Jose Miguel Sokoloff
845,935 views • 14:22

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: Christmas lights.

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. Demobilize. 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 high-ranking official 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. (Applause) Thank you.

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)

Thank you.

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.

Thank you.