Monday, May 14, 2007

Provocative UN refugee ads target the affluent

Globe and Mail

May 9, 2007

The woman speaks in a robotic monotone. She has a message for a group of residents in Toronto's High Park neighbourhood.

"We regret to inform you that your homes will be ransacked, doused in gasoline and torched to the ground," she says. "All other Toronto residents, please ignore this announcement."

The radio spot is one of several new, made-in-Canada ads for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Designed to shock young urban professionals into opening their minds and, hopefully, their wallets, the ads were conceived and produced pro bono by a Toronto firm, and are set to be unveiled to millions of people in a dozen countries. It's the first time the normally conservative UN refugee arm has put some edge in its fundraising appeals, with a global campaign that's making some Canadian radio stations nervous.

"We expect a strong reaction," said UNHCR Canada senior external affairs officer Nanda Na Champassak, "both positive and negative."

Besides the radio ad, the agency is also posting mock eviction notices in public places, and has a TV spot showing a snail being ripped out of its shell -- an analogy to what's happening to the 20 million refugees around the world. The ads are for donations and urge people to go the UNHCR's web site to read more information about refugees.

"We're definitely not targeting the converted," Ms. Na Champassak said. "We're targeting those neighbourhoods where we feel there are people who are university graduates, who know about the refugee problem in passing but can't relate."

The entire campaign would never have gotten off the ground had an advertising executive not gotten a UNHCR mailer two years ago.

Patrick Scissons, vice-president and associate creative director at BBDO Toronto, decided to contact UNHCR and ask if it needed help creating a more effective advertising campaign. With the refugee agency's tight budget, an ad blitz was virtually out of the question. But Mr. Scissons made the agency an offer it couldn't refuse -- everyone working on the ads, from the designers to the woman whose monotone voice tells High Park residents their homes are about to burn down, worked pro bono.

"Charitable causes getting attention is always quite a challenge," Mr. Scissons said. "More so for a cause like refugee awareness, when it's happening a million miles away."
So BBDO focused on provocative ads that presented the refugee crisis in local terms. For the most part, they succeeded -- some radio stations weren't entirely comfortable with broadcasting the ads. However, the campaign is taking off worldwide, airing everywhere from Brazil to Kosovo. BBDO hopes to expand the campaign through partnerships with other companies. For example, the firm hopes to launch a water bottle cap ad -- when customers look at the bottom of the cap, they'll see information about the availability of drinking water for refugees.

"People are generally numb to statistics," Mr. Scissons said, "but the one we keep bringing up is that there's 20 million people living like this. This is something that'll hopefully make people stop and think."


UN agency airs 'edgy' ads on plight of refugees
'It gets people talking,' TV ad creator says
Norma Greenaway, Ottawa Citizen; CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, May 09, 2007

OTTAWA - A new Canadian-made ad campaign designed to raise awareness about the plight of the world's refugees is also raising some eyebrows.

The heart of the pro-bono work by advertising agency BBDO Toronto is a provocative 30-second television spot featuring an animated snail being ripped from its shell with tweezers. The tag line reads: "If you think taking one snail from its home is disturbing, you should know it's already been done to 21 million people."

The ad, being distributed by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees to television stations in Canada and a dozen countries in Europe, South America and Africa, is edgier than the usual United Nations fare.

Patrick Scissons, BBDO's associate creative director, says the world refugee crisis begs bold treatment.

"Obviously, there are a lot of charitable causes out there vying for attention and support," Scissons said Tuesday in an interview from Toronto. "There is a need to stand out."

Scissons and UN officials say they are unfazed by critics who have seen the ad on the UNHCR's website and who complain it is too graphic and should be pulled. "For me it's good. It gets people talking," said Scissons. "If we've done that, we've done our job."

He also stressed the ad is pure animation, with the exception of the hand holding the tweezers.

Scissons says he toyed with the idea of putting a little asterisk at the foot of the ad saying; "No real snails were harmed in the making of the commercial," but he decided it wasn't necessary.

The campaign, which also includes radio and print spots, can be viewed on the UN agency's website,

Because almost all the work by animators, sound technicians and others was done for free, the only cost to UNHCR was $4,400 to make copies.

Scissons said he is bent on waking Canadians and others living in comfortable, democratic societies to the refugee nightmare of violence, persecution and homelessness.

Mock radio ads to be aired in Toronto tell residents of certain neighbourhoods that they have been displaced.

"Please be advised your families have been evicted, beaten and are running eastbound on Circle Drive to save their lives," says one.

Nanda Na Champassak, a senior UNHCR official in Canada, said the campaign is harder hitting than previous ones but that UNHCR officials at all levels embraced the approach.

UNHCR cites the many people being displaced by conflicts in Iraq, Sudan's Darfur region and Colombia as today's most critical refugee hot spots.

Scissons latched on to the idea of getting his firm to help create a new refugee campaign after one of UNHCR's mailings landed on his doorstep. He said the information was moving, but he thought it could be presented more compellingly.