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Your Shot: Ash Babies


Havas Helsinki & Mikko’s chilling film for Cancer Society of Finland

Your Shot: Ash Babies

Research recently suggested that Finland is one of the world's best countries to be a mother. Despite that, 15 per cent of all expectant mothers in the country smoke cigarettes while pregnant, and a staggering 50 per cent of teenage mothers commit the act. The team behind 2011's chilling 'Monsters' spot for Fragile Childhood, Havas Helsinki and Sauna International director Mikko, were enlisted by The Cancer Society of Finland to pump up some conversation around the topic. The staggering result will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Laura Swinton spoke to Havas Helsinki Creative Director Marko Vuorensola and director Mikko to get their thoughts on revisiting this hard-hitting theme.


LBB> What was the initial brief from The Cancer Society of Finland and what was your reaction when you saw it?

MV> In the briefing session our client revealed some disturbing facts about mothers smoking during pregnancy; it's clearly an issue in Finland. They asked us to come up with a solution to promote the issue and to find ways to encourage people to address the issue; to build awareness and help share knowledge on a larger scale.

You have to understand that in Finland we often think of ourselves as some sort of leading nation around health and education. In many cases that is true, but clearly not in this area. 15 per cent of expectant women are smoking during pregnancy and even worse, about 50 per cent of under 20-year-old mothers smoke.

Actually the reality hit us when we started doing our own research and planning work. By going through large amounts of study material and reading through different discussion forums and media, it became clear to us that the attitudes were much worse than we had initially thought. In a local daily newspaper, a poll gave a result that 32 per cent of people thought it was acceptable to smoke during pregnancy! How can anyone think smoking would be acceptable when pregnant? We had to come up with something strong to get our message through and offer a reality check to the nation.

LBB> And how did you arrive at this idea?

MV> When a mother is pregnant she is suddenly responsible for two lives. There lies an opportunity to change two lives with one strike; by doing good for your unborn child you can also do good for yourself. In the end it's about responsibility.

Our key insight is in the payoff. "A mother can be her baby's worst enemy.” That's a bold statement. But if you think of it, it's absolutely true. Imagine the amount of toxics that transfer into the baby's system when a mother inhales cigarette smoke. You wouldn't offer a cigarette to a 10 year-old kid, so how could you make a foetus smoke? An unborn child doesn't have the power to decide what's good or bad for him or her. It's all in the hands of the mother. So, what could we do to try to influence attitudes and raise the level of knowledge to the general audience? The answer? You need to make them think about it, not by lecturing or by just saying "that's wrong". They need to realise it by themselves, to look in the mirror, to create an emotional effect that leads to a change of attitude. Our task is to make people, media and society in general not accept smoking during pregnancy.

From there we began to find different approaches to our activities, website, social media appearance, co-operation options and the film. Almost everything around anti-smoking has been done over and over again in advertising and communications. It's a challenge to come up with something fresh, relevant and, at the same time, thought provoking.

In our initial script we pretty much focused on the mother and the disturbing image of her placing an ashtray on top of her belly. This was a very emotionally violent image for us, like dropping a stone onto the baby bump… It’s pretty much the ending of our final film.

That was when we contacted Mikko. Working with him on Fragile Childhood's ‘Monsters’, I knew we could make this one good and even more powerful.

We started developing the script together and we didn't let anything be settled before we were all 100 per cent sure we had nailed it. It was a long process that caused more stress, but that's the way it goes when you are passionate about your work and the issue at hand.

The whole creative process was quite cool. We had another director next to Mikko, Nalle Sjöblad, who was also taking part. Alongside them and my team’s talented creatives Marko Vuorinen and Jon Gustavson, was my wife Johanna who's a fantastic planner in our agency. It was a personal and special project for the crew and still is – we’ve only just started.

The final approach came a few minutes after an intense phone call, which ended in the words, "guys…we are banging our heads against the wall, let's sleep on this and come back tomorrow". Then, five minutes after hanging up and visiting the creative magic room (the toilet), I called Mikko back. "Now we’ve got it!”

MIKKO> The original script was actually very different. The agency and I had already shot one multi award-winning piece of work together so there was this nice trust between us. I felt comfortable with challenging it. We tore the idea apart and started from scratch. It was kind of funny. We decided that we should do something within the given budget and schedule, we just didn't know what it was going to be.

We toyed with so many different approaches until Marko came up with this idea. This is actually a spin off from another script. After that it went through countless rewrites and at times heated discussions. It was a great team effort and everyone chipped in. Kojo Abban EP at Sauna and a new father, came up with one scene. Another Sauna director Nalle Sjöblad wrote a couple.

I'm really proud of the process. Things didn't just fall into place like some jobs. We really worked hard to get to this. Everyone wanted to make something great.

LBB> The idea is chilling and effective - but were you at any point concerned about it being too disturbing?

MV> No, I don't think so. Everything in the film underlines that there are no justifications to smoking when pregnant. Who would ever hang a knife over a child's bed and how could one be so cruel as to shave child's precious teddy bear? No one. And no one should smoke either.


We don't want to settle for lame ideas that are softened around the corners. You have to be true to yourself and your audience. People are dealing with some heavy issues in their daily lives, and you have to find angles that punch through the noise.

After getting the attention, our campaign aims to give people tools to encourage mothers to quit. We will be doing a lot of activities on and offline to support this.

