TBWA/Paris for Amnesty International – Death to the Death Penalty (the story behind the campaign)

On October 10 2010, the fourth European Day Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International France launched a commercial to mobilise support amongst decision-makers and the general public for its campaign against the death penalty.

The film, created for Amnesty International France by advertising agency TBWA Paris, used life-like wax figures to depict four different methods of execution: firing squad, hanging, beheading and the electric chair. In each scenario, the wax figures melt then crumple – powerfully illustrating the campaign’s strap line: ‘Death to the Death Penalty’.

In a chiaroscuro mood, a firing squad is pointing guns to a prisoner. Characters made out candle wax start to melt down. Then, a hangman is just about to knock down the stool of the prisoner but the rope of the Gallows starts melting down and the scene dissolves. The sword of an executioner and the executioner himself melt down. And eventually, an electric chair meets the same fate. As a reveal, the sentence shaped in candle wax “Death to the death penalty” followed by the very own Amnesty candle logo explain us that Amnesty has put a death spell on the death penalty, that it’s own flame is burning down executioners.

French broadcasters agreed to show the ad at no cost to Amnesty International during an initial run of 30 ad slots. The commercial was then shown in independent cinemas across France for a further four weeks and the creative idea featuring wax figures was also used in accompanying print ads – including posters in Paris – and also direct mail.






The ‘Death to the Death Penalty’ campaign generated significant media coverage and interest both in France and further afield. The commercial was viewed more than 400,000 times online with 30,000 views via the Amnesty International France web site. The advertising has since been used by Amnesty international in more than a dozen other countries – an unusual step as the organisation usually commissions then implements its marketing campaigns locally, market by market.

“We were amazed that support for the work among Amnesty International activists was unanimous – which for us is extremely rare,” says Sylvie Haurat, Communications Director of Amnesty International France.

The Story
Although 96 countries have formally abolished it and many more have not used it in years, 58 nations still actively practice the death penalty. Campaigns for all countries to end capital punishment are ongoing, however, and at a General Assembly meeting in November 2010 the United Nations renewed its call for a moratorium on the death penalty. Ahead of this Amnesty International France, part of global human rights organisation Amnesty International, decided to run a publicity campaign about the issue. France was one of the first countries to formally abolish the death penalty. Amnesty International France wanted to remind the French public that 58 countries were yet to follow their country’s lead, and it hoped France would step up its influence to persuade governments yet to abolish the death penalty to do so.

Amnesty International France is one of 72 national ‘sections’ of Amnesty International, the organisation that campaigns for internationally-recognised human rights for all. Typically, it runs campaigns around three or four different human rights-related issues each year with advertising created and then implemented locally, market by market. Budgets are always very tight so much if not all of the creative development and production work involved is done for free with media space either provided pro bono or at a reduced cost.

We are very demanding client,” Sylvie Haurat says. “Not only do we have very little budget, we are extremely demanding when it comes to our concerns about ethics. And with the cross section of activists working for us, who all have strong opinions, it can be difficult to find campaign ideas on which everyone can agree.” 

In early 2009 Amnesty International France approached TBWA-Paris to develop the death penalty campaign. The organisation had worked with the agency for almost a decade on an ad hoc basis – a relationship that had already produced a number of highly successful campaigns – and the brief was clear.

“Amnesty International already has a worldwide initiative called ‘Count Down for a World Free from Capital Punishment’,” explains Anne-Laure Brunner, TBWA-Paris’ Account Director and Director of New Business. “They gave us the historical background and the Count Down context. They made it clear we needed to mobilise support and to do so by being positive about how close they now are to realising their goal. And they told us to make sure that nothing we produced was directly critical of any particular, individual country.”

A significant feature of the brief – and the TBWA-Paris creative team’s starting point – was how different the death penalty brief was to others for previous Amnesty International campaigns. Unlike most of the other issues Amnesty International campaigns on, the death penalty is a fight that’s close to being won. Because of this, Amnesty International France wanted to do something different to most of our other campaigns – to be more positive. “It was about raising awareness,” says Sylvie Haurat. “And we wanted it to be a message that would appeal to everyone.” 

The Strategy
The agency team’s initial discussions focused on different ways to present the death penalty as outdated and irrelevant – building on insight into the varied and often conflicting ways in which it is used in different countries, and the fact that there is little evidence to suggest capital punishment effectively dissuades others from repeating the same crime. The creative team were concerned that imagery such as an electric chair overgrown by nature might lack impact, however. Attention then turned to Amnesty International’s logo, which features the image of a candle signifying hope out of darkness. Their idea was to use figures of executioners made of wax melting.

“The thought of using wax figures came to us quite quickly because the Amnesty International logo stands for light and hope, and because the melting wax would simply show the time was right to make the death penalty simply melt away,” says TBWA-Paris Art Director Philippe Taroux. “We felt this was a positive way to get the message across – with only a final push in the campaign needed to bring it to its end, it was important to be engaging rather than shocking which people might have felt was alienating.”

