This article was taken from the October 2012 issue of Wired magazine. Be the first to read Wired’s articles in print before they’re posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.
As I sit on a 300kph train whizzing through the French countryside, a dream returns of my home country in peace. In Colombia we have been fighting ourselves for 60 years. Lately we have come a long way towards ending the conflict, and we feel safer and more optimistic; yet a strong guerrilla force retains the power to seriously disrupt our lives — FARC guerrillas who lack popular backing, and are weakened by their military defeats and the loss of many combatants who have abandoned their ranks.
I run an advertising agency, Lowe-SSP3, in Colombia with my longtime friend and collaborator Francisco Samper. Our agency typically creates campaigns to help our clients sell more cars, detergent or financial services. But we wondered: why can’t the power of advertising ideas also be used to make cutting-edge work for clients who dedicate their lives to good? So we have been working for more than five years with the Colombian ministry of defence to demobilise the guerrillas. We have been using all of our advertising skills to bring them out of the jungle, out of combat, and to get them to be constructive members of our society — executing ideas that seemed impossible.
Our strategy has been simple: listen, learn and act accordingly. A few years ago, we were approached by the government through the vice-minister of defence. After being given unprecedented access to demobbed guerrillas, and spending countless hours in conversations with them, understanding their lives, their fears and their motivations, we reached a conclusion that has been at the core of our work: the guerrilla is as much a prisoner of his organisation as are his hostages. We needed this powerful insight to become a truth for those who wanted to leave the guerrillas’ ranks. Freedom is a beautiful promise, and we needed to make sure the message did not imply their giving up their ideals, just changing their means.
We also learned about the power of football. They followed games passionately on TV or radio. So we had a media strategy where football was central. We began by letting the demobbed guerrillas tell their story. We aired testimonial radio spots, and a few TV executions (no pun intended) that told real and sadly quite common stories of life among the guerrillas. These were stories of foot soldiers, but the goal was to get a lot more higher-ranking officials out, too.
No success happens without a bit of luck, and we had our share with the timely demob of a few high-profile commanders. They provided powerful messages of disenchantment with the cause and the methods.
But this soon became old news. In our quest to find new things to say, we became overwhelmed by the personal stories we heard. One deeply-in-love couple was separated by their commanders, because falling in love is forbidden in the lower ranks; the woman’s testimony, recorded for radio, was heard by her boyfriend, who immediately left his group to find her. There was a mother who had been made to abort repeatedly but wanted to have a family; a son who missed Christmas so much he had decided to risk his life to return.
We realised the human side would never wear out. So we installed Christmas trees near where guerrillas moved soldiers and supplies. At night these nine gigantic trees covered in lights delivered our message: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise. At Christmas, everything is possible.” There was a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in demobs.
We went to the towns where most of the guerrillas had been born and asked locals to send small messages or gifts to the guerrillas a few kilometres away. We then set out to deliver thousands of heartfelt messages with small gifts such as toy cars and a few pieces of religious jewellery. Each note or gift was put in a separate floating illuminated ball that travelled down-river into the guerrillas’ hands (the army later picked up the uncollected balls). Again, the power of human emotions proved invaluable.
We’ll need to stay creative against terrorism as conditions continue to change. But as advertisers, that’s what we already do all the time. Unlike the advertising we do to sell products, the advertising we do to bring positive change generates profits for all of us.
Jose Miguel Sokoloff is president and CCO of Lowe-SSP3. His agency’s work has won many creative grands prix including a Titanium Lion award at Cannes Lions 2012