This holiday season a very inspiring episode of 60 Minutes, called The New Colombia, aired on Dec. 11. If you didn’t see it, you should – not only for the human interest element but also because it shows how meaningful insights identified through qualitative focus groups inspired a creative campaign that truly helped ignite change in this country.

Until recently, Colombia had been embroiled in one of the bloodiest and most long-standing conflicts in human history: the battle between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerilla movement, FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). For decades, FARC tormented Colombian citizens and the government with kidnappings, extortion, and terrorism.

By 2006, while the Colombian military had managed to weaken FARC and deplete its forces, there were still tens of thousands of armed guerillas hiding in the jungles and refusing to give up their arms. The government’s options were to kill them, capture them, or find a way to convince them to lay down their guns and surrender. Not wanting to go with options 1 or 2, and unable to find a successful way to execute option 3, they turned to a top advertising creative named Jose Miguel Sokoloff to create a campaign designed to draw the guerillas out of the jungle and back into society.

Sokoloff’s first attempt, without the use of targeted focus groups, was a series of TV commercials re-enacting FARC guerilla stories. He used a hired actor as the narrator, who told the stories as if they’d happened to them. It didn’t work because the guerillas immediately recognized it as ‘fake advertising’ not grounded in their real human truths.

Based on this unsuccessful first try, Sokoloff and his team regrouped, and what followed was nothing short of a miracle.

Given Sokoloff’s conviction that “advertising is a very powerful force if used carefully and not carelessly,” and if driven by true insights, he decided it was time to turn the tables. Sokoloff realized that to influence change, he needed to understand what the guerillas were going through… to talk and walk in their shoes.

So he chose to let the FARC guerillas, or ex-guerillas, tell their OWN stories in their words. And what he learned led to a significant shift in the strategic and creative approach to the campaign.
He said that hearing the guerillas’ stories from their own mouths “softened” him. “I didn’t expect them to be so… human,” he said.

This, combined with the realization that guerilla demobilization spiked during the holidays because they wanted to come home for Christmas, led to the “aha” insight that sparked the tonal and tactical shift the campaign needed.

Based on these key insights, Sokoloff and his team relaunched their multi-year, multi-channel campaign with a whole new strategy. The campaign involved not just TV commercials but also dangerous stunts, for lack of a better word, designed to get the guerillas’ attention and hit them where they were most vulnerable: their emotions.

With the help and protection of the Colombian military, Sokoloff and his team ventured deep into FARC territory, where they adorned nine strategically selected 75-foot trees with motion-detecting Christmas lights that lit up to reveal banners displaying a powerful message: “If Christmas can make it to the jungle, you can make it home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.”

In their next campaign, also during Christmas, they had people from nearby villages send gifts and handwritten messages of peace to the guerrillas via floating capsules that glowed in the dark, placing upwards of 7,000 of them upriver so they could drift into guerrilla territory en masse in a spectacularly moving nighttime display. “When you see that beautiful thing coming down the river you can’t help but be touched by it,” Sokoloff said.

Another year, they talked to 27 women who shared photos of their guerilla sons and daughters. During Christmas, they placed flyers with those photos all over the jungle, each with the message: “Before you were a guerilla, you were my child. So come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmas time.”

This broad campaign demobilized thousands of guerillas. All told, over the span of 8 years, more than 18,000 guerillas gave up their weapons, came out of the jungle, essentially ending the conflict and leading to the complete rejuvenation of Colombian culture, nightlife, and tourism.

Sokoloff’s research is a prime example of the power of focus groups and the real consumer insights they can produce. How close, face-to-face interaction with the target audience, listening, feeling and understanding their needs, can often lead to a level of empathy that allows you to BE the consumer, to see the issue from their deepest heartfelt perspective. It’s this “conversation”, both overt and hidden, that allows you to connect with the consumer on an authentic level and it’s what makes qualitative research so formidable.

Click here for this must-watch 60-Minutes video segment (14 minutes).

Photo by Nick Harris