Editors’ note: For historical context, it is important to acknowledge that much of Chile’s business community supported the 1973 coup to replace democratically elected Salvador Allende with Augusto Pinochet.
On an August day in 1988, Eugenio García took a call that was to change his life. It was an executive from a rival advertising agency, a slick account man called Francisco Celedón whom García knew by reputation but had never spoken to. He had something he wanted to discuss.
As everybody in Chile knew, the president, Augusto Pinochet, had announced a referendum to be held on October 5. After 15 years of brutal dictatorship, in which an estimated 3,000 political opponents had been killed, another 3,000 had “disappeared” and about 10 times that number had been tortured, abused, and raped by Pinochet’s secret police, Chileans were being asked for their opinion of the regime. The vote was going to be a straight choice: “yes” or “no” to eight more years of the Generalissimo.
Pinochet thought he had the vote sewn up. The vast majority of the country, he believed, was grateful to him for the firm action he had taken against the “enemies of the state” and supported his free-market economics, which had reversed years of decline. A devoted nation would flock to the polls to give their assent to his rule, handing him a new, improved mandate and silencing his critics, both at home and abroad. The opposition, such as it was, would be too disorganized to pose a serious threat.
But the president’s overconfidence had given his opponents a glimmer of hope. Proving he could be fair when he wanted to be, Pinochet had promised the No campaign (a ragtag group of 16 left- and right-wing parties) 15 minutes of free television airtime every day during the campaign to put its case. Scheduled to go out late at night, the general didn’t think the programs would make much impression on the voters. And, besides, the government controlled every other program on television and had the rest of the day—as well as its own official 15-minute slot every night—to pump out its propaganda.
Celedón, a member of the Christian Democratic Party, knew instinctively the dictator had miscalculated. Television may not have played a big part in elections past in Chile, but a lot had changed in the intervening 18 years (since the 1970 election of Allende). The late-night slots were going to have a massive influence. And he wanted García to be the campaign’s creative director. “The fool doesn’t realize what he’s done,” said Celedón. “This is the chance we’ve been waiting for.”
The story of that campaign and how García and a small group of fellow advertising executives, the Mad Men of Eighties Chile, risked their lives to stand up against Pinochet and, employing all their advertising nous, inspired a nation to overthrow one of the world’s most repressive regimes, has now been dramatized in a new film, No, which opens in UK cinemas this week and was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. For fans of a certain television series about advertising folk in Sixties New York, it’s a reminder that advertising can, sometimes, be used as a force for good rather than a psychological weapon to make people feel bad about themselves and buy things they don’t need. Its hero, played by Gael García Bernal (a composite of García and his colleague, José Manuel Salcedo), is no Don Draper.
But the success of the No campaign was far from a foregone conclusion. When García, then a 36-year-old creative and harried father of five, who had made award-winning commercials for Sony and various Chilean confectionery brands, met Celedón to discuss their strategy for the first time, he was presented with research showing that large numbers of Chileans were too scared to vote “no,” either because they feared retribution from the regime or because they feared a return to the Marxism of Allende and all that entailed: strikes, spiraling inflation, lines for food.
What’s more, the No campaign didn’t have a candidate. It wasn’t like a normal general election, in which voters choose between a range of parties and party leaders; it was either “yes” to Pinochet or “no” to Pinochet.
“By its very nature, ‘no’ was a negative concept; it was very difficult to sell,” says García, now 60 and still living and working in Santiago. “‘No’ was not a person, not a candidate. It had no personality, no ethics, no aesthetics.” So García’s first job was to create a “product” which would have mass-market appeal. What message, his team asked themselves, would unite Chileans, both young and old? Something that would both reassure and fire up the voters? They tossed ideas around. There was a temptation, of course, to go with a hard-hitting campaign—featuring footage of executions, political arrests, and police violence—to remind voters of Pinochet’s many crimes.
But the ad men knew that wouldn’t sell. However deep the hatred, you didn’t fight negativity with negativity. Instead, they needed something upbeat and optimistic that would galvanize the nation; something hopeful to contrast with the fear and oppression of the ruling junta.
What we need to convey, García said, looking up at a deep blue sky, is the feeling you have when black clouds part and the sun finally breaks through. What is that word? And then he answered his own question: “La alegría!” Joy! That was the slogan: “Chile, la alegría ya viene”: Chile, joy is coming.
“In Spanish, alegría is a collective feeling,” says García now. “It’s not just ‘happiness,’ it conveys more of a carnival or party atmosphere. That was our philosophy. After years of polarization, we all needed to live together in peace. We bet on the good nature of the ordinary Chilean; that they didn’t like violence, they didn’t like fear.” With the theme in place, García and Salcedo went into overdrive. Fifteen minutes of television every night for 27 nights was a lot of airtime to fill. Scripts had to be written, actors hired, sets designed. They also had to create a logo—a simple rainbow—and print flags, banners, posters, and T-shirts.
