Playboy Manbaby teaches us about politics TikTok
Local musician Robbie Pfeffer amassed a TikTok following by bringing information about local politics to a generation of people who have never read a physical newspaper.
We’re doing a Twitter Spaces this afternoon instead of our typical Friday mini-podcast. We’ve never tried one before, but we want it to be like a little office hours gathering. Stop by and talk with us via audio — tell us how we’re doing, pitch us some stories or just shoot the shit. We’ll launch from Rachel’s Twitter account at 2 p.m. Friday.
If you hang out on TikTok or Instagram, you might have run across Robbie Pfeffer in front of a green screen, talking about Arizona politics.
The frontman of longtime Valley band Playboy Manbaby, Pfeffer’s videos took off during the pandemic, when he shifted his band’s platforms to his now-signature format of him, standing in front of some imagery, giving a lesson on issues like Gov. Doug Ducey’s handling of COVID-19, the U.S. labor movement or the filibuster.
And there are videos with songs and funny stuff, too, but for our purposes today, we’re going to talk about the politics videos. He amassed a following of more than 200,000 on TikTok and more than 57,000 on Instagram.
“Every day I wake up amazed that I can do this for a living,” Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer, 31, works from an art studio in downtown Phoenix, where he shoots and edits videos with some help from a friend and partner.
Art influences politics, and politics influence art. And as different platforms take off, social media influences everything. Political parties and campaigns increasingly use social media to find supporters. Pfeffer, for instance, is now making TikToks for the Maricopa County Democratic Party to help spread information about state and local politics to new people.
We wanted to hear from someone who regularly reaches new and younger audiences to inform them about local and national politics about why he does what he does and what he thinks political operatives who try to reach “young people” could do better.
He answered our questions via email while on tour with the band, riding in a van from Dallas to San Antonio. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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When and how did you start doing videos about state politics?
It was right before the 2020 election, and I realized from conversations that I had with friends that a lot of people were not invested in local elections mainly because they just didn’t really understand the implications of the races and titles. So I wanted to try and give that information in a way that was accessible and ideally entertaining. Also, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t overly academic. So I just tried to explain what was on the ballot (like) “what’s a County Attorney?” and “what is Prop 208?”.
You’re now making videos for the Maricopa County Democratic Party. How did that come about? Are they paying you well? Why’d you decide to partner with them?
When the band account blew up our audience changed from 75% based in AZ to 4% based in AZ. So making hyper-specific videos about local politics was no longer a good idea. But I really do think the information is important, so I reached out to MCDP via my LD24 (my LD at the time) chair Deborah Nardozzi, who was incredibly helpful.
I pitched the idea that MCDP should let me make a TikTok for them and Edder (Díaz Martínez), who runs their marketing, was super into the idea and has been incredible to work with. Also we like a lot of the same music which is really fun. My biggest fear was that they would try and dictate what I said, and that has so far never happened. I get full autonomy in messaging and am fairly compensated for my time, but I'd do this for free because I think it's important.
I decided to partner with MCDP despite my issues with partisan politics mainly because I really am inspired by the people in the party. Not just the elected officials but the lower-level PCs and behind-the-scenes people. The people doing the hard work to help make Arizona more equitable and inclusive. They give me hope for the place I love to call home.
Political parties and consultants always want to reach younger audiences and get them to vote. Do you think your work has helped younger people get involved in politics at all? The audiences on TikTok and Instagram tend to be younger than the average voter.
I have definitely had people tell me that my videos helped them learn about local issues when they never before cared about local issues, and that’s an incredible privilege to me. Fellow subscribers to Arizona Capitol Times already know what’s happening, but I’m making videos for people who have never read a physical newspaper. If you want people to have the information, you have to go where they are, and they’re on Instagram and TikTok. We need young people to vote and understand their role and agency in society, and young people can smell “marketing” from a million miles away.
What’s the response been like to your politics videos? Has it helped grow your platforms? Do you get trolls at all?
The videos were intended to reach basically my small group of friends, and pretty much immediately the videos started blowing up and reaching a much wider audience. It was truly confusing. But pretty exciting considering everything in my life was pretty bleak thanks to the pandemic. If you put stuff on the internet and lots of people see it, you’re gonna get trolls, but the massive majority of people are incredibly kind and supportive. I really do my best to make sure the information I’m sharing is accurate, and on the couple occasions I’ve said something that I misread or misinterpreted, I’m glad to have the accountability.
Usually the very small minority of people who are angry just didn’t understand what I was trying to say or have deeply held views based on easily disprovable pseudoscience. Even if what I’m saying makes them angry, I’m glad they took the time to listen to what I was saying. I want a better Arizona for everyone, not just people who agree with me.
Do the videos about politics relate to your band at all? Like are you noticing new fans at your shows because of them? Has it affected the kinds of songs you write?
We’ve always been a deeply political band because I write songs about my life and experience and perspective and I see no separation between that and “politics.” I don’t write love songs. I write about social norms and wealth inequality and the effects of media and the importance of empathy and compassion. So anyone who has heard a few of our songs will not be surprised by the content of our videos. We’ve always said whatever we wanted to say however we wanted to say it, and that will always continue. We did it when zero people liked the project and now that thousands of people like the project. I’m far more interested in honesty than I am in marketability. But the videos have dramatically expanded our audience, which has had incredible benefits, but if everyone decides tomorrow they’re no longer interested in what we have to say, we'll still keep it going, because it's incredibly fun.
Some of your videos are well-researched and almost like a mini history lesson. Where do you learn about these topics? How do you decide what to do videos about?
I truly love history. I read constantly and every time I learn something it just makes me want to learn even more. History is infinitely entertaining once you realize it’s all human stories. So I want an excuse to be able to read more about history and, in a perfect world, I want to help people discover their own love of history. I know so many people who hated history in high school and just assume they hate history. But that’s like hearing one bad band and assuming you hate music. My series on U.S. labor felt like a logical place to start because I feel like that was something that I really heard basically nothing about in high school, and this series is hopefully meant to teach people that there’s more to U.S. history than George Washington and WW2.
Why do you think your videos have gotten so much traction?
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I think most of it was just being in the right place at the right time. Anyone who has experienced any sort of success artistically should always concede that fact. There are smarter and more talented people than me, I just got lucky. But I also feel like 90% of my success is that I do what I think is interesting, I stay true to myself, I don’t get overly attached to making anything “perfect” and I just keep putting stuff out there. Some of it blows up, some of it fizzles out, that’s not how I judge success. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to make art and read for a job. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
A good chunk of our readers are members of the political class (lobbyists, consultants, politicians, etc.). What do you think they get wrong about reaching voters? Are there any lessons you’ve learned about talking politics on social media that you could impart to them?
As a member of the arts community, I can really easily understand how things that are assumed inside the confines of a bubble are actually not the “universally understood common knowledge” that we often assume it is. If you want to reach voters outside your bubble, leave your bubble. Don’t make content and only get the input of other insiders. Don’t assume everyone knows what you know. Create a relationship and establish real credibility. If the only time anyone hears from you is when you want to fundraise or get them to vote for you, don’t be surprised if only a few people listen. Also if you want help with TikTok or just navigating the new age of social media, hit me up. Unless you work on behalf of anyone trying to get tax breaks for the wealthy, then please quit your job.
You made a billboard that said you were not a lawyer, which is rare among Phoenix billboards — there are so many lawyer ones. If you HAD to call a lawyer from a Valley billboard, which one would you call?
Haha, Rafi. He has a sense of humor and agreed to make a video for us when we did our last headlining show at The Van Buren. Truly nice people, I just really hope I don’t need a lawyer anytime soon honestly.