Each month on Research World ‘Insights in Action’ shows an example of how research and insight can have a commercial or societal difference and what you can learn from it. 

the context

Less than a decade ago, Colombia was one of the world’s most feared countries. It was awash with a civil war, lead by the FARC Guerrilla Army. 220’000 people had died in the conflict in 50 years despite billions of dollars in US aid being spent trying to bring peace to Colombia. However, in 2010 the Colombian government tried a method to demobilize FARC Guerrilla soldiers – advertising.

the insight

Advertising agency Mullen Lowe discovered that Christmas was the most emotional and sensitive time of year for FARC Guerrillas. This was due to them being away from their homes and families. The campaign message was simple ‘Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.’ Operation Christmas was born.

the insight activation

Activating this message was far from simple though. After all, the target audience – the FARC Guerrillas – lived their lives hiding in the Colombian jungle. To do so, Mullen Lowe had to enlist military support. Black Hawk helicopters carrying marketers and Colombian Special Forces landed in FARC territory. Once landed, a banner was hung on a 75-foot tree in a known FARC hotspot. It read:

“If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize.  At Christmas, everything is possible.”

The area around the tree was rigged with motion sensors that lit-up 2’000 Christmas lights on the tree when FARC Guerrillas walked passed, illuminating the message. The same activation was repeated 9 more times, using 7’000 Christmas lights.

the impact

News of Operation Christmas was soon picked up by the world’s media. Its simple message and daring execution were shared on many global news channels. 2 million social media comments were made, and it received 60’000 hits in two days on You Tube.

Most importantly though, 331 FARC Guerrillas (approximately 5% of the rebel force) demobilised shortly after the campaign launched. They acknowledged Operation Christmas as motivating them to do put down their weapons.

the learnings

Research and insights are often guilty of two things: 1) aggressively seeking out ‘new news’ 2) suggesting people are widely different from another The insight at the heart of Operation Christmas – that Christmas is an emotional and sensitive time of year – shows that neither of these are true. After all, Christmas has long been an emotional time of year. This has been accepted since Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1894. Furthermore, FARC Guerrillas missing their families at Christmas is little different from North Sea oil rig workers experiencing the same emotions, thousands of miles away. So when we’re supporting advertising with insights, let’s not overcomplicate things by seeking out ‘new news’ and accept that in some instances, despite being in a jungle or off the coast of Scotland, people have a lot in common. Old news isn’t necessarily bad news!

This post was originally published on Research World 

By Jack Miles, Research Director

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