Jose Miguel Sokoloff: How Christmas lights helped guerrillas put down their guns
October 7, 2014
“In my lifetime, I have never lived one day of peace in my country,” says Jose Miguel Sokoloff. This ad executive from Colombia saw a chance to help guerrilla fighters choose to come home -- with smart marketing. He shares how some creative, welcoming messages have helped thousands of guerrillas decide to put down their weapons -- and the key insights behind these surprising tactics.Jose Miguel Sokoloff
- Anti-guerrilla creative
Ad exec Jose Miguel Sokoloff has led a multi-year marketing campaign that's helped Colombian guerrillas realize that they are wanted back home. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So, I thought a lot about
the first word I'd say today,
and I decided to say "Colombia."
And the reason, I don't know
how many of you have visited Colombia,
but Colombia is just north
of the border with Brazil.
It's a beautiful country
with extraordinary people,
like me and others -- (Laughter) --
and it's populated
with incredible fauna, flora.
It's got water; it's got everything
to be the perfect place.
But we have a few problems.
You may have heard of some of them.
We have the oldest
standing guerrilla in the world.
It's been around for over 50 years,
which means that in my lifetime,
I have never lived one day
of peace in my country.
This guerrilla -- and the main group
is the FARC guerrillas,
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia --
they have financed their war
by kidnapping, by extortion,
by getting into the drug trade,
by illegal mining.
There has been terrorism.
There have been random bombs.
So it's not good.
It's not really good.
And if you look at the human cost
of this war over 50 years,
we have had more than
5.7 million displaced population.
It's one of the biggest displaced
populations in the world,
and this conflict has cost
over 220,000 lives.
So it's a little bit like
the Bolívar wars again.
It's a lot of people who
have died unnecessarily.
We are now in the middle of peace talks,
and we've been trying to help
resolve this problem peacefully,
and as part of that,
we decided to try something
completely lateral and different:
So Christmas lights, and you're saying,
what the hell is this guy
going to talk about?
I am going to talk about gigantic trees
that we put in nine strategic
pathways in the jungle
covered with Christmas lights.
These trees helped us
demobilize 331 guerrillas,
roughly five percent
of the guerrilla force at the time.
These trees were lit up at night,
and they had a sign beside them
that said, "If Christmas can come
to the jungle, you can come home.
At Christmas, everything is possible."
So how do we know these trees worked?
Well, we got 331, which is okay,
but we also know that
not a lot of guerrillas saw them,
but we know that a lot of
guerrillas heard about them,
and we know this
because we are constantly talking
to demobilized guerrillas.
So let me take you back
four years before the trees.
Four years before the trees,
we were approached by the government
to help them come up with
a communications strategy
to get as many guerrillas
as we could out of the jungle.
The government had a military strategy,
it had a legal strategy,
it had a political strategy, but it said,
"We don't really have
a communications strategy,
and it probably would be
a good thing to have,"
so we decided to
immediately jump into this,
because it is an opportunity
to affect the outcome of the conflict
with the things that we do,
with the tools that we have.
But we didn't know very much about it.
We didn't understand in Colombia,
if you live in the cities,
you're very far away from where
the war is actually happening,
so you don't really understand it,
and we asked the government
to give us access
to as many demobilized
guerrillas as possible.
And we talked to about 60 of them
before we felt we fully
understood the problem.
We talked about -- they told us why
they had joined the guerrillas,
why the left the guerrillas,
what their dreams were,
what their frustrations were,
and from those conversations
came the underlying insight
that has guided this whole campaign,
which is that guerrillas are as much
prisoners of their organizations
as the people they hold hostage.
And at the beginning, we were
so touched by these stories,
we were so amazed by these stories,
that we thought that maybe
the best way to talk to the guerrillas
was to have them talk to themselves,
so we recorded about a hundred
different stories during the first year,
and we put them on
the radio and television
so that the guerrillas in the jungle
could hear stories, their stories,
or stories similar to theirs,
and when they heard them,
they decided to go out.
