It’s election season, which means Super PACs—political action committees that can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, individuals, unions, and associations to spend on supporting candidates or causes—are in full swing, bombarding every medium possible with ads trumping their candidates and deriding others. Some of the more well-known Super PACs are Republican, but they’re a bipartisan problem for smaller, grassroots campaigns, because they make it more difficult for the upstarts to compete against candidates and issues with deep-pocketed supporters. Social Teeth, a crowdfunding site for political ads, aims to change that by giving anyone the power to have a voice—and distribute their messages through all the same venues as the Super PACs.
Social Teeth founder Elaine Chang took a circuitous path to her current venture: After graduating in 2010 with a degree in material sciences at Stanford, she worked at electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place before realizing that she didn’t want to be an automotive engineer. After a stint working on her art in Wisconsin, she returned to the Bay Area and started working on Social Teeth. "The underlying problem isn’t a structural problem with current campaign finance," she says. "It’s more that there are these really big political problems facing us now. The country has to make hard choices based on consensus rather than partisanship but there isn’t really a way for normal people to easily and concretely inject their voices into this national conversation."
Social Teeth offers that outlet. Much like Kickstarter, the site allows campaigns (the first six—one for a candidate and five advocating for specific policies—were chosen by public votes) to crowdfund their ads. But there’s a twist: Social Teeth has a partnership with Aegis Media, a media and digital communications group, to assist campaigns in getting off the ground. Aegis’s Carat service helps campaigns with media planning and purchasing services that are ordinarily only available to big accounts, while JumpTank (another division of Aegis) pitches in with "innovation services"—i.e. figuring out ways to make the most of a campaign that has raised $50,000.
"Carat has relationships with all of the networks, publishing houses, newspapers—wherever they buy media for their clients," says Chang. "The exciting thing about getting firepower behind this endeavor is realizing that so much of media purchasing happens based on existing relationships. There aren’t super open and transparent platforms for media trading yet."
Each campaign sets a minimum goal and an aspirational goal. If the minimum goal is hit, anything above that can be kept and used for the campaign, with help from Aegis. If the campaign misses the minimum goal, it gets nothing. 90% of all money raised goes directly to the campaign; Social Teeth and Aegis take the other 10%. Some of the videos for campaigns currently trying to raise money—Gary Johnson’s campaign for ending the war on drugs and a campaign in support of gay marriage—can be seen here.
Nearly all of the current campaigns have a decidedly liberal bent. But that wasn’t on purpose. "I was actually really hoping for interesting ads from the conservative point of view. It just so happens that these are the groups that responded to our open call for submission and also were the groups that were able to mobilize their social networks to vote," says Chang.
In the future, any campaign that’s cumulatively able to generate 1,000 tweets, Facebook likes, and Pinterest pins—and has a broadcast-quality 30- to 60-second ad ready to go—can sign up for crowdfunding with Social Teeth. "We’re giving people a compelling, interesting, and substantive way to contribute to the [political] conversation," says Chang.