Colombia Uses Ads to Persuade Rebels to Turn Themselves In

Work From Lowe SSP3, Airing During Soccer Games, Features Former FARC Guerrillas

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NEW YORK ( -- Not a lot of ad campaigns target armed guerrillas who live in the jungle. But it's an established strategy in Colombia.

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Wracked by years of guerrilla warfare, the Colombian government has been steadily slashing the number of fighters from groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC. An ad campaign by Bogota-based Lowe SSP3 is helping to encourage armed insurgents to defect from the jungle using advertising built around what disillusions them about life as a revolutionary, supported with a media plan that leans heavily on soccer games they like to watch.

Jose Miguel Sokoloff, chief creative officer of Lowe SSP3, said his creative team spent weeks with former guerrilla fighters interviewing and getting to know them. The big insight that emerged was that those who defected felt as if they had become as much a prisoner as their hostages, lacking any personal freedom and deprived of all family life. Asked what they do in the jungle when not fighting, the rebels responded: "We watch soccer."

A plan was born. TV and radio spots air during soccer games such as Colombia's Nov. 12 match against Switzerland, which the guerrillas listen to on the radio or watch on DirecTV (funded by drug operations, groups like FARC can easily afford satellite TV). Lowe's first TV spots were mostly re-enactments of true stories -- a young woman forced to abort her baby, a young man ordered to kill his comrades -- accompanied by a voice-over from the guerrilla who told the story. Newer radio and TV spots are testimonials, filmed on a camcorder by Lowe or army officials, from guerrillas who have just turned themselves in. Sounding awkward but strikingly genuine, they talk about their reasons for leaving and why they became disillusioned. Ads end with the tagline: "Think about it. There's another life. Demobilization is the way out."

It's not easy. Rebels seeking a way out have to escape from the guerrilla camp in the jungle and then turn themselves in to Colombian soldiers who have been told not to harm them. One defector ensured his welcome by showing up with a severed hand, Mr. Sokoloff said. He had executed his comandante, a senior rebel leader.

The Colombian government started trying to get guerrillas to defect back in 2002, but Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia's vice minister for defense, recognized the need for an organized, strategic ad campaign to drive the ongoing demobilization effort, and Lowe SSP3 was approached in 2006.

Lowe SSP3's work is pro bono but Colombia's Ministry of Defense has an annual paid media budget of about $800,000 for the campaign, used to distribute fliers in rural towns visited by fighters and buy airtime during soccer games and the news programs watched by higher-level insurgents. Of course, even if all the guerrillas tuned in, most of the soccer audience is made up of ordinary Colombians.

"The Ministry of Defense said the advertising had to do two things: get people out of the guerrilla [forces], but also let the rest of the country understand we're winning this war," Mr. Sokoloff said.

When a senior rebel commander defects, for instance, an ad is quickly made with the defector's story, to encourage all Colombians to believe the tide has turned, as well as to pinpoint the remaining rebels.

About 11,405 armed insurgents were demobilized between 2002 and 2008, including 3,461 in 2008, an increase of about 8% over the year before. Mr. Sokoloff said the percentage is probably higher this year, judging from the steadily declining ranks of fighters.

Declining ranks
A decade ago, Colombia's terrorist groups had as many as 30,000 members. Despite new recruits, that number is now down to an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 armed rebels, following Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's aggressive moves against them since he took office in 2002. Estimates are difficult because fighters vanish by burying their weapons and dressing as villagers, then reappearing later. Even counting dead guerrillas is a challenge; rebels bury the bodies to make it harder for the government to claim victories.

So return on investment, so to speak, from the campaign is hard to calculate. But in a sign that people may be leaving now because the campaign's message has sunk in, defections are no longer as directly correlated to military strikes against the insurgents as they used to be, Mr. Sokoloff said. "With the number of defections, they are very weakened, and their lack of military power is very real."

The campaign makes sure that message gets out. One flier, distributed last year in rural towns where fighters go on their days off, says "Demobilization is your way out. More than 8,900 of your compaƱeros have done it." Like any good direct-response piece, the flier includes a guerrilla hotline number, and two smiling pictures of bearded former rebels who didn't seize the opportunity -- one was killed by the army, and the other by his own men.

As the campaign has gained momentum, other Colombians, from international pop star Shakira to local newspaper El Espectador, have joined in, usually checking with Lowe SSP3 and the Colombian government first to make sure they're on-message. "Other brands and voices have joined this fight," Mr. Sokoloff said. "It's something we Colombians believe in."

One moving TV spot, for instance, features real footage of a FARC hostage released after almost seven years in the jungle as his two now-teenage sons leap to hug him. That spot was done by El Espectador at the suggestion of Lowe SSP3's media-buying agency BEAT. A creative who has since joined Lowe put it together, and the ad ends with the daily's own tagline. Two well-known local singers wrote a song about leaving the jungle that became a hit, and Shakira made an appeal to the armed groups to release their hostages and demobilize.

Another sign that the program is working is the increasing seniority of the rebel fighters who are demobilizing, Mr. Sokoloff said. Now that so many of the underage combatants have fled the jungle, one goal is to keep targeting the remaining high-ranking commanders, who have the ability to recruit new kids. And maybe enter a few award shows.

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