16 Apr

The true story of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution: what we can learn from Chile’s struggle for democracy and the new movie about it: “No”

It was fortunate that a Chilean friend last week asked me to go see the new film “No” starring Gael García Bernal (who played “Che” Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries).

View trailer here

“No” dramatically tells the story of the national referendum that took place in Chile in 1988. A bizarre proposition by Western standards, the question boiled down to whether to continue with dictatorship: “yes” or “no”. To me the film itself is extremely well done in a way that makes its subject completely relevant today: its authentic details do not detract from a fast-moving storyline; the characters and language are realistic and believable, the dilemmas understandable and well-illustrated, the drama never under or overplayed. Excitingly, some real historical figures play cameos of their younger selves, as the film blends historical campaign footage with fiction (for this reason the whole movie was shot with late 80s TV news cameras). Partly because of the presence of historical figures in an advisory capacity, the movie’s faithfulness to real dramas is extremely impressive.

And the lessons that it holds are even more compelling, especially given the success of the Chileans compared to – say – the 2011 British referendum on electoral reform.

Amongst the lessons are:

  • Play to win
  • Know your audience, and know what they need.
  • Talk the language of your audience.
  • Know how you’re perceived, and frame yourselves.
  • De-fuse your opponent’s framing of you.
  • Take the high ground; don’t get into personal attacks or bickering.
  • Have the confidence of your convictions. Project ease.
  • Go outside the experience of your opponent.

Really, the story speaks for itself: in 1988 Chile was an increasingly modern country, enthusiastically committed to US-style free-market consumer capitalism. This was thanks to the violent 1973 coup which installed General Augusto Pinochet and changed the country’s course from tentative socialism to free market neoliberal development lab. Chilean economists trained under capitalist guru Milton Friedmann at the University of Chicago in a programme organised by the US State Department and funded by the Ford Foundation (the so-called Chicago Boys) were parachuted into government, and their radical neoliberal ideology changed Chile immediately and permanently. But while Chileans had capitalism and consumerism, they did not have democracy. The US, which had directly helped fund and organise Pinochet’s coup, became increasingly embarrassed through the 1970s at his human rights abuses: at the 3000 dead, at the tens of thousands of people exiled, tortured, raped, beaten, imprisoned. While the US was grateful that their Pinocho (Spanish for “Pinocchio”) had made Chile safe for free-market capitalism, they could not have their puppet come loose from his strings. In 1980 a new Chilean constitution that cemented free market capitalism also paved the way for an eventual return to democracy, even though Pinochet and his regime did not want it. International pressure, even from the Pope, forced them to keep their word, and in 1988 they were obliged – grudgingly – to hold the constitutionally-mandated referendum that would ask whether Pinochet could remain in power for another 8 years.

Chile’s political parties – which had not been legally allowed to exist until the year before  – were given a matter of weeks to come up with a TV campaign – 15 minutes a night on state television – to present their “No” side of the argument.

The film “No” tells that story, with Gael García Bernal’s character Rene Saavedra standing-in for several advertising gurus that in real life directed the campaign.

There are several situations and dilemmas that any political campaigner will recognise. Firstly, the No campaign was not even sure it wanted to win, or even to campaign seriously. Greens and left-wing activists will recognise this parallel: although the No campaign was ultimately successful, political voices in the film give objections such as “we don’t expect to win anyway”, “we can’t possibly win”, “the whole thing is rigged against us”, “the result will be fixed”. There are classic green/left-wing claims such as “we mainly need to use this opportunity to raise awareness” and so on. These excuses lead to a pathology of the campaigners setting out a wholly negative view of the problem, without giving any solution.

In one key scene the marketing man’s character is faced with long-suffering and marginalised political campaigners whose main goal is to give voice to their inner emotional grievances by attesting to the horrors and moral outrages they have borne witness to over the years of the dictatorship. They present him with a TV slot full of violent images of innocent people being attacked by the forces of the regime. In their view they are showcasing the moral repugnancy of their opponents. The ad man’s reaction is simply: “this doesn’t sell [esto no vende]”.

In another scene he is confronted with a passionate political figure who tells him that he has an ethical obligation to speak the ugly truth, and that the up-beat campaign the ad man has offered is “a campaign of silence”, that he is showing a lack of respect… essentially that he is ‘selling out’.

And the reason the film is so interesting is that those views are totally understandable and valid, especially coming from people with so much pain, who have experienced brutality, torture and the murder of friends and family at the hands of an illegal brutal dictatorship.

But those voices were – strategically – wrong, and not just with hindsight. Yet still campaigners today fall into the same traps, again and again.