Though the creative solution was found early executing it would take almost another 18 months, however. “If you don’t have the money to spend you need time,” Taroux adds. “We began by researching how we could film melting, life-size figures for TV. We approached production collective Pleix who we have worked with many times before to see if we could build and film the figures for real then melt them in post-production. But then we realised how difficult it would be to shoot what we wanted for real.”

Early tests showed it would be too difficult to film melting wax without it looking like stop-motion animation. The logistics involved combined with the limited budget available, meanwhile, meant a more cost effective way to do it was needed that look as realistic as shooting it for real.

“We then began working with post-production company Digital District to find a way to create figures using CG that looked life-size and realistic that we could then melt convincingly,” Taroux continues. “It was really hard as nothing like this had been done before and only in the last week could we be sure what we had was good enough. We ended up pushing the software to the limit on what turned out to be one of the most complicated ads I’ve ever done.” 

So, the figures were sculpted in CG then melted using special software. Facial scans were also used to create extra details on the faces. An important balancing act, however, was ensuring that while realistic the figures did not too closely resemble any particular nationality, Brunner points out: “While we wanted the executioners to be realistic they couldn’t look too like one nationality.” 

Creating the texture of the wax was relatively easy compared to simulating realistic melting. CG software is highly effective for quick water splashes but less suitable for melting more viscous substances very slowly. “Everything had to be really precise – which is always the case to get the best out of 3D,” Taroux adds.  “We drew lot of storyboards to know exactly what we wanted in each shot working closely with the director. We then focused closely on the special effects. Editing was about making sure each of the four ‘stories’ had equal weight.” 

Music choice was another important consideration. “The images were critical, but as important was creating the right ‘climate’ through the sound to provide an emotional dimension,” Taroux explains. The track eventually chosen after months of research was a stirring piece of music called ‘Everyday’ by Carly Comando. “We did not want anything that would over-dramatise the subject. The music was chose had to keep the human dimension – to be stirring and hopeful.”  

Amnesty International France was closely involved throughout the extended development and production process.

“This meant a number of lengthy discussions among our executive committee – about the storyboards, for example,” says Sylvie Haurat. “Because one scene they suggested would show an executioner’s face melting. We had lots of discussions about the ethics of whether Amnesty International could be seen to melt an executioner. This might seem bizarre to an outsider but as I say, we are very demanding. But the idea was strong. And the scene with the melting face is still there.”  

The finished film featured four different vignettes, each depicting a different form of execution: beheading by sword, a practice still used in some Middle East countries; firing squad, still used in China; hanging, used in parts of Asia; and electrocution, practise still used in parts of the US. Each vignette was carefully lit and shot against a simple black background with the audience’s viewpoint guided around the different figures and their equipment as the wax models began to melt.

Though the commercial took almost 18 months to produce the client was closely involved throughout the project. “We have a close relationship and so a strong degree of trust,” says Brunner. “There was much talking around the brief and first concepts as nothing had been done like this before. Then there was more talking around the realisation. Ultimately, however, it all turned out well and no modifications by the client to any of our work at all were made.”

The Impact
Amnesty International France’s ‘Death to the Death Penalty’ campaign launched on October 10 2010, the fourth European Day Against the Death Penalty.  With an extremely limited budget, the campaign needed unpaid media coverage to extend its reach. So ahead of launch, the agency produced CDs and press releases about the campaign to distribute to the media along with scaled down wax models of an electric chair. This generated editorial coverage on four major TV shows and in numerous magazines. The commercial was then shown in French independent cinemas over the next four months.

The ‘Death to the Death Penalty’ film went on to have a significant and far-reaching impact. It generated a large amount of interest at home and abroad and, in the months that followed, the French-produced advertising was used by Amnesty International sections in more than a dozen other countries – a highly unusual move for an organisation where individual markets usually produce and use they own campaign materials, locally.

In the months since, the campaign has won more than two dozen advertising industry awards including a D&AD Yellow Pencil in the Animation category in 2011.

“The campaign’s success is down to the emotional power of the subject and the way it was presented which touched people without over-dramatising,” Brunner believes. “The film is positive and motivating. The technology behind it makes it look real. And the use of wax makes a direct link to the Amnesty candle. It is a perfect combination of pictures, music and message.” 

Sylvie Haurat adds: “The strength of the campaign lay in the quality of the creative concept and its symbolic resonance. The length of time it took to make did cause us problems – we had hoped to run the campaign in October 2009 but it wasn’t ready until a year later. But pro bono work is never straight forward. And we were amazed that support for the work among Amnesty International activists was unanimous – which for us is extremely rare.” 

Advertising Agency: TBWA/Paris
Executive Creative Directors: Eric Holden, Rémi Noël
Copy Writer: Benoît Leroux
Art Director: Philippe Taroux
Director: Pleix
Production Company: Warm & Fuzzy
Composting: Philippe Aubry, Dan Elhadad, Jimmy Cavé, Guillaume Nadaud, Guillaume Martin
Music: Artist/Song Title: Carly Comando – Everyday



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