Did a TV ad campaign change the future of a country?

A few months ago, I caught a screening of the 2012 Chilean film No.

The film is a visual case study of an actual campaign on Chilean television leading up to the 1988 referendum of the presidency of Augusto Pinochet, who had been uncontested leader of Chile since a military coup in 1973.

Many of the 1988 TV campaign ads from both sides were archived, allowing director Pablo Larraín to edit them into the dramatic re-enactments of the campaign, blending period drama with documentary.

Students and instructors in communications, public relations and advertising may find the film informative – as I did – as well as entertaining. For me, having the actual TV ads shown allowed me to compare the campaign strategies on both sides of the referendum.

We know the outcome; the side against Pinochet’s continued leadership won the referendum, allowing the first true Chilean democratic election in 15 years to occur.

The film suggests how the ‘No’ side of the television campaign was able to influence thousands of Chilean voters to vote for change – by taking common clichés featured in advertising to convey a political message.

The ads look like typical soft drink ads from the 1980s (which the film shows as an example at the very beginning) with young, attractive people having a good time at parties or in the great outdoors, all singing the jingle “Chile – Happiness is coming. We’re going to say no!”

This was especially surprising when the ‘No’ side initially was going to run hard-hitting ads featuring a montage of news footage depicting atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime.

In the film, an TV advertising producer bluntly tells the ‘No’ campaign that brutally honest ads won’t work for viewers (In actuality, the ‘No’ side held focus groups and found viewers were turned off by the ‘honest’ campaign, forcing them to consider unconventional means to persuade the Chilean public about their position).

Why did it work? Was it one-time thing? Could such a strategy work for other campaigns happening now? Would such a television campaign be equally as persuasive today when digital media is having a growing impact? Or are some strategies timeless, no matter the decade, or the country?

Should a communications, public relations or marketing class want to use the film viewing as a step-off point to discussions on communication strategy, here are five possible topics of discussion:

  1. In the film, a character tells the ‘No’ campaign “We’re using advertising language but building a political concept behind it.” Many characters argued, some quite angrily, against this strategy, as the irony in much advertising made light of personal tragedies many Chileans endured under the Pinochet regime. When is the language of advertising, if ever, appropriate to a campaign with a political or social message?
  2.  Both the ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ sides had very clear visions of what makes Chile as a country unique. Both campaigns provide two distinct narratives of Chile. What were the narratives, and – history aside – which was more effective in persuading, and why?
  3.  A 2013 article in Atlantic magazine calls attention to some of the film’s biases, providing historical examples to give the campaign more context. For example, the article points out the film’s focus on the television campaign team for the ‘No’ side excluded grass root efforts that were carried out at the same time to encourage Chileans to vote in the referendum. Can a singular approach for a campaign work, as the film suggests, or was the film’s idea misleading since it does not call enough attention to other communication and public relations activities going on at the same time?
  4.  Both sides of the campaign mostly used positive campaigning to convey their positions, even though the ‘No’ side initially planned to use negative campaigning to counter the official government’s position. As the campaign wore on, the ‘Yes’ began to use more negative campaigning substantially while the ‘No’ side only incrementally. Is positive campaign stronger than a negative one, or do other factors come into play when choosing a positive or negative campaigning strategy?
  5.  One of the arguments the ‘No’ side used for conveying a ‘happy’ theme is that it is forward-looking, suggesting the Chilean public wanted to think about the future and not dwell too much on a past that included political oppression. The ‘Yes’ campaign looked backward, focusing on what the Chilean government under Pinochet’s leadership was able to accomplish for the country’s economy and standard of living (while glossing over or ignoring political strife that occurred in the country). Was the argument to look forward to possibilities better than looking backward on history? If one or both sides acknowledged the harsher aspects of Chile’s past, would it have enhanced or hindered their position?