Arts & Events

Yes to "No"! The True Story of How a PR Campaign Ousted a Dictatorship Opens March 8 at the Shattuck Landmark Threaters

By Gar Smith
Thursday February 28, 2013 - 04:13:00 PM
Gael Garcia Bernal
Gael Garcia Bernal

The first thought an audience is likely to have as Pablo Larrain's exceptional Chilean docudrama begins to screen is: "What kind of cheap, low-budget production is this?" 

The film looks amateurish — the colors are off and the images frequently look washed-out and overexposed, like they were shot on an old-fashioned home-movie camera. Turns out, there's a reason for this look — and it's a good one. We'll get to that in a minute. 


Directed by Chilean-born Larrain, No tells the alternatively harrowing and hilarious story of how a small team of upstart media-geeks-turned-political-players, went up against impossible odds with an improbable script and wound up changing history and saving lives in the process. You could think of it as a Latin American Argo

The story unfolds in 1988, 15 years into the US-backed Chilean dictatorship that put an end to the democratically elected administration of Socialist Salvador Allende. Under the direction of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the US dispatched a team of 400 CIA agents to help further the junta's "reforms" — i.e., suspending the constitution, arresting union members, banning political opponents and seizing total control of the media. 

In just the first 14 weeks of the coup, at least 1,213 pro-Allede politicians and activists were seized, murdered or "disappeared." (In 1991, a national Truth Commission set the number of victims of "political violence" at 3,172.) No makes it chillingly clear that, even after 15 years under the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, fear of "the generals" was still palpable — and for good reason. The social fabric had become so bloodstained, torn and tenuous that people were even hesitant to even use the word "communist" in private conversations. 

A 'Plebiscite' to Legitimate the Coup 

After 15 years of tyranny, the political and social situation became so appalling that global concern over Pinochet's iron fist forced the junta to accept calls for a "plebiscite" to give Chileans an opportunity to vote on their political future. Like many international attempts to impose outside solutions, the plebiscite was seen as little more than a face-saving gesture — a bit of political theater to cloak (rather than condemn) Pinochet's coup. 

A coalition of 16 political parties united in a Quixotic campaign to unseat Pinochet. The rules of the plebiscite underscored its fraudulent nature. Because the junta controlled the mass media, Pinochet's opponents were only allowed to broadcast their political message for one 15-minute period a day. The campaign was limited to 27 days and the mini-broadcasts were scheduled for 11:30 in the evening when most people were expected to be asleep. 

Adding to the skewed odds, the Pinochet campaign was able to outspend its opposition by a factor of 30-to-1 and the government dispatched spies and politic agents to follow members of the NO campaign. 

'Everyone Just Wants to Be Happy' 

Mexican-born Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, a young advertising savant whose outlier personality is telegraphed as soon as we see him commuting to work… on a skateboard. (Pretty rebellious for an ad exec circa 1988.) 

Saavedra (a composite of two Chilean ad men) is an unlikely hero. He's a hot-shot at crafting bouncy TV ads but he's got cold feet when it comes to taking political risks. (In a nice, twisted touch, Larrain cast the two ad-men in cameos as members of Pinochet's political machine.) 


When Saavedra reluctantly accepts an invited to a screening of the opposition's ads, however, he gets the itch to put on his game shoes. "This doesn't sell," he sniffs. Drop the downer ads listing the junta's atrocities, Saavedra insists. Citing the number of dead and disappeared will only further intimidate voters and strengthen the dictatorship. 

"Everyone wants to be happy," Saavedra argues. So the campaign message has to be: "Happiness is coming if you vote NO!" Saavedra's suggestions trigger bitter anger and walkouts from several coalition members who feel his approach is a betrayal of the coup's victims and survivors. But Saavedra prevails and soon is hiring scores of good-looking dancers, singers, and models to prance in front of his cameras singing upbeat jingles about a future Chile that doesn't exist… but just might. 

In Larrain's reenactments, we see the ad team sketching and testing ideas and catchphrases on notepads until someone hits on a concept SO simple that it turns out to be, well…. (as they say in the advertising biz) "revolutionary." 