A second recognisable situation is that the No campaign faced high levels of apathy. The marketing man himself characterises as “near miracle-level” the chance of winning, and this was indeed the situation in real life. For the No side to win, he says, Chile would need “a divine act”. As the academic Steve J Stern says in his book “Battling For Hearts And Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile: 1973-1988”: “a majority of potential voters would probably vote No, but a majority of registered voters would probably vote Yes”. The film’s characters spell this out: the voters, we are told by a political psychologist in one scene, are “completely repressed”. The ad man describes them as “immobilised” and “terrorised”. Little old ladies are content with the status quo and scared of change. The youth trust no-one and have disconnected with all political issues. Does this sound totally distinct to politics in the Western world today…?

Of course the No campaign had an even harder job than campaigners combatting political apathy today. Not only were people sceptical of change, they were scared of violent physical reprisals by the regime, scared of change, and scared of not having the protection of the status quo. Even worse, they were scared of the people behind the No campaign, who of course were largely unknown and untested.

Pinochet’s Yes campaign was based largely on exploiting this fear: fear of ‘Reds under the bed’, fear that the No campaign were closet communists, fear of left-wing terrorism (although by that time it was practically non-existent), and fear of the political and economic chaos which had characterised the last months of Salvador Allende’s socialist presidency in 1973. As Steve J Stern writes, the aim of the Yes campaign was to show that “the persons who led the opposition were unreliable political demagogues – the people who had brought Chile to disaster in the first place!”.

The success of the No campaign – and what we need to learn from them – is that they had a grip on how they would be perceived; they knew how to re-frame themselves and counter-act their opponent’s framing of them; they knew how to frame their message, and how to frame their opponent.

Stern writes: “the challenge of the No was to convince the alienated and the skeptical – despite their experiences and memories of dictatorship – to believe they could have an impact on the future”. But more than that, they knew that they could only do that by ‘going positive’ not negative: “A litany of horror could boomerang. It might reinforce the mystique of regime omnipotence, that is, strengthen the fear, despair, and resignation that constituted the regime’s premier weapon among undecided and soft voters”.

And the voters were justified in being afraid. Newly published documents from US intelligence show how Pinochet was planning “to do whatever was necessary” to stay in power right up until the last minute, and was “nearly apoplectic” when the results came through showing a victory for the No camp. It was all the more important then that the No side had triumphed with a bang and not a whimper, constituting a clear popular force that the regime could not suppress nor deny.

The No campaign had chosen an approach that would, as Stern writes, “enable Chileans to overcome fear and a war mentality, to connect to their deepest human and democratic values, and to achieve change without plunging into disorder… a relentlessly upbeat and fun-loving tone, a strong sense of order and competence… and a tangible connection to the desires and interests of ordinary people. Humour and play exorcised fear”.

As the movie shows, they had a very short space of time to knock something together, and created their main standard-bearing ad partly with archive stock footage.

This main ad – which is a chirpy saccharine song to rival anything ever written for a Coca-Cola advert – was hugely controversial among the people who commissioned it, and when you watch it you can see why. As the ad exec’s critical and more politically-active ex-wife tells him: “all these pretty people, blond children running contentedly… people laughing, singing, celebrating…. celebrating WHAT…? I don’t know what country you’re imagining”. But the country being imagined was the Chile of the future.

As you can tell from the lyrics – which I have translated into what I hope is a contemporary style –  the song is a mix of content and profound. The chirpy statement of “without dictatorship, happiness will come through!” always chokes me up. The directness is disarming, but therein lies its power.

Link to video

Chile: happiness is on its way (repeated)

Because whatever they say,
I’m free to think.
Because I feel it’s time
to gain our freedom.
After how long now of abuse
it’s time to change.
Because we’re through with suffering:
I’m gonna say no.

Because a rainbow’s born
after the storm.
Because I want my way of life
to flourish.
Because without dictatorship
happiness will come through.
Because I care about the future
I’m gonna say no.

We’re gonna say no.

With the power of my voice
I sing it out with fearlessness:
we’re gonna say no.

All as one
we’ll win through.
We’re gonna say no,
for life, for peace.

We’re done with death:
here’s our opportunity
to overcome violence
with the force of peace.

Because I reckon
my homeland
deserves dignity.

For a Chile for everyone
we’re gonna say no.

Chile: happiness is on its way (repeated)

In a way the advert is ridiculous, commercial and to our modern minds, totally cheesy. It’s like the most kitsch aspects of We Are The World, Michael Jackson and Pepsi’s Choice of a New Generation rolled into one – complete with cheesy key-change. But it was – and is – genius. Not least because the refrain of “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (“Chile, happiness is on its way”) did double service as both a pop song and a street protest chant. The challenge of universally appealing to a country of largely poor and uneducated people who were subjects of a military dictatorship, the effort of bypassing their fear and their tendency to avoid politics completely and bury their head in the sand: all of these meant that a popular, comfortable, universal approach was necessary.