MIKKO> Not really. Smoking while pregnant is quite a disturbing sight? So we actually wanted to show it in its full glory and highlight its gory side. It's funny, but after all of those horrible things that she does, the smoking is still the most disturbing. We had some more lighter and comical ideas, but in the end they all felt wrong; you can't make fun of this.

LBB> In many ways this spot is like a partner to last year's Fragile Childhood which you also worked on as it deals with parental irresponsibility. How did it feel to be revisiting this quite upsetting theme?

MV> I love doing things that get under your skin. This theme is reality. We could do so much better, as a society, by thinking about life from other people's perspectives, especially from children's.

I've been working with Fragile Childhood for several years now and also with the Cancer Society on and off since 2006. So, for me, these themes have been on the table for years. Sometimes there are dark moments when you go through hundreds of real-life stories from people who have suffered from parental irresponsibility. You wander through different emotions, but in the end the urge to really do something about it, to give your five cents for a better society comes out. Enabling a better life for even a few children in this world makes up 100 times the effort we put into these cases. And working with Mikko, for me, is always a pleasure.

MIKKO> I like doing stuff that actually means something and can make a difference. The whole process feels very different to a normal commercial production. So I'd say it felt good. Would do it again and again. Anytime. And I like all stuff that’s weird and leftfield.

LBB> The juxtaposition of the dark actions of the mother and the light and airy feel of the set is particularly striking - why did you opt for this visual approach?

MV> Since the first script version we felt that we need to have a strong contrast to maximize the interest and keep viewers guessing. I think Mikko took it to another level. Our DOP David and the whole Arkadena crew did a fantastic job and exceeded what we were after. If you also take a look at the other elements, like the illustrations combined with UGC on the website, you can see that we are seeking to break conventions within anti-smoking communications.

MIKKO> I think the inspiration came from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. I remember when I saw it for the first time. It was ground breaking, and there were some absolutely chilling scenes in broad daylight!

I thought it was genius. Horror in daylight. Break the rules. So when we came to this idea I knew straight away that it needs to look soft, kiddy and nice, not sinister. Only the actions are dark.

LBB> The actress too has a brilliant lightness of touch - what sort of conversations were you having with her to get this performance?

MV> Oh my God. She was very good. Immediately when we saw her in the casting films, we were like ‘ok, bingo’. She had this natural way of expressing the two sides we were after, light and dark. She's a jewel. And as a person she was super nice, down to earth, intelligent, very humane and passionate about health and wellbeing. Quite the opposite of the character she plays in the film.

MIKKO> She's actually not an actress. She's a model - Anja Krvina. I have already told her that she should get into acting as soon as she can. We saw quite a few girls, many talented professional actresses, but no one had the gravity and pull that she does. You just can't take your eyes away from her. She really has this movie star aura. I didn't need to discuss that much with her. She did the same in the casting. So I just gave her some stuff to do and filmed her.

LBB> The music is incredible and just ramps up the atmosphere. What were your influences in terms of the kinds of music and sound design used and whom did you work with?

MV> We knew from the beginning that the music is crucial in this story. We had tonnes of different directions we tested and went through, from DJ Shadow to SIA, but in the end we felt that we needed the music to be composed to the visual narrative. We were very lucky that Mikko was able to arrange Timo Kaukolampi to compose a piece for us. The outcome is perfect for the film. Goose bumps big time.

MIKKO> I was very inspired by the work of Cliff Martinez in Drive and Only God Forgives. Like Lynch, he stepped out of the box and came up with something new. I was working with composers Timo Kaukolampi and Tuomo Puranen from K-X-P band on another project and asked whether they'd like to do the music for this as well. We couldn't pay them properly, but they loved the cut and the Martinez references and, as such, jumped in and did an amazing job.

LBB> What were the biggest challenges you faced during this project?

MV> Well, when working with non-profit organizations it's always about how to get things done with a very limited budget. Studio Arkadena invested a lot of time and commitment into realizing our idea. I think everyone involved, Mikko, us at Havas Helsinki, Arkadena, everyone was in it for the right reasons placing down much more time and commitment than it says in the excel sheet.

MIKKO> Money. Hah, there wasn't a lot of it... So we had to navigate quite differently than on a normal job.

Big thanks to Studio Arkadena, who invested their time on this and even built a set for us.


Cancer Society of Finland – Ash Babies campaign
Film “Baby Love”

Client: Cancer Society of Finland 
Client responsible: Virve Laivisto, Development Manager

Advertising Agency: Havas Worldwide Helsinki 
Creative director: Marko Vuorensola
Planner: Johanna Vuorensola
Art director: Jon Gustavson
Copywriter: Marko Vuorinen
Account director: Nina Myllyharju
Project planner: Muusa Salminen
Communications consultant: Laura Lyyvuo
Web developer: Mika Niemi
Also influencing: Paul Earl

Production Company: Studio Arkadena, Ljubljana
Executive producer: Hana Kovic

Director: Mikko @ Sauna International
Director's Producer: Kojo Abban
DoP: David Grehn
Editor: Miika Vaso
Associate creative/director: Nalle Sjöblad

Line producer: Urska Vardijan
Production manager: Tina Pungartnik
Set designer / Art director: Spela Kropusek
Sylist: Katja Hrobat
Postproduction: Matjaz Kocjan / Studio Arkadena
Composer: Timo Kaukolampi
Sound design: Matjaz Moraus Zdesar

Digital production: Havas Worldwide Helsinki

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