The campaign wanted to sound a positive note but they also needed the people to vote against the generals. The solution: The word "NO" followed by a plus sign. 

"NO +" turned out to be especially powerful because it not only put a positive spin on the idea of opposition (by adding the promise of something more), but it was also a cheeky visual code for the phrase "No Mas!" (An established, but rarely voiced, cry of the opposition.) This added up to a perfect coded message that, in today's parlance, "went viral." In addition to acknowledging the power of positive messaging, No demonstrates the genius of simplicity. "NO+" was a powerfully charged message that could be chalked on any wall in a matter of seconds. 

With a winning sense of irreverence, the opposition dubbed their 15-minute broadcasts NO-ticias (a pun on the Spanish word for "news"). As history records, the campaign caught on. 

No's Special 'Look': Truth in Advertising 

Now, as to the strange "look" of the film. It is a special gift of Larrain's movie that accounts for the special look. Larrain acquired hours of actually news footage from the 1988 campaign and — even better — he decided to incorporate the actual TV ads the No+ team crafted to challenge the dictatorship. 

In order to avoid the visual conflict that would arise from the use this dated footage, Larrain made the decision to shoot the new footage to match the historical footage. In order to integrate the original broadcast ads, Larrian managed to locate and rehabilitate a U-matic camera from 1983. 

As Larrain explained, using this antique film equipment allowed him to create "a seamless combination of time, space and material generated with Ikegami tube cameras from 1983." The extra effort was worth it: A quarter-century after-the-fact, the ads — shot like Coca-Cola commercials, filled with color, sunshine, beautiful young people and catchy music — are still irresistible. 

Selling Democracy's Sizzle 

Surprised by the growing success of the opposition's feel-good ads, the government's campaign team desperately tries (and fails) to echo the youthful enthusiasm and satirical jibes of the No+ campaign. Saavedra knows the stakes have been raised one night when he discovers threatening messages painted on the window of his home and steps onto his porch to discover government soldiers watching over the house from inside armored vehicles. 

In a fascinating twist, Rene's boss at the ad agency not only serves as a one of Pinochet's top advisors, he also winds up heading the general's pro-junta advertising campaign. Because of a shared respect, both men continue to work with each other as uneasy colleagues during the day (with occasional bouts of verbal sparring about the upcoming vote). After hours, however, the gloves come off. 

"Anyone can be rich," a cynical pro-coup advertising exec snickers at a government campaign strategy meeting. He pauses only briefly before adding the critical qualifier: "Just not everyone." 

The myth of becoming a member of the aspiring middle class or the rich elite is simply a trick — like horse races, TV talent competitions and state lotteries — used to keep the poor content. As long as they believe they might someday become one of the "anyones," they won't pose a threat to the "system." This poisonous false-promise of hope also enforces the convenient mental mind-set that sets the individual against "everyone" else. 

In the last days of the month-long TV ad war, the NO campaign even ran a number of NOticias ads featuring American film stars. In several of these 25-year-old clips we can see Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeves and Richard Dreyfuss (speaking in Brooklyn-inflected Spanish) all appealing to voters to help topple the dictators. 

When voting day came, 97% of eligible Chileans flocked to voting booths. It was an unprecedented turnout. And in an unprecedented turnabout, the NO+ team won nearly 56 percent of the vote. When Pinochet lost the plebiscite with only 44 percent of the ballot, it was hailed as the first time in history that a dictator had been driven from power through a popular vote. 

A year later, in Chile's first open election since the coup, Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin scored a landslide victory with 55 of the votes. (But Pinochet stayed on as Chief of the Armed Forces.) 

In a cynical, yet honest, closing scene, we see Rene Saavedra reverting to type — perched atop a high-rise and directing a commercial featuring a bevy of high-fashion models being visually seduced by a well-dressed gentleman hovering above them in a helicopter — just another ready servant of the manipulative, capitalist marketplace. 


The Other 9/11 

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