing improbable greetings.

To speak effectively to young people, it could be revealed, for example, transversal interests and hobbies that “rejuvenate” the image, as long as they are authentic.

The examples are many and well-known, among all we mention the former American president Jimmy Carter, who was a great frequenter of music festivals and had a great relationship with some idols of the young people of the time such as Willie Nelson, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan (for fans, there is also a documentary called Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President).

Or Bill Clintonwho gained great popularity playing live sax on the Arsenio Hall talk show in 1992.

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In short, the best strategy to talk to young people is simply to present yourself seriously and in a manner consistent with your public image, avoiding the use of youthful terminology and embarrassing gestures, speaking as you would in any “adult” talk show (obviously with the times suitable for the format of each channel).

The solution could therefore be simpler than what you imagine: do not distort your tone of voice but, if anything, focus on the issues that most interest an under audience.

Be yourself, talk to them as you would talk to a Confindustria audience. Maybe they will not vote for you but you will avoid embarrassments and “cringiate” on the part of everyone (not just young people). In the modest panorama of current Italian political communication it would already be a good result.


Cover artwork by Silvia Camerani, Venice Bay

The Burns Effect: because to talk about politics to young people it is not necessary to be young