I want to tell you one of these stories.
This person you see here
is Giovanni Andres.
Giovanni Andres is 25
when we took that picture.
He had been seven years in the guerrilla,
and he had demobilized very recently.
His story is the following:
He was recruited when he was 17,
and sometime later,
in his squadron, if you will,
this beautiful girl was recruited,
and they fell in love.
Their conversations were about
what their family was going to be like,
what their kids' names would be,
how their life would be
when they left the guerrilla.
But it turns out
that love is very strictly forbidden
in the lower ranks of the guerrilla,
so their romance was discovered
and they were separated.
He was sent very far away,
and she was left behind.
She was very familiar with the territory,
so one night, when she was on guard,
she just left,
and she went to the army, she demobilized,
and she was one of the persons
that we had the fortune to talk to,
and we were really touched by this story,
so we made a radio spot,
and it turns out, by chance,
that far away, many,
many kilometers north,
he heard her on the radio,
and when he heard her on the radio,
he said, "What am I doing here?
She had the balls to get out.
I need to do the same thing."
And he did.
He walked for two days and two nights,
and he risked his life and he got out,
and the only thing
he wanted was to see her.
The only thing that was
in his mind was to see her.
The story was, they did meet.
I know you're wondering if they did meet.
They did meet.
She had been recruited when she was 15,
and she left when she was 17,
so there were a lot
of other complications,
but they did eventually meet.
I don't know if they're together now,
but I can find out. (Laughter)
But what I can tell you is that
our radio strategy was working.
The problem is that it was working
in the lower ranks of the guerrilla.
It was not working with the commanders,
the people that are
more difficult to replace,
because you can easily recruit
but you can't get the older commanders.
So we thought, well,
we'll use the same strategy.
We'll have commanders
talking to commanders.
And we even went as far
as asking ex-commanders of the guerrilla
to fly on helicopters with microphones
telling the people that
used to fight with them,
"There is a better life out there,"
"I'm doing good,"
"This is not worth it," etc.
But, as you can all imagine,
it was very easy to counteract,
because what was
the guerrilla going to say?
"Yeah, right, if he doesn't do that,
he's going to get killed."
So it was easy, so we were
suddenly left with nothing,
because the guerrilla
were spreading the word
that all of those things are done
because if they don't do it,
they're in danger.
And somebody, some
brilliant person in our team,
came back and said,
"You know what I noticed?
I noticed that around Christmastime,
there have been peaks of demobilization
since this war has started."
And that was incredible,
because that led us to think
that we needed to talk to the human being
and not to the soldier.
We needed to step away from talking
from government to army,
from army to army,
and we needed to talk
about the universal values,
and we needed to talk about humanity.
And that was when
the Christmas tree happened.
This picture that I have here,
you see this is the planning
of the Christmas trees,
and that man you see there
with the three stars,
he's Captain Juan Manuel Valdez.
Captain Valdez was the first
to give us the helicopters
and the support we needed
to put these Christmas trees up,
and he said in that meeting
something that I will never forget.
He said, "I want to do this
because being generous makes me stronger,
makes my men feel stronger."
And I get very emotional
when I remember him
because he was killed later in combat
and we really miss him,
but I wanted you all to see him,
because he was really, really important.
He gave us all the support
to put up the first Christmas trees.
What happened later is that
the guerrillas who came out
during the Christmas tree
operation and all of that
said, "That's really good,
Christmas trees are really cool,
but you know what?
We really don't walk anymore.
We use rivers."
So rivers are the highways of the jungle,
and this is something we learned,
and most of the recruiting was being done
in and around the river villages.
So we went to these river villages,
and we asked the people,
and probably some of them were
direct acquaintances of the guerrillas.
We asked them, "Can you send
guerrillas a message?"
We collected over 6,000 messages.
Some of them were notes saying, get out.