Today, in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 “hope and change” campaign, García’s strategy may seem an obvious one. But García and his colleagues met stiff resistance from the No campaign’s politicians. In the year preceding the plebiscite, the number of reported kidnappings, instances of torture, and politically related killings had reached its highest level in seven years. In one particularly ugly case, a doctor had been dragged from his car by armed men who tied him to a tree, carved a swastika on his forehead, and simulated an execution before ordering him to leave Chile.
So a campaign about happiness, featuring children smiling and dancing in the street, struck many as hopelessly lightweight and deeply disrespectful towards Pinochet’s victims. In the film (which was shot on old U-matic cameras to blend fictional scenes with footage of the original advertisements), a member of the opposition walks out after watching a screening of one of the political broadcasts. “This is a campaign to silence what has really happened,” he tells Bernal’s character.
García does not deny things got heated. “They expected something else,” he tells me. “They expected us to say that Pinochet was a criminal, and we did talk about his criminal activities, but we knew everything had to be infused with a strong sense of reconciliation. We didn’t want to kill Pinochet; we needed to reconstruct the spirit of the country.”
The first broadcast went out at 10:45 pm on September 5. It began with the image of a painted rainbow and the word No, while a catchy song incorporating the campaign’s slogan played in the background. Then the camera focused on Patricio Bañados, who had been one of the country’s favorite newscasters until he was blacklisted by the government. “Chile, joy is on its way,” he said. The theme song then struck up again and the screen was filled with images of Chileans showing their support for a “no” vote: a young man strolling down a country lane; a chef turning around to show a “no” emblem on his back; a taxi driver waving his finger back and forth in time with his windscreen wipers.
It might sound cheesy to us today, but this first broadcast made an explosive impact. Watched by millions, it electrified the nation and caught the Pinochet government completely off-guard. The Yes broadcast, in comparison, looked hopelessly old-fashioned, out-of-touch, and downbeat. “The Si campaign was terrible,” says García. One particularly thick-headed film featured a steamroller driving over a television, then a set of table lamps, and then a baby’s pushchair to represent the supposed threat to people’s livelihoods posed by Pinochet’s opponents.
But if the No camp had the brains, the regime still had the brawn. In the month leading up to the referendum, Pinochet’s henchmen waged a frightening campaign of intimidation against the opposition. Farmers who had appeared in one of the No programs were beaten up, a musician who appeared in another program was fired from her job, and Bañados lost the sponsor to one of his radio programs. In her book about the Pinochet years, Soldiers in a Narrow Land, the South American journalist Mary Helen Spooner says Bañados also received a telephoned death threat. “You son of a bitch, I’m going to kill you,” the caller said. A few weeks later, Bañados was crossing a street when a man in a car tried to run him over.
“Many of us were intimidated and threatened during the campaign,” says García. “Phone calls, people were followed, cars in front of their houses, but we carried on. Once you’re at the party, you have to dance.” No one working on the campaign slept much during that period, partly due to fear, partly adrenalin. But the decision of so many people to stand up publicly and oppose Pinochet, especially the actors in front of the cameras (none of whom would have worked in Chile again had the general won), inspired the nation.
On the day of the referendum, October 5, millions flocked to the polling stations. Men and women, many dressed in their Sunday best, stood in line patiently to vote, in some cases for several hours. Then they went home and waited for the result to be announced. García was at his ex-wife’s house.
“Everybody was asleep—my wife, my children. I wanted to be alone. And when the result was announced, I cried in silence.” A total of 7.2 million votes had been cast—the highest number in Chilean history—with 3.96 million (54.7 per cent) voting “no” and 3.1 million (43 per cent) voting “yes.” It was a resounding victory for the opposition.
“The atmosphere in the country was incredible,” says García. “The next day, in La Alameda [the main street in Santiago], people were shaking hands and hugging policemen. There were rainbow T-shirts and flags everywhere. It was a carnival.” Grudgingly, but peacefully, the general handed over power in 1990 to a democratic civilian government, and eight years later, on a visit to Britain for a back operation, he was arrested and threatened with extradition to Spain on charges of multiple murder. To the eternal disappointment of the relatives of his victims, however, he never faced those charges; he died in 2006.
Two weeks after the referendum, García left advertising and now runs his own consultancy. It seems a strange decision after everything that had just happened. “I felt that chapter of my life had finished,” he says. “When you have achieved what we achieved, what other challenge is left?”
A version of this article originally appeared in Seven Magazine, The Telegraph.