How advertising brought down a dictator

The commercials director turned film-maker Pablo Larraín (pictured, below) explains how advertising helped end Pinochet's rule in Chile in his critically acclaimed thriller NO, starring Gael García Bernal.

How advertising brought down a dictator

On 9 August 2012, when my latest film, called NO, was premièred in Chile, the president, Sebastián Piñera, made the following comment after seeing it: "The film is too focused on the marketing. It wasn’t just to do with marketing; it was a protest by the whole population." And perhaps he has a point, because it was the whole country that said NO to Augusto Pinochet in the referendum of 1988, a society exhausted by the violence and the continuing violation of human rights. Where Piñera is mistaken is to think that the marketing and the publicity played a minor role. I am convinced, like millions of other Chileans, that if the two main advertising executives of the NO campaign, Eugenio García and Jose Manuel Salcedo, hadn’t brought some of the most basic elements of advertising pure and simple to the political campaign, then Pinochet’s YES would have won, and by a wide margin.

So what’s the explanation for advertising executives, more accustomed to selling products such as detergent, washing machines and cola drinks, being responsible for the most exciting, creative and successful political campaign in the history of my country? Why were García and Salcedo "plucked" from their desks at the advertising agency and taken to a command centre full of politicians, sociologists and experts in political communication?

Coca-Cola versus the real thing

There may be a number of answers but, undoubtedly after 15 years of a vicious dictatorship when there was no freedom of expression and when the state controlled nearly everything that happened here through fear and threat, the first thing that the members of the opposition wanted to do was to denounce the government and unmask Pinochet and his machinery of horror, which was still hidden at that time. Nevertheless, those two ad executives persuaded them to transmit a more upbeat message, less ideologised, full of hope, joy and optimism.

"This looks like an advert for Coca-Cola," the politicians told García and Salcedo when they presented them with their initial ideas. "We have to denounce the dictator and use these few daily minutes on TV to tell the whole of Chile who Pinochet really is."

"No, sir," the ad executives replied. "If you do that, you’ll make people even more afraid and you’ll give the election away to the dictatorship. We have to transmit hope and tell all the Chilean people that if they vote NO, bright days will come, days of democracy, freedom and justice."

Then they had to find a slogan, compose a jingle and make a video that would form the centrepiece of the television campaign. A type of long commercial, that wasn’t trying to make people buy anything other than the emotion of the illusion of the dream of wellbeing. "Chile, happiness is coming" was the chosen phrase. If we add to that the catchiest and most original jingle that has ever been composed in my country, and mix in dozens of attractive images, of people riding beautiful horses, children playing and running, men and women smiling, a man dancing on a bridge, ballet dancers rehearsing, actors, mimes, lights and so on, and audiovisual fragments that sought nothing more concrete than to transmit hope and happiness, then we find an extraordinary and unique mix of advertising and political broadcasting – a lethal, brilliant and razor-sharp monster. That, then, was the impact of the NO campaign, and such was the bewilderment of the regime on seeing that the opposition was not attacking them – indeed, seemed to be ignoring them – and that the entire thrust of the NO was centred on "selling" or promoting optimism, that it was only a matter of weeks before the dictatorship, with its threat of "vote for Pinochet or chaos will come", fell apart with an air of increasingly obvious desperation until it was finally and resolutely defeated.

The NO won with a crushing 56 per cent, returning democracy to Chile and transforming the creators of the campaign into true unsung heroes who over the years have gradually gained greater recognition – and, I think, or perhaps dream, that the film we have made will restore them to their rightful place as the hidden architects of that epic victory. Because if there’s one thing that those of us who have worked in advertising know (before I worked in cinema full-time, I directed almost 300 commercials for all kinds of brands and products), it is that the most successful and in­fluential ad executives are seldom recognised, either by the clients or by the consumer, and this occasion was no exception.

"Chicago Boys" running Chile defeated with their own tools

Perhaps the most interesting part of the process is that Pinochet was felled by the same tools that he had imposed on Chile. Even better than that is the fact that he never even realised. We should remember that towards the end of the 70s, a group of economists who had studied in the US, the so-called "Chicago Boys", were inserted by the dictator into the departments of treasury and finance, transforming the Chilean socioeconomic model into a neoliberal one, imposing the purest and most direct form of capitalism possible, creating many opportunities for development, but also increasing inequality to incredibly high levels. Chile today is one of the countries with the greatest gap between rich and poor; a deplorable record.

That capitalist logic, of marketing and competition, was the same one that created the conditions whereby democracy was restored. It sounds odd, but that’s how it was – although it can’t help but leave a nasty taste in the mouth. On the one hand, there is the sweetness of freedom and democracy, and on the other, the bitter taste of a system that has been abused over and over again. Today, Chile has eight or ten owners; the companies get bigger and bigger as the state gets smaller and smaller. The president of Chile himself has one of the largest fortunes in the country, which is why it is so interesting that he said the film only shows the role of marketing in the campaign and forgets the role played by politicians and the Chilean people. "There’s none so blind as he who cannot see," as we say here in Chile.

Why cinema is used to tell a story about Chile’s admen and politics

Cinema – above all, period cinema, or at least the cinema that interests me – serves as a metaphor for what has happened. We show a piece, a fold, a fragment so that the audience can construct the rest. What is not shown, what is less obvious, is perhaps what is most interesting. Maybe the best advertising should work in the same way. If the objective is to position a product or an institution, an idea or a person, then the best route is probably through the emotions, especially in a world that is overrun with information. The real message should be gently hidden so that it arrives in a more indirect and elegant way.

Forward-thinking 80s TV advertising was key to winning the Chilean referendum

In the 80s, there was only TV, and only a few channels at that. Cable TV had still not taken off and the internet was only a distant dream. For those reasons, advertising had to be extremely visible, especially on TV, and it had to be extraordinarily innovative and creative. In the 80s, advertising concentrated some of the most creative minds in the country. Everything was fresh, everything was new and the NO campaign was not an exception; it’s much more difficult nowadays to acquire that amount of exposure and visibility, there is too much information and grabbing people’s attention gets more complicated every day. There are some things that don’t change, however, and that won’t change, whichever way the world is going – and those are emotions. All human beings have them and need them. And like the NO campaign that first got into the hearts and then the heads of the electorate, any form of communication that moves people will be both effective and transforming.

The importance of the ad executives on the NO campaign

It was important and necessary to show things from the perspective of the ad executives and it also provided the relevant friction and subversion needed for political cinema. The film had to show how certain decisions have consequences that are unforeseen at the time, and how, 24 years down the line, those ideas, of freedom and democracy, continue to be as valid, as potent and as absolutely unquestionable as they were before. Although there might be those who want to hide or negate the role of the ad executives in this story, sometimes you just have to tell it like it really is: if there hadn’t been ad executives on the NO campaign, Pinochet would have remained in power.

And perhaps that’s the key to the interest generated by the film. It is not simply a true-life David and Goliath story, with a unique and genuine perspective, but it also invites us to go back and think the thoughts that we have already thought, to go back to where we were, to live what we have already lived, to dream what we have already dreamt and to seek what we were looking for. And why is that necessary? So that we never go back and make the same mistakes again. Memory and reality are needed for that. The rest follows on alone.

NO (15 certificate) opens in UK cinemas on 8 February. For more info, visit facebook.com/NOtheMovieUK