Best Political Marketing Campaign Ever? The Ads That Ousted Pinochet

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Marketing is about results. Usually, that means ROI. But for the admen behind Chile's 1988 “No” campaign, the subject of a recent Oscar-nominated film, the metric for success had a little more riding on it: to cast out notorious dictator General Augusto Pinochet in a vote on the lawfulness of his military government.

A basic and simplistic thumbnail sketch of the political situation runs thusly: About 15 years after he seized power from Salvador Allende in a U.S.-backed coup, Pinochet, bowing to international pressure in reaction to his violent and secretive regime, agreed to convene a plebiscite to legitimize his power. Political advertising and political parties, both of which had been previously outlawed by Pinochet—I guess who needs parties and perspectives if a junta's in power—were legalized to allow for a national referendum. A vote for “Yes” (“Si”) would give Pinochet another 10 years in the top seat, this time with the stamp of public approval; a vote for “No” would remove Pinochet from power the following year, after which a democratic general election would follow.

In the month leading up to the vote, both sides each had 15 minutes a day of free national airtime to make their respective cases.

While Pinochet's government trotted out the same old “We're awesome, beware of the Marxists” line it had always used in its communications, the “No” campaign, comprised of representatives from a variety of parties, took a different, new tack. The "No" logo was a rainbow, and the tagline, complete with snappy jingle-like theme song, was simple and catchy: “Chile, happiness is coming!” Brand storytelling at its very, very finest.

Featuring smiling Chileans, baguette-eating young people, ecstatically jaunty dancers in pastel leotards, and a strangely ubiquitous mime, among other things, the campaign aimed to convince the people of Chile, beaten down by years of intimation and dictatorship, of their right to rise above their fear and cast a vote for Chile's bright future. Take a look see at some of the real archival campaign footage, also used in the movie, below:





For all the praise the movie's received, director Pablo Larraín has also had his fair share of critics, including Genaro Arriagada, the real man behind the “No” campaign, who told The New York Times that the movie “is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality.” Arriagada argues that the focus on the "No" media push wilfully ignores the dogged agitation and organizing work done by political parties and unions to turn the tide against Pinochet. Other critics have called out No for perhaps too smoothly blending fact with fiction. For example, while the archival footage used is genuine, René Saavedra, the adman hero in charge of the campaign in the film as portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, wasn't actually a real person. That said, No does tell a riveting tale that before the movie's release was widely unknown, and audiences should be aware by now that "based on a true story" doesn't translate as "documentary."

On October 5, 1988, Pinochet was issued a crushing defeat, with 56% of the vote going to “No.” Chile took a final step towards a return to democracy and Pinochet's bloody regime was sidelined in a virtually bloodless overthrow.

Now that's consumer engagement.

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