Uber and Lyft's $181 million campaign war chest goes heavy on ad blitz

Some of the drivers featured in Proposition 22 ads have received money from the campaign.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
5 min read

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates have poured a total of more than $181 million into the Proposition 22 campaign in California.

Angela Lang/CNET

Jimin Song says working for Instacart saved her life. Two years ago, she was trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship that culminated with her partner pulling a gun on her. She needed to get out quick and make some money while taking care of her two kids. So she signed up to be a shopper for the grocery delivery company and still does the work today.

Song's experience made its way to Instacart's corporate headquarters, and the company asked to feature her in a promotional video on becoming a shopper.

"They liked my story," Song said in a phone interview. "I think that's why they used me as an example, to show that people are in tough situations and they may need this job."

Now, Song has become one of the "paid spokespeople" for the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign funded by Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Instacart and Postmates. In one political ad for the California ballot measure, she sits in the driver's seat of her car with a face mask on. In another, she talks about her hectic schedule being the mom of two kids.

Incorporating workers, like Song, and their stories into ad campaigns is now commonplace in the pitched battle over Proposition 22, which could change the business models of the five gig economy companies in the country's biggest state. At stake is whether gig workers will be reclassified as employees as dictated by California law AB5 or if they'll remain classified as independent contractors. 

AB5 requires companies to provide gig workers benefits such as minimum wage, health care and sick leave by making them employees. That could add tens of millions of dollars in costs each year to the gig economy companies' bottom lines, according to analysts.

Proposition 22 is designed to establish a carve-out for the companies. The proposition suggests creating an alternative to the law that maintains workers as independent contractors but adds benefits such as expense reimbursement and a health care subsidy.

The proposition is jointly sponsored by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates, which have contributed $181 million to the campaign, making it one of the most expensive ballot measure campaigns in US history. The No on Proposition 22 campaign, which is backed by unions and labor groups, has raised $5.6 million.

With the Nov. 3 election less than seven weeks away, both sides are focusing on ads. Facebook, Instagram, Google and local TV channels have been blanketed in messages, including those featuring Song for the Yes campaign.

"Now, politicians are trying to take away our ability to do independent work," Song says in one ad. "It would force me to choose between my job and my children."

The Yes on Proposition 22 campaign paid Song $1,290 for being involved in at least one of these ads, according to public records from the California secretary of state. It also paid at least two other gig workers, Kiesha Broussard and Isaiah Navajo, $590 each for their involvement in advertisements. (CNET couldn't find contact details for either Broussard or Navajo. The Yes campaign didn't respond to a request for contact details for the two workers.) More ads featuring roughly a dozen other drivers have also popped up, but public records for those expenditures haven't yet been posted by the state.

These people are considered "paid spokespeople" because they've received money for being involved in the ads, according to a spokesman for California's Fair Political Practices Commission. However, the campaign isn't required to disclose this in the ads themselves because the payments are less than $5,000.

"Every driver who appears in our ads is a volunteer," a spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign said in an email. "The listed expenditures are reimbursements for travel time, expenses and mileage."

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates (which was acquired by Uber in July) didn't respond to requests for comment. Instacart referred CNET to the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign.

The million-dollar ad machine

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates hired Chris Mottola Consulting to create some of the ads featuring Song and other gig workers, according to public records. The firm was founded in 1985 by Chris Mottola, a former political consultant for the Republican party.

Mottola has created ads for political candidates, including the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former US President George W. Bush and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. On his LinkedIn profile, Mottola says the author and journalist Carl Hiaasen once described him as the Freddy Krueger of politics.

Many of Chris Mottola Consulting's ads appear to be aimed at tugging on the heartstrings of viewers. On its website, the firm says the best commercials "tell the story of victims, villains, heroes and actions in an honest and self-effacing way." The consultancy didn't respond to phone or email requests for comment.

Enlarge Image

Many of the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign ads displayed on Facebook feature gig workers telling their stories.

Screenshot by CNET

As of Thursday, the Yes on Proposition 22 campaign had spent more than $1.7 million to feature ads on Facebook, according to Facebook's ad library. It's spent $980,800 to display 183 of its political ads on Google. According to Google's ad analytics, the campaign's spending had remained relatively steady throughout 2020 until it spiked in mid-August, when it rose from an average daily expenditure of about $10,000 to a peak of $162,800 on Aug. 15. The most recent reported daily expenditure, from Sept. 5, was $84,900.

"You have to imagine these companies are going to plow a lot of money into this thing," said Steven Passwaiter, vice president and general manager of Kantar's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which is the research company's nonpartisan political advertising intelligence division. "One would expect that it's just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger until we get to Nov. 3."

It's unclear how much the Yes campaign has spent on TV ads, and the campaign's spokesman declined to answer questions about TV and radio spending. But Passwaiter, who's analyzed Yes on Proposition 22 ad spending for Kantar, said "compared to what they're spending on TV, [digital ad spending is] a small fraction."

The No on Proposition 22 campaign is also raising its ad profile, but it's spending far less. Google's Transparency Report, which tracks political ad spending on its platform, doesn't show any ads from the No campaign. Starting in June, the campaign began featuring ads on Facebook and has spent about $47,000 on the social media site as of Thursday, according to Facebook's ad library. Very few of the No campaign ads feature produced videos but instead have static interfaces that say that "Prop. 22 hurts app-based drivers" and that Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden agrees. (Biden urged Californians to vote against the proposition in a May tweet.)

"Our campaign will have the resources to communicate with voters," Mike Roth, spokesman for the No on Proposition 22 campaign, said in an email. "Especially because we stand with the tens of thousands of drivers who have been mistreated by these app companies."

Passwaiter said the millions of dollars raised for the Proposition 22 ballot measure campaign is unprecedented, but the fact that much of it is being spent on ads is politics as usual.

"It's like every other form of advertising, it's persuasion," Passwaiter said. "In this case, there's a big one-day sale on Nov. 3."

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