But the ad projected more than just a sense of ease. As Steve J Stern says of the campaign: “The No’s aesthetic quality created a mystique of competence, coherence and achievement. The mystique allayed anxiety that a disunited, incompetent opposition might lead Chile to more disorder and failure. In addition, the substantive presentation and voices projected a sense of balance that valued dignity, order, and learning from experience”.

As well as the central advert and song, the No campaign’s 15 minutes a night were presented in a pseudo news format, headed by a respected anchorman who had previously been a familiar face on Chilean TV before he had incurred the regime’s displeasure. The anchorman, against the backdrop of the No campaign’s colourful rainbow logo, calmly and respectfully set out the context of the referendum, gently providing snippets of voter education, and introducing reportage-style “vox pops” and “news” pieces showing the opinions of ordinary Chileans, providing valuable social proofing. With the conceit of them being commercial breaks from the news, there were a series of upbeat, sometimes hilarious and outrageous comic sketches. More serious songs, political ads and celebrity endorsements also punctuated the format, including a repeated theme of voting “No” for “No más”… for example: “no: no more violence, no more hate, no more suffering… vote No”. A quirk of the way the ballot paper was set out meant that the voters would be literally drawing a plus sign “+” next to the word “No”, psychologically changing a negative protest into a positive proposition. This powerful mnemonic hook was exploited skilfully: “No +” can be read as “No más” in Spanish.

(You can watch the first full 15-minute slot here. A compendium of the No’s political slots is here)

The appearance of actual politicians was kept to a minimum, in favour of smiling actors and the voices and faces of ordinary Chileans, but when Patricio Aylwin – who before the end of the next year would be President – did make an appearance, it was to project calmness, competence, respect, magnanimity, inclusivity and the values of continuity. These qualities constituted the way in which the No campaign framed itself.

Merely setting out the bare facts and beneficial arguments in favour of democracy (as the Yes campaign for UK electoral reform did in 2011, with disastrous results), or simply banging a drum about the moral wrongness of their opponents (as the left generally does to this day) would have been absolutely useless. It would never have allowed them to climb the mountain that they did. And in the end, the results were spectacular. Rising from a support level of 19% in the early days, No campaigners on the ground managed to stimulate voter registration, and in the end an incredible 91% of the electorate had enrolled, and 97.5% of those turned-out on the day. Stop and look at that figure again. 97.5% turnout. The last UK general election saw a 65% turnout. The last US presidential election saw a 57.5% turnout. The last European election saw a 43% overall turnout. A 97.5% turnout with 91% of the electorate enrolled is something absolutely stunning that every democrat should get down on their hands and knees and worship. Even more so in a country where people had not voted for nearly 20 years. That any campaign(s) could help stimulate such registration and turnout deserves massive respect. Yes, voting was compulsory for those registered, but that made it all the more impressive that so many people did register, when it would have been easier for them to simply remain unregistered and avoid all danger of sanction.

It’s worth noting that there has been some criticism of the film (much of it manufactured and overdramatised in my opinion) for putting too much emphasis on the communications side and not enough on the organising side, on the huge “ground game” of signing-up all of those previously unregistered voters, and on the continuous struggles for human rights that had been going on in the country and internationally for the last two decades. Of course, we need to recognise that the referendum could not have been won without the on-the-ground organising, or indeed the external political pressure. It even transpires that the US had been providing active logistical and communications support to the No campaign. Indeed it was American ad men, not Chileans, who prompted the No campaign to run focus groups, out of which eventually came the theme of “alegría”.

But let’s be realistic and blunt: those people whinging about the communications dimension receiving too much attention and not being that important would have also been the people that would have cocked it up if it had been in their hands. They would have been the people showing the TV slot of the public getting pounded by rubber bullets. Which would have had a withering and fatal effect on turnout and registration.

Yes, the largest part of any political campaign is organisation. But leadership matters, communication matters. And with bad leadership and bad communication you can easily ruin an otherwise promising and well-resourced well-motivated campaign machine: you have only to look at Britain’s experience in the 2011 electoral reform referendum.

And in case you think I’m being melodramatic, let’s compare for a moment the messages of the British “Yes” campaign for electoral reform:

  •  “Yes to Fairer Votes”
  • “Make Your MP work harder for your vote”
  • “Make your vote count”

And that’s not mentioning the appalling and baffling slogan that they arrived at: “Make it 50”.

