Open Eyes: The social ad campaign with a vision

Following the moving advertising campaign #OpenEyes, we talk to FoxP2 at about why a brand needs to make people feel something in order to be relevant.

South African advertising agency FoxP2 have created an emotional campaign for a cinema chain that centres around Philani Twala, a young movie lover from Cape Town’s townships. For the last 10 years, Twala has been suffering from a condition that has made him almost completely blind and he cannot afford the simple treatment neccessary to return his vision to him. In the campaign, #OpenEyes, we see Twala finally able to have the treatment necessary to return his sight, and the public are asked to vote for the film that he should watch in his first ever cinema experience.

The brilliance of the campaign is in the immediate emotional connection that the audience feel with their modest hero, and for the widespread problem his situation highlights. Twala’s condition is very common in South Africa, as is his inability to afford the treatment that can so easily help. Twala’s surgery was mostly funded through donations to Vision Mission, made by moviegoers as an optional, additional cost on their tickets.

We talk to Michael Lees-Rolfe, the creative director of the #OpenEyes campaign, about creating work that is brave and engaging – even at the risk of scaring your clients.

Describe the kind of projects that attract FoxP2?

We like a challenge: projects that require a new angle, or maybe even a risky approach. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we try our best to avoid boring consumers (and ourselves) by just repackaging the familiar.

The challenge with the #OpenEyes project was to not do something that you expect from a CSI. We needed to let the audience be a part of the story, rather than hearing a one-dimensional call for donations. 

Tell us a bit about the process for this project? Where did the inspiration come from and how did you go about making it happen?

The idea originally came about after reading an article about curable blindness in Africa. A really high percentage of people suffering from severe vision impairments can be helped with pretty standard surgical procedures, but the costs for something like a corneal transplant are just way too prohibitive for most South Africans.

We thought, how wonderful it would be to help make this possible for someone, and then let the public share in the wonder of this young man regaining his sight and going to the movies for the first time ever. It was a relatable and interactive story that we could use to raise awareness and donations, ultimately helping more kids like Philani.

We first went about documenting Philani's story through loads of interviews with him, his family and friends. This helped us gain trust and allowed him to be open about his feelings around his disability. There was also extensive research done around his medical condition, the surgical logistics and production constraints. 

We spent around 12 months on the project. We eventually cut down all the footage and audio interviews into a three-minute web film, which is the centrepiece for the campaign and is the call for movie suggestions. Currently, we’re supporting the campaign across cinema, radio, social and outdoor. A second film is coming soon when we find out what movie Philani is going to watch...

How did you want Philani Twala to come across to the audience?

Because of our documentary approach, Philani comes across as Philani really is.

It was important though that we focused on his aspirations and excitement around life with new eyes, rather than dwell on his disability.  Despite his hardships he’s a brave and positive young man who, in many ways, is just like other kids his age.

What sort of reaction are you hoping to elicit from the audience?

Firstly we wanted the audience to feel compassion for Philani’s situation and secondly we wanted people to suggest a movie for his first cinema experience ever.  So essentially we’re asking people to remember an amazing cinema experience of their own, and then “gift” that experience to Philani.

Are there any similar projects FoxP2 has done recently?

About a year ago we launched Project Phoenix, which was screened at Design Indaba FilmFest in February 2015, where we collaborated with a tattoo artist to re-work tattoos on ex-gangsters, freeing them from the associated judgement and stigma. It was an 18-month project and incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. 

How did Philani Twala respond to being the centre of the whole project?

It has been so rewarding to seen Philani’s confidence as a young man grow over the last year. He started out as a shy and introverted guy who was dealing with so much. Now he’s focused on the future and just able to take advantage of the things normal guys his age do, which is wonderful to see. His family and friends have been so supportive too. The interview and filming processes were long and intense, but they welcomed us into every part of their lives.  

How important is emotional connection in a campaign?

Emotional connection is vital. Now more than ever with media bombardment and teeny-weeny attention spans, making people feel something is a way a brand can connect and be relevant. The risk of eliciting strong emotions makes some brands nervous, but I think it’s totally worth it. There is nothing more ineffective than beige-ish corporate work that washes over you. 

Do you think the use of a personal story dramatically changes how an audience responds?

Personal stories can be really powerful and accessible – that’s why we see them used a lot.

But they can also be quite “So What” or “Ag Shame”, so if you’re looking to use one for a response, it needs to be handled right and have something extra special I think. 

In this case, the brand (movies) is part of the personal story and not just a bolted-on logo at the end. I think this is a major factor in why people relate and respond to the work.

What do you think of the use of fact vs fiction in a campaign? Do you always have non-fictional “heroes”?

It totally depends on the job at hand. Both directions have their merit when done right.

Creating fictional characters can be amazingly transportative, and super entertaining. Some brands like Skittles or Old Spice do that really well. They create the character and the world they inhabit around brand attributes. This approach also makes it easier to extend the life of the character in follow-up stories, because you have control over the narrative.

In this case, we're telling a genuine account of a guy who gets his sight back and goes to the cinema for the first time. It absolutely has to be a real story for it to have emotional weight. I think what makes it special is that people can contribute their opinions about his first movie, which influences the story itself.