Case Study: Amnesty International - It's Not Happening Here, But It's Happening Now

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This multi-award-winning poster campaign for Amnesty International Switzerland puts the issue of human rights abuse, quite literally, in front of our eyes.

Not here but now, China-Zurich

The campaign, created by Zurich-based advertising agency Walker, consisted of 200 individual posters, each meticulously matched to its specific surroundings, showing actual scenes of human rights abuse from around the world.

Creating an advertising campaign for a sensitive subject is never easy. After all, no one wants to dramatise a drama, as Pius Walker, the man responsible for the campaign’s art direction, copywriting and overall creative direction, points out.

"Advertising for touchy subjects doesn’t profit from exaggeration. What was needed here was the simplest truth being told in the simplest way. Something no one can argue with is harder to ignore."

Renowned for its straight-talking, hard-hitting campaigns, Amnesty International is a worldwide network of people who campaign for internationally recognised human rights for all.

In this case, the campaign, titled ‘It’s Not Happening Here But It’s Happening Now’, was directed at the people of Switzerland and aimed not only to make them aware of the issue of human rights abuse but also to stimulate discussion on the subject.

There were even some initial concerns, ‘We were not quite sure whether it would backfire on us because the images were so realistic,’ says Amnesty International’s Paul Tschurtschenthaler, whose fears included ‘mothers feeling offended seeing the posters on the way to school with their children.’

The posters were created using images taken by reporters who had actually witnessed the scenes and, as a result, were are able to record the abuse as it happened. These were then juxtaposed with local background images.

The resulting posters show actual human rights abuse happening on the streets in Switzerland, where people live, where they shop or take a tram, in the here and now

One poster depicts the brutal treatment of a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay happening on the streets of Zurich.

Another shows a starving child walking the streets of Berne. All carry the tagline ‘It’s not happening here but it’s happening now’.

"The aim was to make the people of Switzerland aware of the issue of human rights abuse. Unlike other non-governmental organisations, Amnesty International’s line of activities wasn’t always clear to the public. We wanted them to know what kind of issues trigger Amnesty International action."

As with any successful campaign, a strong relationship between client and creative was crucial. This was no exception.

‘A campaign like this requires maximum flexibility from all the parties involved, and we were very lucky to be able to build on an outstanding client relationship,’ recalls Walker. ‘The client not only supported the idea right from the start but also helped the production process by negotiating deals with press image partners, for instance.’ Paul Tschurtschenthaler agrees.

‘There was a personal chemistry and a quick understanding of Amnesty International’s values and message from the start,’ he says. ‘Through a good understanding of where you stand, a lot goes without saying.’

In addition, it was possible for Walker to track the campaign’s effectiveness professionally, thanks to Amnesty International’s worldwide network.

Briefing the team at Walker was a very informal process. After making initial contact with the agency to discuss the possibility of a campaign that could raise Amnesty’s brand recognition, Walker very quickly hit on the concept of setting known scenes of human rights violations into the context of everyday scenes in Switzerland.

‘It was an intelligent concept that had the surprise factor and would catch people’s attention – and we knew straight away that we could develop the campaign on this basis,’ continues Tschurtschenthaler.

‘The implementation strategy was built mostly on the experience of Walker and was, along with the concept itself, what made the project such a success.’

With the creative concept agreed upon so quickly, both client and creative were free to work on making it a reality.

In contrast to many such campaigns, face-to-face meetings between the two were rare, with most communication taking place over the telephone or via email.

There was a short presentation and discussion with Amnesty’s senior management team in Switzerland, but with such a convincing concept already on the table, this was something of a formality.

Researching the facts and images that fitted with each message was part of Amnesty’s task; but not an easy one. Each of the 200 posters depicted a different setting and, thus, the right image and message had to be sought for every single one.

Within this selection process there was a great deal of discussion as to which image worked best with each of the locations. Moreover, all 200 posters were composed by just two graphic designers in the space of three weeks. ‘Amnesty might have caused the most inhuman work conditions ever recorded in Switzerland!’ jokes Walker.

Tschurtschenthaler highlights the importance of keeping the core decision-making team small. ‘It was important, as it was later with the development of the TV/cinema ad that followed the poster campaign, that the creative decision process had to be managed by and involve only a few people from each side.’

Although the production process took place largely without incident, there were a couple of issues to overcome. There was a technical issue when photographing the background settings, Walker recalls.

‘As the poster frames themselves could not be dismantled for the shot, we had to find a way to photograph the background from the visual point of the viewer, without having the actual poster frame covering it. It took a couple of days to figure out.’

In addition, the team had to rush the whole process because any major change to the environment – from construction sites to seasonal changes – would have caused visual problems in the final composition. Although constructing the actual images took longer as a result, the campaign still came in within budget.

For Tschurtschenthaler, one potential problem was the issue of how to generate media coverage and draw visitors to the Amnesty website.

‘Even though the campaign might be seen and talked about, it would still have to be promoted through further discussion,’ he says. Such concerns were unfounded, however, thanks to the current vogue for blogging. Within days of the campaign’s launch, hundreds of bloggers could be found fervently discussing the posters online, leading to tens of millions of downloads.

‘The campaign was discussed in over 400 blogs, and on our own Amnesty website we saw a twentyfold increase in visits,’ comments Daniel Meienberger, marketing manager at Amnesty International. ‘And it hasn’t finished yet. We are still seeing publications today, also in countries where the human rights situation is a problem. This was certainly very good advertising but it is also a brilliant and powerful human rights campaign.’

Despite this success, there are always lessons to be learned and this campaign was no exception. ‘I would promote it more within the Amnesty community from the beginning so that our national offices adopt the campaign as quickly as possible,’ says Tschurtschenthaler. ‘I don’t think we have made full use of the campaign within the organisation yet.’ He also suggests setting up more indicators to measure the success of the campaign.

At the outset, no one could have estimated just how successful the posters would be. ‘We were absolutely stunned at what impact it had, not only here in Switzerland but in many other countries across the world, as far afield as Brazil, India and New Zealand. There was a huge media reception in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and on the internet,’ notes Meienberger. ‘The posters work in a really simple way. They don’t gloss over things but, at the same time, they don’t dramatise them. They simply tell it like it is.’

Following the success of the initial campaign in Switzerland, the poster campaign has now been expanded to other countries, such as Denmark. In addition to winning a D&AD Yellow Pencil, the campaign has also received awards from the Art Directors Clubs in both New York and Cannes, as well as winning the Corbis Creativity for Social Justice Award. This award included a contribution of $20,000 to Amnesty International Switzerland – almost equalling the budget for the entire poster campaign!

The success of this campaign lies in its simplicity. When most of us think of human rights abuse, we think of a world so far removed from our own reality that it appears almost fictional. ‘It’s not happening here but it’s happening now’ forces the viewer to confront such atrocities; to think of such actions and abuses happening on their own doorstep really brings the message home. ‘A good idea has to surprise and the concept has to be intelligent,’ concludes Tschurtschenthaler. ‘It has to strike you from the beginning. So, even if you have second thoughts, stick with it.’


Pius Walker, Art Director, Copywriter and Creative Director, Walker

Paul Tschurtschenthaler, Amnesty International

D&AD Impact seeks to identify and celebrate great, transformative ideas that contribute towards a better, fairer and more sustainable future for all. If you think you have a campaign that makes a real and positive difference to the world then why not enter it into D&AD Impact.



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