The Amsterdam-based advertising agency Lemz planned and executed a campaign that identified 1,000 paedophiles worldwide. As a result, laws are changing in several countries, arrests are being made and the United Nations has praised the initiative.
The campaign started when Mark Woerde, the co-founder and director of strategy at Lemz, read an article about men who abuse underage girls via webcam in other countries. He wanted to do something to help stop these abuses and contacted the charity Terre des Hommes, which said this type of child exploitation was a fast-growing and unstoppable business.
In partnership with Terre des Hommes, Lemz researched the industry and found that, every hour of the day, at least 750,000 men are looking for underage girls online and that there are tens of thousands of victims living in developing countries.
Despite it being illegal almost everywhere, only six men had been sentenced for the offence since the inception of the internet because none of the victims filed an official complaint.
The creative idea
Woerde concluded that the only way to improve this situation was to mobilise politicians and police forces around the world.
The basic idea of the campaign was that, if they could identify 1,000 men, it would be clear how big the problem is and how easy it is to do something about it. This, the people at Lemz figured, would have a huge impact when made public at a press conference and would generate enough attention to push politicians and police into action.
The agency decided to set up a trap by creating a computer-generated "girl" called Sweetie and recording the details of those who interacted with her.
Just a few people in the agency knew about the plan; at Terre des Hommes, only the most senior people were informed. The team had to investigate to what extent provoking a crime with a computer-generated person is allowed in different countries. It turned out to be legal almost everywhere.
While that research was going on, Motek Entertainment, unaware of what it was involved in, started creating Sweetie, making her look as real as possible. The process took several months. The company used an actress and motion capture to create numerous clips. As with most computer games, a library of movements and expressions such as nodding, head-shaking, typing and listening were built.
An online connection to the Philippines was established so that the predators would not know it was all happening in a warehouse in the north of Amsterdam.
Once Sweetie was finished, she was placed on several international chat sites. There, "she" made it known that she was a ten-year-old girl from the Philippines. Almost immediately, the attention from around the world was overwhelming. The task of the team behind Sweetie was to participate in conversations and extract information.
There were often several conversations with a perpetrator over the course of a week, which proved to be extremely useful. For instance, in one conversation, he would give away his location; in another, his profession – which made it easier to create a useful profile.
Generating publicity and spurring the police into action was the main objective of the campaign. Lemz and Terre des Hommes handed over the details of 1,000 offender profiles from different countries to Interpol at a press conference in The Hague. This generated widespread global media coverage. The YouTube film showing the activity has received six million views so far.
Interpol and national police forces co-ordinated the arrest of online predators based on the evidence collected by Terre des Hommes.
An international ring of more than 700 paedophiles was broken up during a joint action in the US, the UK and Australia, which has led to several convictions. As a result of the campaign, hundreds of victims in the Philippines have been freed. The country’s congress has ordered an official investigation into the online sexual exploitation of Filipino children.
In several countries, legislative changes have already been implemented that make it easier to protect the victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Argentina’s parliament has increased penalties for perpetrators, while the Dutch ministry of justice is in the process of reversing an existing ban on the use of honeypot lures by law enforcement agencies investigating online child exploitation.
Millions of online predators are now aware that they can no longer abuse children online with impunity.
In consultation with Terre des Hommes, Lemz stayed out of the picture during the process – until the UN recently named Sweetie as an example of how the creative industries can contribute to improving the world. The campaign has been nominated for a D&AD Pencil.
Gijs De Swarte is a writer and freelance journalist