Colombia’s Christmas Propaganda Campaign

By Nolan Moore on Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Christmas New Year's toys on a blurred background of Christmas t
“Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand!” —“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

In A Nutshell

For nearly 70 years, Colombia has been plagued by a vicious civil war. Hoping to end the conflict, the government hired an advertising executive named Jose Miguel Sokoloff to cook up an out-of-the-box propaganda campaign. So in order to convince leftist guerrillas to lay down their weapons, Sokoloff relied on nostalgia, presents, and a whole lot of Christmas lights.

The Whole Bushel

Looking for a fun vacation for the whole family? Well, then you shouldn’t visit Colombia. According to the Global Peace Index, this South American nation is the 17th most dangerous country in the world. That’s largely due to Colombia’s civil war, a conflict that’s been going on since 1948. The war involves quite a few combatants, but the main players are the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

A leftist guerrilla group, FARC specializes in drug running and kidnapping. They also keep their troops in line with death threats. Try leaving the group, and you’ll learn the meaning of a “Colombian necktie.”

So the incentive to stay a good solder is pretty strong. FARC is exclusively made up of diehard zealots or people worried for their own lives—which makes it kind of difficult for the Colombian government to come up with effective propaganda.

And that’s why the government turned to Jose Miguel Sokoloff, a Colombian ad man who runs an advertising agency called Lowe SSP3. Sokoloff had created commercials and jingles for everything from dog food to antibacterial soap, but this was the first time anyone had ever hired him to conduct straight-up psychological warfare. However, this was a pretty important task for Sokoloff personally. As he explained, he hadn’t “lived one day of peace” in Colombia, and he was ready for the conflict to end.

So how do you inspire guerrillas to lay down their weapons and go home?

Well, as Sokoloff found out, everybody is pretty nostalgic when it comes to Christmas. Hoping to play on these holiday feelings, he launched Operation Christmas in 2010.

His group found nine 20-meter-tall (75 ft) trees in key FARC areas and covered them with Christmas lights. When the guerrillas approached these festive trees, a motion sensor activated a big, bright sign that read, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. It’s Christmas. Everything is possible.”

Shockingly, Operation Christmas was a smashing success. Around 330 FARC soldiers tossed their AK-47s into the dirt and returned home. And that was a whopping 5 percent of the entire FARC operation. Inspired, Sokoloff started preparing his next Christmas campaign, a 2011 mission that nicknamed “Operation Rivers of Light.” After learning that many guerrillas maneuvered through Colombia’s waterways, he created thousands of plastic balls that glowed in the dark. He then filled these purple balls with toys and letters, pleading with FARC soldiers to come home. Then Sokoloff unleashed the balls into the water, and if any guerrillas puttering through the water opened one up, they’d find presents and propaganda inside.

But perhaps the most ingenious of all his campaigns was the one nicknamed “Mothers’ Voices.”

In 2013, Sokoloff tracked down over 30 women whose sons and daughters were off fighting in the forest. He convinced these women to give up old family photos, showing the mothers with the guerrillas back when they were just kids. In these pictures, the mothers are holding their children, giving them hugs and kisses.

Sokoloff then turned these photos into posters with taglines that read, “Before you were a guerrilla, you were my child. Come back this Christmas. I’m waiting for you.”

These posters were distributed in towns across the country, and some were even put out in the jungle, attached to trees. Sokoloff even created commercials where these mothers would go through old photos as a sentimental song played in the background. The lyrics went, “I want you next to me, not just your photo next to me.”

Evidently, these Christmas campaigns are incredibly effective. In 2015, the FARC guerrillas began peace negotiations with the Colombian government, but these talks came with one big caveat. Please, please, the guerrillas begged, lay off the Christmas propaganda.

And that’s just fine with Sokoloff. As he explained, “This is the only advertising campaign I’ve ever worked on where, if I’m successful, I will never need to do advertising like this again. I want my client to disappear.”

Show Me The Proof

Financial Times: The ads making Colombian guerrillas lonely this Christmas
USA Today: Propaganda that works: Christmas decorations
This American Life: Poetry of Propaganda
The Guardian: Colombia: is the end in sight to the world’s longest war?