Parents of Parkland victim Joaquin Oliver bring their son to life in heartbreaking plea to voters

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, founders of nonprofit Change the Ref, run by Oliver's parents, team with McCann for gun-safety voting campaign using deepfake technology

Published On
Oct 02, 2020

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On February 14, 2018, Manuel and Patricia Oliver lost their 17-year-old son Joaquin during the devastating school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. Yet they are keeping his spirit alive—and bringing him back to life via deepfake technology—to encourage people to support gun safety legislation and the officials who back it. 

In a new campaign breaking today from the Olivers’ gun safety nonprofit Change the Ref and McCann Health, Joaquin “lives” once again to deliver a message to voters to cast their ballots for those who can help ensure gun tragedies end.   

Through deepfake technology, it captures the spirited young “Guac,” as Joaquin was known, imploring viewers to vote to support those who back gun-safety measures—to “replace” the vote he would have made had he lived. This year’s election would have been the first he would have been eligible to participate in.

“Yo, It’s me—it’s Guac,” he says. “I’ve been gone for two years and nothing’s changed, bro. People are still getting killed by guns. Everyone knows it, but they don’t do anything. I’m tired of waiting for someone to fix it. The election in November is the first one I could have voted in, but I’ll never get to choose the kind of world I wanted to live in, so you’ve got to replace my vote. ... Vote for politicians who care more about people’s lives than the gun lobby’s money. Vote for people not getting shot, bro. Vote for me, because I can’t. We’ve got to keep on fighting and we’ve got to end this.”

The spot directs viewers to, where they can register to “replace” the votes of gun violence victims.

According to McCann Health Executive Creative Director Tim Jones, making up for the lost votes of gun violence victims is the insight that inspired the idea.

“We were chatting about Parkland and the horrors that went on and we realized this year, 2020, would have been the first time that all the children who had lost their lives at Parkland would have been eligible to vote for their first presidential election, and they’re missing out on that opportunity,” he says. “That was really heavy, but the natural thing to happen from that was, how do we make their voices heard again, how do we ultimately replace those lost votes? Those are human beings who lost their lives to the very thing they could have impacted to change.”

From there, brainstorming led them to Joaquin. “We were trying to think of what would be the most impactful way to get people to replace these votes that the kids weren’t able to make,” says Group Creative Director/Copywriter Josh Grossberg. “And as we dug into it a little more, we kept hearing about Joaquin and how he was this guy who wanted to change the world, and was a powerful, uplifting figure among his peers. So we thought he should be the one telling people to vote.”

The team feared, however. the idea would be too painful for the Olivers. “If it was me, I’d be curled up in a ball unable to continue,” Grossberg says. “But Manuel and Patricia, you can see that they’re sad, but they made it really easy to do this and go further. They said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ which was not what we expected. They said, ‘Joaquin’s not really gone, he has this power that lives on,’ and that’s what we really wanted to capture.”

It turns out that this isn’t the first time Joaquin has stepped out to make a statement. Last month, Change the Ref, along with MullenLowe, debuted the “#CutOuttheBullshit” campaign, which placed cardboard fan cutouts of Joaquin at more than a dozen ballparks.

The cutouts have been a way for sports watchers in the COVID era to make an “appearance” at games they can now only watch from screens. But this effort makes a poignant message about the games Joaquin will no longer be able to attend. 

Last year, Change the Ref teamed with agency Alma to create the “3D Activist” campaign, to transform Joaquin from a “victim” to an “activist” by 3D-printing his likeness and taking the figure to protests around the country. 

For the Olivers, bringing their son back for these campaigns admittedly has not been easy. “All this is very painful for us, but none of these campaigns are even close to the actual pain we felt on Feb 14, 2018—not to mention the real pain that our son felt that day,” says Manuel Oliver. “This is just an obligation that we have as parents and a way to keep Joaquin next to us on this fight while helping him become an activist and not a victim. Joaquin will always be the face and voice of Change the Ref. We just facilitate his job.”

The production
The “Unfinished Vote” spot was directed by David Gaddie via Colony, with deepfake technology developed out of Lightfarm. This particular production was different from other deepfake films, in that the team was working with very limited visual references when creating Joaquin’s likeness. Those who have created deepfake videos of politicians or famous figures have countless references from the media and public speaking events with which they can “train” the AI. In a recent campaign from Hulu that employed deepfake tech, for example, the celebrities featured within needed to capture their own faces from multiple different angles to create their likenesses. For the Change the Ref ad, however, Lightfarm used an experimental process that used a single image created from three different pictures of Joaquin. 

For the Olivers, the hyper-real recreation of their son in the spot was tough, but necessary. When they first watched it, Manuel says they experienced “mixed feelings between sadness, nostalgia, pride and anger. We cried for a few seconds and then realized that Joaquin's today mission is beyond any emotion from us. We respect the fact that, thanks to this campaign, we can now share Joaquin's ‘live’ message with the rest of the world.”

Change the Ref’s ideas rank among some of the most creative gun-safety campaigns we’ve seen in recent years, and the Olivers don’t want the ideas to stop. “We are planning a creative revolution that includes anyone reading this interview,” says Manuel. “We invite all creatives, ad firms and producers to join Change to Ref to develop a new social message that will mold American society’s near-future behavior. It’s time for us to feel proud of being Americans—not for the right to carry a gun, but for the way we defeated gun violence. On November 3, just fucking vote.”