Last week, I missed writing a newsletter. There were too many deadlines, including some things I had to catch up on after a week of dealing with Covid, and I needed to give myself a little room to just breathe.
As I dug out, I wound drafts of writing four different columns, three of which seem irrelevant on a week like this, so I’ll find a way to revisit them later.
There’s one that is more fitting though.
It’s about a film I streamed last weekend for the first time, even though it came out 10 years ago.
It’s about an ad campaign that helped a country move on from years of horrific, senseless violence.
Even if the film may exaggerate the importance of the campaign, it’s exactly the kind of art that can restore hope when all seems lost, and it should be required viewing on any syllabus about the ad industry.
It should be required viewing for all of us. If only to give us a little hope.
It’s the Chilean film No starring Gael García Bernal as the creative lead behind the TV ad campaign that helped unseat Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet after a brutal 15-year reign.
Pedro Peirano adapted the screenplay from an unpublished play by Antonio Skármeta, best known for his work that later become the wonderful picture Il Postino. I own a couple of Pablo Neruda’s anthologies and toured one of Neruda’s homes all thanks to Skármeta.
The film No, available to rent or buy on several streaming platforms, is a testament to the power of advertising, and a look behind the scenes of two rival ad campaigns. For 27 days, each side – “Yes” to keep Pinochet in power, “No” to kick him out – had 15 minutes of national TV airtime to make their case as a way to give international legitimacy to what many expected to be a sham election.
While the film stirred controversy in Chile for giving too much credit to the campaign as opposed to grassroots organizing, nearly a third of the film incorporated documentary footage, and the film’s events did generally take place. Granted, Bernal’s character is fictional, and he called the film a “fable.” Sometimes a fable is what people need, and what people remember.
Having visited Santiago, Chile about a decade ago – one of the more joyful cities I’ve visited — the city shares its scars from the Pinochet regime. In a time when civil rights (voting rights, LGBTQ protections, access to healthcare) are under threat in our own country, this was a welcome reminder of how advertising can be a force for good, and how much courage it can take to speak truth to power.
For those who feel hopeless about the grip the NRA has on our government, look at what happened to Pinochet.
The gun-control movement does have Everytown for Gun Safety, which includes Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Mayors against Illegal Guns. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and grassroots organizer Shannon Watts are among the those calling out the danger and hypocrisy of the gun lobby. There’s more organizing. And there are people like Beto O’Rourke literally standing up to shout down the voices funded by the NRA. But clearly, we need so much more.
One thing that stands out with No is that sometimes, you need to get weird. You need to have fun. Yes, remind people what the stakes are, but make people want to vote for something, not against something.
It kept hitting me that this was the hardest task of the ad execs working on the “No” campaign, and it’s what Pinochet’s team was trying to exploit.
The “No” camp was going to come off as negative. Pinochet framed the “No” side as saying no to peace, prosperity, and progress. The “Yes” side made it sound like a “No” vote was a vote against Chile. Are you with Chile or against it? Only a traitor could vote ‘No.’
Again, there are parallels. Those in favor of gun control are framed as if they’re voting against safety and security, voting against the Constitution, and voting against liberty. Gun control advocates, in this framing, are coming for your guns – and they’re coming for you. And your liberty.
But those in favor of gun control are pushing back. They say the only way to ensure we get to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is by having the freedom to shop in grocery stores, study in schools, dance at concerts and clubs, and pray at houses of worship without fear of getting killed.
A flashback (and a true story)… when I attended Binghamton University, the University Law Enforcement Department was going to be upgraded to the University Police Department, and with that came upgrades with their weaponry. There was some fraught recent history of clashes between students and the campus police, so the move was widely derided and feared.
Some friends of mine and I staged a lengthy satirical event in the University Union called University Law Aid – ULAID – as a fake telethon to support purchases of increasingly heavy artillery for the UPD.
It was bonkers. It wasn’t that well attended. We couldn’t have had much of an idea of what we were talking about. I have no clue how much of it was any good.
But it was fun. It got some attention. And maybe it got some folks to raise their voices who wouldn’t have otherwise.
It feels like more of that can only help.
Yes to life. Yes to liberty. Yes to art and ads that change the world.
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