A still from the Ad Council's anti-bullying campaign, Because of You.

Fostering Empathy through Ads

By Kelly Turner

How do you deliver an anti-bullying message to modern teens who are savvier than you at social media and despise being talked down to by clueless adults?

The trick, say Leila Moussaoui and Sara Uhelski from TBD Advertising, is to not mention bullying at all.

“Teenagers today don’t relate to the term ‘bullying,’” says Uhelski, a copywriter for TBD. “With social media and cell phones, bullying can now be so many things that it loses its meaning. The word doesn’t work for the layers of things that happen socially.”

For the Ad Council’s new “Because of You” PSA campaign, set to coincide with Nation Anti-Bullying Month in October, the TBD team chose instead to focus on the lasting power of words—both destructive and kind—and to let real teens tell their own stories. The firm partnered with Adolescent, a youth-centered talent agency and production company, to create documentary-style short videos in which teens open up about the impact someone’s words had on them.

Click the above image to play the “Honest Yearbook” PSA.

In the “Honest Yearbook” video PSA, directed by Shea Glover, unsuspecting high school students are surprised during a yearbook photo shoot by friends who share how a seemingly small act of kindness, word of encouragement, or shoulder to cry on changed their outlook on life. In the longer “Because of You” PSA, directed by Claire Jantzen, teens speak candidly in the camera, spelling out the lasting consequences of our words—how a mean joke made them withdraw from world or a passing compliment gave them the confidence to pursue something they loved. The resulting ads are intimate and confessional and, considering this is an anti-bullying campaign, surprisingly upbeat.

Click the above image to watch “Because of You.”

And that’s the point, says Moussaoui, art director at TBD. “A big difference between this campaign and what has been done in the past is that, instead of acting as if we’re handing down the solution—stand up to bullying!—all it’s trying to do is enable self-reflection and get teenagers to feel more empathetic.”

She points out that most teens don’t self-identify as a bully, passing off their unkind comments as jokes or playful banter. “We wanted to present it on neutral ground, just make it real.”

To keep the ads from feeling scripted, TBD and Adolescent worked with several Los Angeles high schools to find teens who had their own experiences to share.

“Before you make a video, you’re thinking about the end result and how you want these dramatic story lines. But a big part of this project was that we didn’t want to make up those story lines,” says Glover. “We wanted to find out what’s going on in their lives. And I think we were all a little surprised. We didn’t have to create any stories; all these kids had something serious going on.” 

Moussaoui and Uhelski credit their partnership with the young directors from Adolescent for helping capture genuine responses from the teens they interviewed. At 19 and 21, both Jantzen and Glover are only a few years older than the students they were directing.

“I think that made a huge difference,” says Uhelski. “They really related to the kids. The kids opened up to them.”

Glover, who made her first viral video when she was still in high school, says she enjoys working with teens because they’re not as skilled at hiding their reactions as adults are. “The younger people are, the more prone they are to have visceral reactions. They’re not as good as covering it up.” Plus, she says, it wasn’t so long ago that she was walking in their shoes. “I get it.”

Click the image above for a behind-the-scenes look.

To cast the ads, the team asked students about the people who had really impacted their lives, for better or worse. “It was a lot of kids and a lot of stories,” recalls Moussaoui, describing the casting calls as therapy sessions for the kids. “It was really hard for us to realize how difficult things are these days.” They also discovered that many of the teens had never shared with their friends how much small acts of kindness had meant to them. “For many, it was their first time saying anything.”

It was a challenge to keep the project a surprise for the kids who were honored in “Honest Yearbook.” The crew asked parents and friends to come up with plausible explanations for why each person had to show up. But watching the teens’ genuine reactions to hearing their friends’ stories was worth it, says Uhelski.

Moussaoui hopes the video will motivate others to speak up, and even create their own “Because of You” videos.

In addition to corporate sponsors that include Adobe, General Mills, and Mars, the Ad Council has partnered with social media companies like Twitter to promote the project, introducing a new emoji that pops up whenever someone uses the #becauseofyou tag.

“This project was a really good lesson for us: Creativity doesn’t necessarily mean you come up with something,” says Moussaoui.  “A lot of times, creativity is about being honest and open and creating a space where real emotions can come out.”