Close-Up: Shocking stunt for St John Ambulance

BBH's 'live ad' ran in a central London cinema last week. Nick Stringer reveals how it came about.

It's Friday night at a cinema in the West End. You've got your seat, the lights have dimmed, the popcorn is going down a treat. The pre-movie ads start. You're hoping to see the latest Orange Gold Spot but first there's a tame ad for a popcorn brand. A family scene, the kids settling down for a DVD with popcorn on their laps. All very normal. Until the little girl starts choking. Everything freezes. Her mother panics, her father rushes to get water. The child collapses. Panic ensues. No-one knows what to do. The camera closes in on the stricken mother as she screams for help, for someone to do something for her child whose life is ebbing away in her arms.

For the cinema audience, a gentle night out at the movies swiftly becomes unsettling. The horror unfolding goes on and on. Then a woman in the audience stands up and shouts "I can help" and runs down the aisle to the front, around the back of the screen and appears in the ad itself. She takes the child, gives her some hard slaps between the shoulders and the popcorn comes out as the child takes a gasp of breath. The parents cry with relief as the woman walks out of the ad and appears back round the front of the screen and goes back to her seat to rapturous applause from a stunned and relieved audience.

This was the scene at a cinema in central London last week, where we produced a "live ad" for St John Ambulance. It was part of "the difference" strategy we devised, which launched with the Cannes gold-winning poster campaign showing what appears to be dead people and how first aid could have saved their lives. It was supported by a branded First Aid App produced by Zag earlier this year.

To move this on further, the idea for a cinema event came from the creative directors Adrian Rossi and Alex Grieve. The brief: how do we make people in a cinema audience (and beyond) question the importance of first aid? To shake them out of the lethargy of "it won't happen to me"? There are 150,000 deaths every year in the UK that could be prevented if someone in the vicinity knew first aid.

There were several parts to this campaign. The first was writing and filming an ad that felt believable as a real ad. Something that no-one would even question. We trawled through footage of bland ads to get the feeling for the language, music and pacing. We wanted the ad to wash over you in the cinema. And this is what happened when it played - people carried on chatting, looking at their phones and, of course, eating popcorn.

After creating this idyllic "ad family", we shatter it by having the little girl choke and the mum completely lose it. It was one of the most emotional shoots any of us had been involved with. Getting the timing right and eyeline of both the live and filmed actress was crucial. It worked perfectly thanks to the great performance of the actress. When she reappeared again after saving the little girl, there was a real feel-good moment as the entire audience broke into spontaneous applause. This wasn't scripted, but it made for a genuinely uplifting end to the experience.

Agencies are used to controlling every step of a production so this was a unique experience where we had to just go with it. We believe there are a few things to take away from all of this. Imagination plus commitment beat money. This idea is more proof, if proof were needed, that big impact doesn't rely necessarily upon big budgets.

Also, coherency beats consistency: each component part of the campaign adds layers of knowledge and usability. Different, connected platforms, not identikit, matching luggage.

The St John Ambulance team want this film to be watched and shared but, most of all, they want it to be acted upon. The advertising doesn't simply tell a dramatic story, it gives us basic and top line knowledge about what to do in an emergency. It also gives us somewhere to go. It could be the difference between a life lost and a life saved.

- Nick Stringer is a partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.


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