Guerrillas Get a Merry Little Christmas

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Colombian ad agency Lowe SSP3 is starting a Christmas-themed campaign to entice guerrilla fighters out of the jungle to turn themselves in. The agency may have created an advertising-to-guerrillas award category after winning a gold Cannes Lion in the outdoor category and half a dozen Grand Prix awards at other shows this year for its first holiday effort, last December. It decorated nine enormous evergreens in the jungles next to a banner ad reading: "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize."



Bogota-based Lowe SSP3 has been working with the Colombian government for several years to persuade fighters from groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, to "demobilize."

This Christmas, in an operation called "Rivers of Light," the agency is floating plastic balls filled with messages and small gifts from family and friends down waterways used by the insurgents. The project was inspired by a sort of guerrilla focus group in which former fighters said that Christmas is important even to a revolutionary, and the simple insight that in remote areas forces are more likely to travel on water than on the road.

"We had overlooked that the highways of the jungle are the rivers," said Jose Miguel Sokoloff, chief creative officer of the Lowe and Partners agency.

"Rivers of Light" also filled the need to get ordinary Colombians involved. TV and radio spots encourage residents with a friend or relative among the forces to write messages. Government soldiers are visiting small towns on market days to collect the notes, and any small gifts people want to include, and place them in the clear, illuminated balls.

"The commercials are to get people to participate and send messages, and to tell the guerrillas that if they see something in the river to pick it up -- it's a gift from society," said Mr. Sokoloff.

The balls are equipped with LEDs that recharge on solar power and will remain lighted for about two weeks, according to Mr. Sokoloff. They will be placed in nine different rivers, one in each of the areas still occupied by guerrillas. The first wave of about 1,000 balls has been sent down two rivers; any remaining after the holidays will be picked up.

Though it's obviously not likely that a guerrilla will happen to pick up a message from his own family, Mr. Sokoloff said, "if they get a letter from a child, we hope it reminds them of their child."

In a three-minute "Making of" video, a woman is seen taking off her necklace and putting it in one of the containers in the hope that her loved one will get it. (Her face isn't shown, a precaution against retribution from FARC.) Key chains and toys are also popular items. In a twist Lowe hadn't expected, people are asking whether their items can be put in certain rivers, and the agency is looking into whether it can do geo-targeting, perhaps using Google Maps.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 fighters are believed left, Mr. Sokoloff said, vs. as many as 30,000 a decade ago. The outreach encourages them to defect from their camps and surrender to Colombian soldiers, who have been instructed not to harm them.

Mr. Sokoloff, who became president of Lowe's Global Creative Council when Matthew Bull left the network earlier this year, said that when the trees were decorated last year, 331 guerrillas surrendered -- about 30% more than in December of the previous year. He said the month of December usually has the highest number of "demobilizations."

"Rivers of Light" will be considered successful if at least 300 guerrillas forsake the wild, according to Mr. Sokoloff. Not many actually saw the Christmas trees and banners last year, but it got great word-of-mouth. "Most of them heard about it," he said. "It was discussed."

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