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By Amy Houston | Senior Reporter

March 1, 2023 | 7 min read

Just how did Leo Burnett Chicago hoodwink NRA members to become anti-gun spokespeople? The agency’s top team give us the inside track on the World Creative Rankings’ campaign of the year.

According to Gun Violence Archive, there were almost 700 mass shootings in the US in 2021. Of the thousands dead, many were children and teens. With the rapid rise of gun-related incidents plaguing the country, the topic of the second amendment – the right to bear arms – continues to divide the nation.

Change the Ref is, sadly, one of many organizations born out of a devastating event, with founders Manuel and Patricia Oliver losing their son in the Parkland, Florida mass shooting in 2018.

Leo Burnett Chicago teamed up with the organization following a candid conversation about its aim of raising awareness about the importance of universal background checks. For three months agency and client ideated, resolving that this couldn’t just be another PSA that tugged on heartstrings.

In the end, “it was a really simple brief,” says executive creative director Sam Shepherd. “How can we finally confront the NRA?”

Shepherd tells The Drum: “Manuel and Patricia are incredible. ‘Creative confrontation’ is what they talk about. Americans are more and more desensitized to this kind of thing and they are using their platform to get their message out.”

From the beginning, it was obvious that the creatives would have to level that ambition and draw from the personal connection to come up with a message powerful enough to cut through the noise and get everyone talking – not just people who agree with the sentiment. There was relatively no money behind the campaign, so it had to go viral.

“We decided to focus on a number we found using CDC data, which was that 3,044 students didn’t get a chance to graduate because of gun violence in 2021,” says Shepherd. “We used a simple symbol, which was a graduation chair. It was important to us to represent that number in a harrowing way.”

Who they placed that cold, stark, cemetery-like image in front of would be the differentiating factor and set the project apart from anything that had been accomplished before. “That’s where it wasn’t just the emotional representation of lives lost. We felt that, for the first time, the right people saw that and the effects of their work.” Those people were former National Rifle Association (NRA) president David Keene and guns rights campaigner John Lott.

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Shepherd notes that it can often be easy for people to evade online confrontation, but how do you get prominent NRA figures to show up physically to an event that goes against what they believe in? “Production was such an integral part of pulling this off. It’s one thing to have this idea on paper, but it is only with someone like Ashley [Geisheker, head of production] that we could bring it to life.”

Geisheker tells us that she has never experienced such a high level of trust between creative and production until that project. Both teams relied on each other throughout to push the message as far as possible.

Before any conversations began with Lott and Keene, they engaged Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man Productions, which resulted in a lot of collaborative conversations to develop the idea, explains Geisheker, adding that they also brought Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen’s team on board – useful, with the actor being no stranger to tricking prominent political figures. “We were then able to get advice from their legal team and as we were trying to figure out how to engage David Keene and John Lott, they really helped us in those conversations and bring this idea to life.”

It was Buckley’s idea to create a fake school to invite Keene and Lott to, somewhere that they would want to speak. “We spent a lot of time researching the type of ideology and imagery that far-right groups in the US idolize,” says Shepherd, “and one of those was the figure James Madison, one of our presidents and founder of the second amendment.”

From there, a fully functioning school website was designed in-house at Leo Burnett. Overnight, the team built out a curriculum, ethos, identity and branded items that you could seemingly buy to make it seem as if the school had been there for years. That’s when representatives of Baron Cohen’s team started to reach out to NRA members to invite them to James Madison’s first in-person graduation in Las Vegas – a place that, Shepherd says, was viewed as a bit of political middle ground.

The invitations went out and Lott and Keene accepted. Once at the ‘ceremony’, both campaigners read rousing commencement speeches before multiple rows of empty chairs, believing that they were practicing before the real event, while cameras recorded everything.

“There was so much discussion about the right way to reveal [to Lott and Keene],” explains Shepherd. “In a perfect world, we would have revealed on the spot, with a teleprompter in front of them, who they were actually speaking in front of, but we knew that the second the word was out we would face different legal challenges.”

Everyone involved made the decision that the first time the NRA members saw the project would be when the world witnessed it. “Their reaction, and a lot of far-right reaction, was a testament to the power of this idea,” says Shepherd. There was no response from Keene at all once he was aware of the campaign, he says, while Lott tried to claim that the agency had edited his speech, which was unfounded.

“You don’t get a brief like this very often,” concludes Shepherd. “We wanted to get people speaking about gun violence outside of another tragedy. This project became the news.”

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