Some of them were toys.
Some of them were candy.
Even people took off their jewelry,
their little crosses and religious things,
and put them in these floating balls
that we sent down the rivers
so that they could be picked up at night.
And we sent thousands
of these down the rivers,
and then picked them up
later if they weren't.
But lots of them were picked up.
This generated, on average,
a demobilization every six hours,
so this was incredible and it was about:
Come home at Christmas.
Then came the peace process,
and when the peace process started,
the whole mindset
of the guerrilla changed.
And it changed because
it makes you think, "Well,
if there's a peace process,
this is probably going to be over.
At some point I'm going to get out."
And their fears completely changed,
and their fears were not about,
"Am I going to get killed?"
Their fears were, "Am I
going to be rejected?
When I get out of this,
am I going to be rejected?"
So the past Christmas,
what we did was we asked --
we found 27 mothers of guerrillas,
and we asked them to give us
pictures of their children,
when they only could recognize themselves,
so as not to put their lives in danger,
and we asked them to give
the most motherly message you can get,
which is, "Before you were a guerrilla,
you were my child,
so come home, I'm waiting for you."
You can see the pictures here.
I'll show you a couple.
And these pictures were placed
in many different places,
and a lot of them came back,
and it was really, really beautiful.
And then we decided to work with society.
So we did mothers around Christmastime.
Now let's talk about
the rest of the people.
And you may be aware of this or not,
but there was a World Cup this year,
and Colombia played really well,
and it was a unifying moment for Colombia.
And what we did was tell the guerrillas,
"Come, get out of the jungle.
We're saving a place for you."
So this was television, this was
all different types of media saying,
"We are saving a place for you."
The soldier here in the commercial says,
"I'm saving a place for you
right here in this helicopter
so that you can get out of this jungle
and go enjoy the World Cup."
Ex-football players, radio announcers,
everybody was saving
a place for the guerrilla.
So since we started this work
a little over eight years ago,
17,000 guerrillas have demobilized.
I do not -- (Applause)
I don't want to say in any way
that it only has to do with what we do,
but what I do know is that our work
and the work that we do
may have helped a lot of them
start thinking about demobilization,
and it may have helped a lot of them
take the final decision.
If that is true, advertising is still
one of the most powerful tools of change
that we have available.
And I speak not only my behalf,
but on behalf of all
the colleagues I see here
who work in advertising,
and of all the team that has
worked with me to do this,
that if you want to change the world,
or if you want to achieve
peace, please call us.
We'd love to help.
Jose Miguel Sokoloff
- Anti-guerrilla creative
Ad exec Jose Miguel Sokoloff has led a multi-year marketing campaign that's helped Colombian guerrillas realize that they are wanted back home.Why you should listen
Jose Miguel Sokoloff knows what it's like to go into a jungle to make a commercial in a Black Hawk helicopter surrounded by soldiers with machine guns. In the last few years he has planned and realized pro-bono ad campaigns on behalf of the Ministry of Defense against the guerrilla war in Colombia -- to persuade FARC guerrillas to demoblize.
Realizing that a guerrillero is as much a prisoner of his organization as are his hostages, Sokoloff and his team played on the promise of freedom. At Christmas 2010, his agency, Lowe-SSP3 Colombia, placed nine decorated holiday trees in the jungle near a banner ad that read: "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize." It won gold at Cannes Lions -- but the most important prize was that it succeeded in its intent, creating a spike in demobilization rates.
The following year the agency planned a poetic campaign called "Rivers of Light" (Operación Ríos de Luz), which floated a raft of glowing plastic balls, filled with gifts and messages from family, down rivers that the revolutionaries typically travel. Christmas 2012's campaign, "Operation Bethlehem," lit up wayfinding "stars" over local villages, offering defectors a route back.
Meanwhile, Sokoloff's agency also handles large global consumer clients like Unilever, as well as the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.
The original video is available on TED.com