All is Fair in Advertising & War

This semester I am in a course called Exploring the Visual World. Almost every week we have a guest lecturer that shares about their journey working in visual media. A couple of weeks ago, Chad Stevens, a UNC-Chapel Hill adjunct professor spoke to our class. He asked us two questions:

What breaks your heart?

What makes you come alive?

As I sat in class my mind was running in a thousand different directions. The list was nearly endless for both topics.

As his lecture progressed, he discussed how the magic happens when your work intercedes with these two questions. He shared about his passion for the environment and how that led him to work on a documentary for 10 years in West Virginia, covering the mountaintop removal mining process. His work was fascinating and powerful – I was moved by his dedication to spend 10 years of his life in a community in hopes of providing them a voice.

Then another question popped in my  mind – how could I use my skill set and tailor my job to make such a powerful impact? Do I even have a shot to change the world by sitting at my desk, sending hundreds of emails and sitting in strategy meetings every week? Odds are I’m not going to radically transform the community I live in through my day to day work. I certainly can contribute in great ways through volunteer work, supporting community groups, etc.

However, not all hope is lost! The power of communicating a message combined with brilliant advertising can be leveraged to create change far beyond increasing brand perception and sales.

My dad recently shared a 60 Minutes segment with me that blew me away. It presented a problem that seemed impossible to solve through advertising: convincing guerrillas in Columbia to stop fighting.

In my limited campaign experience through classes and internships, I’ve found the challenge of marketing product and services difficult enough. To communicate with people who had been fighting in the heart of the Columbian jungle for decades seemed like an absolutely ludicrous idea.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff was the man for the job. A recognized advertising executive and native to Colombia, his first approach to convincing the the soldiers to lay down their arms failed. After learning about the plight of these men, Sokoloff’s mission grew to also humanize these fighters to Columbians.

His solution to reach these people was simple, yet incredibly moving: he reminded them of their families and that they were wanted at home.

To actually execute this, campaigns focused on soccer, Christmas and family were run – designed to reach both the guerrillas and the people of Colombia. They used physical items, dropping lights from helicopters and glow stickers in the woods, to show soldiers the path home. They recorded voices from ex-commanders and other demobilized guerrillas to share the message of freedom.


These are some of the lights that were floated down the river to guide soldiers home.

In my opinion, the most powerful campaign was called ‘Mother’s Voice.’ They interviewed hundreds of mothers who hadn’t seen their sons in years due to the fighting. They asked them to write messages and to share photos of their children. These messages and pictures were hung around areas of the jungle where the guerrillas were fighting – resulting in 218 mothers welcoming their sons home.


Some of the childhood pictures mothers provided, urging their children to come home.

The reason these advertisements of sorts were so successful was because of the humanity they provided, breaking the facade of war. Men who had been fighting for decades were reminded of the world that still remained beyond the battle field – they just needed someone to tell them.

These are the campaigns that inspire and excite me. While this was on a massive scale and literally helped end a 60 year conflict, I think there is incredible potential to transform communities through these tactics.

Jose said it better than I can, so I’ll just leave this here.

“You have to find a truth in what you’re saying,” Sokoloff says. “And when you get there, when you find something, that’s something that you can actually hold onto and you can actually communicate, that’s the salvation.” 

Original 60 Minutes pieces here

TED talk on some of the campaigns here


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