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Your Shot: Mother’s Voice


Jose Miguel Sokoloff on this year’s Christmas project for the Colombian Ministry of Defence

Your Shot: Mother’s Voice

For the past seven years, Lowe SSP3 has been doing its bit to help the Colombian Ministry of Defence demobilise the guerrillas fighting in a civil war that has been tearing the country apart since 1964. When the agency discovered a yearly spike in demobilisations around Christmas time, they decided to launch a December push to reunite families throughout the festive period. Projects like Operation Christmas, Operation Bethlehem and Rivers of Light have made waves in Colombia and beyond. For the advertising industry, the campaigns radically changed perceptions of what could be achieved through creativity and communication. In 2012, Rivers of Light took the coveted Titanium Lion at Cannes, reflecting the groundbreaking nature of the project.

On December 15th, Lowe SSP3 launched their 2013 Christmas campaign, ‘Mother’s Voice’, coinciding with a 30-day ceasefire declared by the FARC guerrillas. For the project, mothers who have lost their children to the war share family photos and messages. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Lowe SSP3’s CCO Jose Miguel Sokoloff during a flying visit to London to find out more about this year’s project.  



LBB> The launch of this year’s campaign was last week – what was the timing behind that?

JMS> We are in the middle of peace talks in Colombia and there is a Christmas truce with the FARC guerrillas, which started on December 15th. They decided they would have a unilateral ceasefire for 30 days. We launched the campaign on Friday. There was a big launch in San Vicente del Caguan, which was one of FARC’s most important strongholds back in 1998. There is still a very active guerrilla presence around there.

LBB> What was the insight that led to this year’s project?

JMS> In the research we did, we found an interesting insight which was that not only are the guerrillas wary and think that society and the towns they belong to will not accept them, they also have they a fear that their families will not accept them. If peace gets signed or they leave the FARC, maybe their families will not take them back. That’s why we went with mothers this time – the only person who will take you exactly as you are is your mother.

LBB> This year’s campaign is taking the intimacy and the humanity to a more intense level.

JMS> I think that’s what it is. We managed to get around 30 mothers to actually give us pictures of their children who they feel they have lost to this war. I was not actually involved in the recruitment or filming process, one of my teams was and they were deeply, deeply touched by these women. I think for them it was a life changing experience.

LBB> More generally – do you think the humanizing elements of your approach have changed perceptions of the guerrilla within the military?

JMS> I think it has. I think the fact that the military sees and sometimes participates very actively in the campaigns has made a difference, whether it’s putting up the Christmas tree or sending floating balls of light down a river. They help us put these posters up. Their active participation makes them understand that there are different ways of ending this war. I feel it has changed something. I feel it has but I don’t have any proof.

LBB> With this particular project, Mother’s Voice, were there any specific challenges?

JMS> I think the biggest challenge of all was finding the mothers. Finding the real mothers who would be willing to give us their pictures and appear on the TV spot. That was a production challenge of enormous complication. But we eventually found around 30 mothers. Some agreed to show their faces – which can be a risky thing – but we were not ready to jeopardise them. If they felt that they would be insecure by showing their faces then we didn’t. But some said, “I don’t care, I just want my son back.” That was very beautiful. 

LBB> This is the fourth year that you’ve worked with the Colombian Ministry of Defence on a Christmas project…

JMS> The Christmas activity has been happening for four years but we’ve been running the campaign for seven years. This is really a campaign that happens in ‘real-time’ because there’s always something happening and always something that needs communicating. The Christmas campaigns started four years ago when we started looking at the statistics and we realised that there was a greater number of demobilisations around Christmas than at any other time of the year, regardless of what you did. So we decided to exploit that.

LBB> And over the course of the seven years that you’ve been involved, have you felt that the campaign work has changed the nature of the dialogue between the Ministry of Defence and FARC, or perceptions within society?

JMS> I think since we started the Christmas thing, since we started talking to the guerrillas like emotional human beings and not as “the enemy”, and since we started talking to them in terms of things that are relevant to all Colombians such as Christmas and family and home, I think it has slightly changed the perception that the general public has of the guerrillas. I hope. I’m not sure it has changed the rest of the dynamics of the war – the war is still going on.

Part of what we had to address at the very beginning was to make sure that the soldiers would treat demobilised guerrillas fairly and well. They feared that the guy who was shooting at them just 20 minutes ago might not be kind to them. I think that’s been done.

LBB> Your work on this has attracted a lot of international attention over the past few years, both within the advertising industry and beyond it. Have you or Lowe been approached by other governments or NGOs for advice with conflicts in other parts of the world?

JMS> We have, quite informally. Our clients at the Ministry of Defence have travelled around the world to different militaries with the campaign. Our account director was recently approached by the Invisible Children organisation, so we have been approached by NGOs like that who want to understand what we’re doing. We, of course, try to share our ideas as much as we can.

LBB> It’s an interesting project because it seems to be changing the scope and depth of what people working in communications and advertising see what their work can achieve.

JMS> I think that the power we have in what we do is really great. We should be aware of using it constructively. As much as we can be constructive we can also be destructive. I think this kind of project and approach and the fame that it gets from all the press also helps the industry realise that we have a very powerful tool and that we should use it wisely.

LBB> Within the industry, most people are probably most familiar with the Christmas work you do with the Colombian Ministry of Defence, but I was wondering if you could give me a flavour of the sort of work you do on an ongoing basis?

JMS> For example when ETA, Spain’s Basque liberation movement, made an announcement that they were stopping all military operations, we took a clip of that and we put it on the air. We said ‘this is what other organisations around the world are doing, there are other ways to solve this problem’. There was a time when the guerrillas started circulating a rumour that anyone who demobilised was immediately mistreated and tortured, so we took some footage of people demobilising shot on iPhones and we put it on the air. We showed how the soldiers received the people who are demobilising. When certain leaders have been killed we say ‘your leader has been killed, it’s not worth dying over’. 

LBB> Going forward into 2014 are there any specific things you want to put into place? How do you see the campaign progressing?

JMS> You know, the weird thing is that I think we all wish we didn’t have to do this anymore. If peace was signed we could all do something different. We’re all hoping for that to happen. Who knows what’s going to happen next year? The ceasefire will be over, there will be new news and we’ll have to adapt. I wish I could very quickly start working on a campaign to make people accept and live shoulder-to-shoulder with people who have just ended the war and are coming back into society. I wish we could start thinking about that more rather than anti-recruitment campaigns. We could work on finding them jobs and a decent life.

LBB> And what about the personal implications of working on a campaign like this? We always hear people saying ‘it’s only advertising, it’s not life and death’, but in this case the potential ramifications are very, very real. How do the people at Lowe SSP3 deal with that?

JMS> I’ve always thought that you can’t advertise a product you don’t believe in because eventually it shows. The ministry is a regular client, it’s not pro bono work, but we never ask anyone who doesn’t believe in it to work on it. You have to know why you’re doing it and be absolutely convinced. I think that’s something we’ve learned for everything we do in advertising, for regular clients. We have to make sure that the people working on a project really believe in and understand what they’re doing.

For us, it’s very personal. Colombia has had this war for half a century. That means that since I was born, I have not lived through a single day of peace in my country. I hope my children do and I will do whatever it takes to make sure they do.

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MullenLowe Brasil, Wed, 18 Dec 2013 17:07:45 GMT