Case Study

Amnesty International used the power of marketing to change the law

To showcase innovation and good practice, Campaign is publishing the best case studies from the Marketing New Thinking Awards 2016, held in association with Sky Media. Amnesty International and VCCP won the Marketing for Good category with this innovative campaign aimed at curbing the sale of illegal weapons and torture equipment.

Amnesty International used the power of marketing to change the law

Brand: Amnesty International UK

Agency: VCCP


Founded in London in 1961, Amnesty International tackles issues all over the globe. But in 2015, Amnesty faced a local issue. There was evidence to suggest that torture equipment and other illegal weapons were being advertised and sold at an arms fair in London. This was made possible due to UK government inaction and a loophole in EU law.

So in 2015 Amnesty looked to the power of marketing to galvanise public action and close the loophole. By launching a campaign directly targeted at the fair organisers and UK government, Amnesty International provoked a response; not just from the public, but from the UK government as well. To pull this off it required a completely integrated approach that involved not just tactical traditional media, but also social media and activists taking to the streets. All on a piffling budget of just £15,000.

Why this work mattered

Most non-profit campaigns will say that they drove huge levels of response in donations or petition signings. Some may further argue that they generated an extraordinary response from the national media. This campaign did all that - however we went further. Our success ultimately hinged on getting the Westminster elite and the UK and EU governments noticing, and responding to our cause. We achieved just that. The UK government responded and promised to push for strengthening controls, keenly felt one month later when the EU parliament voted to close the loophole.

measuring success

We measured the campaign across a number of criteria

1. Did the campaign make a noticeable impact? Social metrics showed that we reached over 3 million people on Facebook and generated 628,000 views – mostly driven by organic activity, rather than paid.

2. Did the campaign get the public to act? Our main KPI was petition signings and email actions, totalling 23,000 - 53% more than the average for ‘stop torture’ campaigns.

3. Did the campaign get the government to act? Any noticeable response from the UK government about our concerns was a minimum. We did just that, but we also secured a commitment from them to look further into the issue.

4. Has there been a legislative change? This was achieved one month after the campaign, where a vote was passed 630-30 in favour of closing the loophole.

All hushed up

Since 2001, The London ExCel centre and DSEI, supported by the UK government, hosts an arms fair. It has become The UK Government’s calling card, showcasing the very best arms and weaponry the the world has to offer.

While it looks like business as usual from the inside, on the outside the fair was still relatively unknown, and frankly the organisers and UK government were happy to keep it that way. They even went as far to exclude all mention of the fair on the website:

While a cover-up in itself was worrying, in recent years a more sinister development had occurred. There was evidence to suggest that since 2005 illegal ‘tools of torture’ had slipped through the net:

Despite promises to crack down on this, instruments such as ‘sting batons’, ‘electric handcuffs’ and ‘stun guns’ continued to be promoted.

So for 2015, Amnesty International resolved to galvanise public action and get the UK and EU governments to close the loophole.

But there would be significant challenges in achieving this:

1. We had a tiny budget, just £15,000 all in for production and media.

2. We had to get the government to notice and act on the campaign.

3. Others will be protesting, we had to find our own unique voice.

4. We had to get our grassroots supporters on board, they were our greatest asset in spreading our messages.

5. In order for the government to notice, we had to achieve a minimum of 20,000 signatures for our petition.

6. The parameters of the news cycle meant that getting the timing right was essential. Too early and it wouldn’t feel relevant, too late and we would miss the boat.

7. Security at the event was tight, so a nearby stunt was out of the question.

Torture on your doorstep

To overcome these obstacles it was decided early on that success would rely on social media. However, social was getting harder; new algorithms by Facebook and Twitter have recently constrained abilities to achieve mass exposure organically.

With our miniscule budget, we would have to rely on being disruptive the old fashioned way – organically. To do that we had to maximise relevance for the target audience.

"We’ve always struggled to make ‘Stop Torture’ campaigns feel timely and relevant with people, they have always tended to deal with issues that are so far removed from the everyday experience"

Reuben Steains, innovation manager, Amnesty International UK

The only problem was that Amnesty International had struggled with that in the past. ‘Stop Torture’ campaigns tended to try and shock and confront people with the brutal reality of those affected.

An approach which wasn’t working, petition signatures averaged 15,000, 25% less than other campaigning areas.

We needed to be more relevant not by focusing on those affected, but rather on how it affected us. The fact that it was happening in London helped us reframe torture from a global issue, to a provocatively local one. Making what is usually far, feel uncomfortably near. We articulated this into a simple thought – Torture on your doorstep.

Launching the ad campaign that they never wanted

For something so near, it was all incredibly secretive. We therefore asked an intriguing question – if it was promoted what would that look like?

To get some inspiration we had a look at how other trade shows promoted themselves: 

It was then that we got to our (not so succinct) idea...


At its heart was a simple idea; highlight what was happening on our doorstep by doing the ad campaign that neither the government, nor the fair wanted.

We kicked this off first with an online film.

We also negotiated free outdoor space in city centres, the east end and in print publications City A.M. and Metro:

Press ads in ‘City AM’ and ‘Metro’

We even made beermats, pub posters and leaflets: It was also key to galvanise our supporter base, getting them to take to the streets as ‘unofficial arms fair makers'.

We then seeded the campaign online, and with a tiny £5000 paid boost, this is where the campaign really took off. We got a great immediate response from the public, who spread it across the internet. 

We achieved outstanding publicity in the national press in print and online; spreading the campaign to a further 34.6 million people. 

To wrap things up, we released a further piece of content that encapsulated all activity, including a direct call to sign the petition. We saw immediate results. The campaign reached 3 million people on Facebook alone. The views for the spoof ad were impressive: in the first 24 hours it reached over 100,000 and ended up totalling 628,000 across social media.

Most of this was driven by organic traction, rather than paid, and performed better than any previous social activity by Amnesty International.

The number of views and completion rate also performed well against industry benchmarks.

On Twitter we also beat Amnesty’s next best performing social media campaign; "Write for rights"

Torture tackled

23,000 people sent an email action, 53.3% more than the average 15,000 for "Stop Torture" campaigns. It also achieved an ROI of 1.53, which bested other award-winning campaigns intended to change government policy.

We also prompted an unsolicited response from the UK government, which directly references the campaign and the strength of public support.

The campaign was also keenly felt in the EU parliament vote, one month later, which went 630-30 in favour of closing the loopholes in the laws controlling the trade in torture equipment.

"The campaign played a big part in ensuring that there was an overwhelming majority vote in favour of our position in the European parliament. The increased interest and profile of the issue in the UK, delivered by our campaign, really helped make this happen"

Tom Davies, ‘Stop Torture’ campaign manager, Amnesty International UK

We had reframed a global problem as a local one, we’d launched an ad campaign that neither the arms fair nor the UK government wanted, and we’d demonstrated that ingenious creativity on the thinnest shoestring can force a change in EU legislation. Torture tackled.