Best of 2021: This campaign duped an NRA leader into speaking at a 'graduation' for student gun violence victims

Change the Ref campaign from Leo Burnett and directed by Bryan Buckley calls attention to 'The Lost Class'

Published On
Jun 23, 2021

Editor's Pick

Through New Year's, we will be counting down our picks for 2021's 30 best ads and creative marketing ideas.

At No. 6: Gun safety organization Change the Ref is known for its daring ideas to promote its cause, but this was perhaps its boldest yet. With the help of agency Leo Burnett Chicago and A-List director Bryan Buckley, it fooled major gun rights figures, including former NRA president John Lott to give graduation speeches to "The Lost Class," rows and rows of empty seats meant to represent the high school students unable to graduate because they were killed in acts of gun violence.

This month, David Keene, a former president and current board member of the NRA, and John Lott, a political commentator and guns rights advocate, took to the podium to deliver a commencement speech—to 3,044 empty seats representing the high school students who might have had a chance to graduate this year, had they not lost their lives to gun violence.

See the full list of 2021's Best Ads.

Keene and Lott both believed they were giving graduation speeches at a Las Vegas High School, James Madison Academy, but had they done a background check, they would have discovered no such school existed. It was all a fabrication from gun safety organization Change the Ref, part of “The Lost Class” campaign created out of Leo Burnett Chicago and directed by Hungry Man’s Bryan Buckley. 

The campaign films depict Keene and Lott delivering their speeches before an expanse of empty chairs, interspersed with audio of gunfire and kids calling 911 while their schools are under attack. They lead viewers to "The Lost Class" website, which encourages visitors to sign a petition to demand that lawmakers pass legislation requiring universal background checks for gun ownership. 


According to Buckley, Keene and Lott were filmed during what the pair believed to be a rehearsal. They thought the recording was to ensure there would be footage in case something went afoul during the actual ceremony before the students. All shooting was done openly and no hidden cameras were involved. They were then told that the ceremony was canceled due to security issues, so they never had to return to give their “real” performance. 

And not until the films were released today did they have a clue as to what the real deal was. 

Buzzfeed News had reached out to Lott to get comment on the speech. "You’re telling me the whole thing was a setup?" he said to the publication."No, I didn’t know that."


Change the Ref was founded by Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose son Joaquin was one of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida. Since the tragedy, the organization has debuted a number of bold, creatively-driven marketing moves, such as one voting campaign from McCann that resurrected Joaquin through deepfake technology to encouraged people to support gun safety legislation and the officials who back it. 

This campaign, however, may be the organization’s most brazen yet, putting gun rights advocates at center stage, quite literally. 

"We try different things in a very constant way," says Manuel Oliver. "We believe that by advertising the truth, people will start to see the number of lies that our system, along with the gun industry, has been using to manipulate Americans. Our campaigns are all based on hidden truths that take guts to express."

Buzzfeed reported that Lott said he had wanted to give more general life advice in his speech but was encouraged to talk about James Madison and background checks. "Unfortunately, the fact they lied to me many times is kind of illustrated by the way they edited and chopped up the video that’s there," he told them. "Is that the way we want to have political debate in the country? Where people lie and creatively edit what people say?"

The Olivers did not have contact with Keene or Lott during the campaign's production and have not connected with them since its debut, they say.

As for the riskiness of the campaign, "The word risk is not in our vocabulary," says Manuel Oliver. "When we lost our amazing son Joaquin, the perception of risk and fear became different, almost intangible."

Adds Patricia Oliver, "The real 'risks' that bother us are first, knowing that 100 people will risk their lives today due to gun violence and secondarily, that we are losing the battle against gun violence in our country."

“Preaching to the choir was no longer an option,” adds Sam Shepherd, EVP-executive creative director at Leo Burnett. “We needed to find new ways to force the conversation and challenge those who hold the power—or in this case, the microphone. And if that makes some people uncomfortable, we’ve succeeded."

Ultimately, “our goal is to begin the process of taking back control. Control over our fear of the NRA,” he adds. “Over what real confrontation looks like. And control over who can make a difference in this fight.”

In case you're wondering if any of this could get Change the Ref or Leo Burnett into legal hot water, "We consulted with trusted legal experts, including SmithDehn LLP, throughout the process," the agency's executive producer Ashley Geisheker says. And if you look through the law firm's clients, you'll find this guy