A budding high school romance, an unusual news report about a future tragedy, a shockingly grim back-to-school ad. Until now, the partnership between Sandy Hook Promise, BBDO New York and Smuggler director Henry-Alex Rubin has relied on expertly crafted fictional tales to illustrate the importance of being aware of the warning signs of gun violence. In a new ad that debuts today, they lean on something new: the real-life stories of gun violence victims.
The latest film from the organization founded in the aftermath of the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy takes the form of a somber music video for a cover of Katy Perry’s 2010 hit, “Teenage Dream.” It features a series of scenes of teenagers reciting and singing the tune, but the lyrics take on poignant, painful new meaning in light of the tragedies endured by those performing them.
The film begins with closeup shots of students singing lines from the song:
You think I'm pretty without any makeup on
You think I'm funny when I get the punch line wrong
I know you get me, so I let my walls come down
Before you met me
I was alright, but things were kinda heavy
You brought me to life
Now every February
You'll be my Valentine, Valentine
Let's go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love
We can dance, until we die
You and I, will be young forever
You make me feel like I’m living a teenage dream
I can’t sleep
Let’s run away and don’t ever look back
Their subdued delivery and faraway stares completely transform the song’s free-wheeling optimism into something cryptically painful.
It's not until copy appears that the spot's meaning comes to light. “The teenage dream is not what it used to be,” a line announces. Scene by scene, the ad then goes on to reveal each kid’s story in type as the camera lingers on their faces.
Among them are Hannah Dysinger of Draffenville, Kentucky, who was shot in the ribcage—with the same bullet that had killed her best friend; Nick Walczak, of Charon, Ohio, who was shot three times and paralyzed by a bullet in his spine; Carlitos Rodriguez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, who had barricaded himself behind a door as 17 of his schoolmates were killed; Aalayah Eastmond, another Parkland survivor who had hidden under the body of her dead friend; Nolan Brandy of San Bernardino, California, who was shot in the kidney during class as his teacher and a classmate were killed; Mia Page-Tretta of Santa Clarita, California, who was shot in the stomach while her best friend was killed next to her, and many more.
Telling Real Stories
According to BBDO Executive Creative Director Peter Alsante, bringing real-life stories was paramount for this project. “One of the things that was important to Sandy Hook Promise was that we tell stories about the people affected,” he says. “Sometimes they’re seen as numbers, statistics. Giving a face to those kids felt like a way to remind people that this is a real thing that happens to real people who are a lot like you. That’s why we were attracted to the idea of telling a story using real survivors.”
The ad’s release now is meant to highlight the importance of knowing the signs of potential gun violence as kids go back to school coming out of the pandemic, given the “powder keg” effect of the intense emotional challenges kids have faced over the last year. In March, the organization had called attention to the issue with the ‘‘The Kids Are Not Alright" campaign.
The idea for the new take on Perry’s pop hit came from BBDO Creative Director Jim Connolly, who suggested, "what if we just had survivors perform the song ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry,” Alsante says. “People are wistful and nostalgic about their teenage years, when life was so much simpler and you thought about going to the prom, getting your driver’s permit. But we knew there was a comparison between what reality is for most kids in high school and what the new reality is for people who have survived these shootings.”
The idea also lent itself well to the uncertainties of production as COVID continued. “We needed an idea we could film no matter how strict the production rules were,” Alsante says. Due to pandemic and budget restrictions, each teenager and their family members were flown to New York and shot in a single home, with the lighting adjusted and rooms made up mirror their own abodes as closely as possible.
Music company Human was behind the song’s new arrangement. In terms of getting approval rights for the song in the first place, the idea to use “Teenage Dream” was “crazy,” Alsante says. “Producers will say don’t ever come up with an idea that requires a certain song because you might not be able to afford it.” Fortunately, however, he says that those who managed rights on the song “were all in” on allowing Sandy Hook Promise to use it.
Katy Perry shared the video on her Instagram feed today:
Alsante notes that crucial to the performances was the work that director Rubin put into developing a rapport with the students, who were cast with the help of a researcher. “Henry built such genuine relationships with each cast member, spending weeks with the kids and their parents learning about their stories," he says.
“Once I know who people are, it’s much more possible for me to direct them,” Rubin explains. “Working with real people is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a curious director. Whereas actors are often listening and learning from a director, in this case it was me listening and learning from these kids. Real people are there because you’ve talked them into it. Your relationship to your subjects depends entirely on trust.”
The idea of revealing the kids’ individual experiences wasn’t part of the original plan. But “once we heard all their stories, we knew we had to tell their stories,” Alsante says. The campaign goes further into each of the teenager's stories on additional videos featured on the Sandy Hook Promise site.
In putting the new spot together, some of the kids’ experiences were curiously mirrored in the lines they delivered, Alsante says. Parkland survivor Eastmond, for example, sings the line, “Now every February, you’ll be my Valentine.” The Parkland tragedy occurred on Feb. 14. Samantha Fuentes, another Parkland student, recites the line “You think I’m pretty without any makeup on.” It’s revealed later in the film that bullet fragments remain embedded in her face.
Though such parallels add meaningful subtext to the film, the spot’s ultimate power lies in its restraint. Previous Sandy Hook Promise shocked viewers with an extreme “rug pull”—such as the revelation in “Evan” that the ad was more than just a love story and that “Essentials” went beyond the typical back-to-school ad. In the new film, there are only simple lines that eventually reveal what happened to the teenagers, set against student Page-Tretta’s piano rendition of the Perry tune. "We didn’t need any narrative twist this time," says Rubin. "The simple, printed facts are so unspeakable that you don’t need anything else.”