The fact that the British Yes campaign couldn’t bring themselves to equate the thing they were working for with “Democracy” was partly about their own reservations about the technical merits of AV. But if you have a problem with something technically you either have to decide to reject it or just get over it. The fact that the Yes side could not get over it led to a completely half-hearted and half-arsed exposition of the thing they were supposed to be promoting, an exposition that lacked passion and earnestness, but majored on equivocation, policy-wonkery and facts and figures. By contrast the British “No” campaign had somewhat more emotive messages such as:

  • AV makes elections unfair
  • AV is a politician’s fix
  • AV is fiendishly complicated and messy
  • AV is good for fascists and extremists

Look again at the lessons from the Chilean “No” campaign that I listed at the very start:

  • – Play to win
  • – Know your audience, and know what they need.
  • – Talk the language of your audience.
  • – Know how you’re perceived, and frame yourselves.
  • – De-fuse your opponent’s framing of you.
  • – Take the high ground; don’t get into personal attacks or bickering.
  • – Have the confidence of your convictions. Project ease.
  • – Go outside the experience of your opponent.

The British “Yes” campaign overwhelming failed to do ANY of these things.

They were not committed to winning, they were not in touch with the public, they spoke the language of the policy-wonk and the politician, they looked terrible, lame and boring, they allowed the No side to absolutely kill them time and time again in a series of self-framing open goals. Through their own hesitation and lack of adventurousness they allowed the No campaign to blatantly steal ideas, values and issues that should have been theirs and turn their own advantages against them.

They bickered with the opposition like schoolchildren but completely failed to bring out “the big guns” when they could have done so. Thus they achieved all of the disadvantages of ‘being negative’ without any of the advantages of actually having laid a glove on their opponent, or having spoke any of the truly negative realities about the situation. They failed to appreciate that a technical drawback is not the same as a morally repugnant outrage. By being generally slow, cautious and conservative in their approach, language and boldness, they basically allowed the No camp to run rings around them.

The Chilean pro-democracy campaign made none of these mistakes in 1988, yet the British pro-democracy campaign made all of them in 2011. Where’s the progress there?

The British argued in terms of details and pros and cons. The Chileans argued in terms of happiness and hope and overcoming fear and hate. As one of the Yes campaign directors in the movie complains “we can’t fight universal concepts like hope and happiness with a film about fruit exportation”. The Chileans had gone outside of the experience of their opponents, and the result was spectacular.

Have a look here for more of my articles about the British and New Zealand electoral reform referenda

Meanwhile, back in present-day Chile, all is not well. The media, says the watchdog Reporters Without Borders, “suffer from an extraordinary concentration of ownership”, with most outlets owned by two private companies (which still receive huge state subsidies as they did in Pinochet’s time, to the detriment of independent media).

Chile currently has a right-wing President, Sebastian Piñera, who is nicknamed “Chile’s Berlusconi” by some, given that he is a powerful businessman and media owner. One of Piñera’s recent successful “reforms” has been to remove compulsory voting which although it has its theoretical disadvantages at least promotes turnout and thus democratic participation. The immediate result has been that turnout dropped from 90% to 40% in the recent regional elections.

Chilean democracy has problems as it is, most obviously its system of government. As intentionally set-up by Pinochet in the 1980 constitution, Chile’s Senate and Chamber of Deputies system promotes democratic gridlock, a recipe for maintaining the status quo. In this sense, Pinochet, Nixon and the CIA have had the last laugh: Chilean consumer capitalism is practically unassailable, even by democracy. I like what New Christian Science Monitor’s Chilean correspondent Steven Bodzin has to say in his review (although I am biased, having once cooked an elaborate Indian curry for Steven in Santiago de Chile):


The final scene shows Mr. Saavedra, after the victorious election campaign, moving on to his next advertising gig, promoting a superficial TV melodrama. It’s an accurate portrayal of how the political, commercial, and cultural model associated with Pinochet outlived the dictatorship itself. The ending adds a distinctively Chilean dose of irony to what might otherwise have been a Hollywood fairy tale


Did the Chilean restoration of democracy go far enough…? No, unfortunately not. But can the communications team in charge of the No campaign be faulted for that…? No, of course not. And did Chile achieve “happiness” with the end of dictorship? Clearly the answer is an overwhelming “yes”, absolutely. Bliss? Perfection? Utopia? No. But happiness, yes.

So in some ways the cheesy superficial style of “Chile la alegría ya viene” was more honest than anything that the political hacks would have produced. The change from dictatorship to democracy was not fundamentally revolutionary: Chile gained modern consumer capitalism with a friendly democratic façade. There was no danger of the ‘return of communism’. If some of the more radical voices in Chile have been disappointed since the return of democracy, they at least cannot say that the No campaign promised more than it delivered. The campaign might have been in some ways superficial, but in fact because it was no more than it appeared to be it was also radically honest; more honest than the politicians would have been by themselves. And that is something we can learn from too.

In summary, “No” is a film with something to contribute, to our understanding of the past, as well as to the future.