The List – Ontario Government

Unprecedented bravery and change in a sector under scrutiny

While most stories about political ads centred on the federal election this year, various ministries within the Ontario Government showed the will to be bold and unequivocal in their messaging around two very controversial topics: sexual safety and sex education.

The first campaign, Leo Burnett‘s “#WhoWillYouHelp,” was a stark portrayal of female exploitation in very real and relatable terms. Scenes of workplace harassment, a drunk girl being assaulted a party and the drugging of a woman’s drink in a bar encouraged Ontarians to speak up in the face of such abuse. The role of the passive observer — the viewer — is equated with aiding the abuser: “When you do nothing, you’re helping him.”

The launch spot earned 7 million views in English alone—the most successful social posting ever for the province—while homemade translations in other markets reached far wider (the Turkish adaptation had reached 2.7 million views by press time).

But while the marketing measures are strong, the social action measures are where this campaign really shines. Some pre- and post-campaign testing polled Ontarians, asking whether they would intervene if they witnessed sexual assault. Before the campaign broke, 37% said they would do so. After the campaign, it was 58%.

A second campaign, Grey’s “Show of Hands,” tackled the province’s contentious new sex ed curriculum with a similarly unflinching look at issues faced by students in the face of protests from conservative parents and advocacy groups.

This ad could have been more neutral, less provocative in its outreach to parents: a talking head politician or scripted “testimonials” from “real” Ontario parents. Instead, it cut to the heart of the matter by showing students in real-life situations… the very situations those protesting would rather not see: a young boy asking questions about queer identity and LGBT families, public school students on both the giving and receiving ends of online bullying and first encounters with puberty, body image issues and sexting.

Granted, the Ontario Government isn’t just one client per se; those two campaigns came from the Ontario Women’s Directorate and the Ministry of Education, respectively. But both fell under the purview of Ann Byberg, a former agency account executive who’s now director of marketing at the Office of the Premier. Coming from JWT, Leo Burnett, Grey and Grip, she entered her current role with the understanding that government work is typically subject to long, reductive review from dozens of stakeholders and, of course, the political will of those who could suffer at the polls from a misstep. (No wonder government ads are usually as evocative as a beige wall.)

“My vision of government advertising was, ‘They must take years, they’re the slowest moving people,'” Byberg said. But, #WhoWillYouHelp took barely three months from agency briefing to getting the ad in the can. The team didn’t test any creative, preferring to keep the operation running quickly to maintain the strength of the creative. “Show of Hands” happened even faster.

“There’s some respect gained now from agencies because we’re not taking that long,” Byberg said. “We’re being efficient with our time and theirs. It’s not about speed; you want it done right. But I also feel that a little bit of stress helps the creative. A very long, slow schedule is death by a thousand cuts for creative.”

There are certainly other strong PSAs in the market, but the frankness of these ads in dealing with tough issues from a very clear point of view stands out in a field typically known for ignorable work, and deserves special mention for taking risks when the stakes were high.

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