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The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School know the news cycle is fast and furious. Momentous stories that once would have dominated the news for weeks now only hold the nation’s attention for days or even hours.
Survivors of the shooting that left 17 people dead in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day attended the 4A’s Accelerate conference in Miami with one goal in mind: keep the movement growing.
“Keeping it in the media. Keeping it on TV. We don’t want to lose this momentum,” Parkland student Julia Cordover said about what she wants out of the advertising industry.
The Female Quotient, a group committed to advancing equality in the workplace, invited the students to the conference. It was one of the first times that anyone in the advertising industry had reached out to them, though the Gun Safety Alliance, which includes business leaders in tech, media, entertainment and marketing helped support March for Our Lives and its follow-up efforts.
Initially, the students planned to meet with a small group from the Female Quotient in a lounge at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. But as word spread about their invitation, the group and the 4A’s worked to give the students a larger space to address some of the ad industry’s most influential members. When the students made their appearance, they received a standing-room only reception.
Pitching the ad industry
The talk featured 11 Stoneman Douglas students, filmmaker Jeff Vespa and Female Quotient CEO Shelley Zalis. For the most part, the panelists were not the students making headlines on TV and Twitter. Many, however, were in their classrooms when the shooter entered their school. One girl explained how she watched three of her classmates and friends die in front of her. The discussion left the audience in awe, in tears and inspired, ready to ask these students how they can help their movement.
The students articulated a number of goals with a pitch that targeted the ad industry’s strengths. They were looking for funding to advance their cause, but they also wanted help amplifying their message through media buys and national PSAs.
One student described the need for tech partners to help them build an app that records the views of every political candidate at the federal, state and local level. Another explained that they were in the market for more creative ways to send stronger, clearer messages with T-shirts that support their movement.
“What I want to see is for brilliant creative people such as yourselves to sit down and come up with new ways to shed light on all the different angles of the issue,” said student Brandon Dasent. “Because in the media you see people focusing on voting, gun control and that’s pretty much it. I want to hear more solutions … new ideas, such as conflict resolution.”
Vespa, who has been interviewing Parkland students for a video series called #WhatIf, said there was no better way for the students to build on their movement and amplify their message than to address a room of people who will spend approximately $600 billion on paid media placement this year.
He was right.
Following their discussion, Marla Kaplowitz, president of the 4A’s, recognized the opportunity at hand. “We are a tool to help people tell and amplify their stories. For the industry to be seen as a partner in cause-related storytelling is a powerful reminder that our industry is at its best when the creative muscle is used to impact and influence culture,” she said.
“Seeing them in person and hearing their words, there are no words for it. It’s pretty moving and makes you want to do whatever you can,” said Jordan Gilbertson, associate director of communications planning at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, who wants to use her connections in the industry to help the students secure ad space and airtime.
The students’ pitch astounded Young & Rubicam CEO David Sable. “It’s totally humbling,” he said. “We talk about authenticity all the time. This isn’t authenticity. This is real. We create authenticity, and it’s humbling.”
And that authenticity is something the group doesn’t want agencies to mess with.
“One of the problems that we know in the ad industry is that we live in our own echo chamber,” said Sable. “I can’t even begin to count how many little campaigns have been started by well-meaning people, but nobody has talked to [the students].”
After speaking on a panel, the students headed upstairs to the hotel’s 17th floor, where they addressed FQ and a few select marketers over pizza, hoagies and soda. Trailing them was the documentary crew capturing the students’ interactions as they took in the stunning views of Miami Beach and the lounge, which featured portraits of some of Parkland’s most outspoken advocates like David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez.
While it was a chance for the students to relax and be who they are—high school kids—when discussions about gun reform began, talks turned serious again.
Sam Zeif, student, member and voice of Change The Ref, a nonprofit founded by the family of Parkland shooting victim Joaquin Oliver, explained that the victims of Sandy Hook were too young to speak out, and that Columbine students lived in a different era. “They didn’t have this easy ability to get in touch with advertisers,” he said. “That’s what I think differentiates us. In this generation, it’s easy to get our word out.”
“I think they have really been successful in galvanizing a younger generation with this movement,” said Omari Allen, regional organizing manager at nonprofit The Brady Campaign & Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He pointed out how these students have been more successful at rallying young people than his group, which has been around for 30 years.
The challenges ahead
While the students attended the 4A’s hoping the ad industry might provide them a platform to boost their message, they are very clear about what they want to achieve.
Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, a student who has pushed to ensure funds and awareness go to communities of lower socioeconomic status than the affluent Parkland, reminded advertisers of what could happen as the movement grows. “When you go national, you forget about the little people, the people we need to talk about, the people in our backyards.”
Zeif wants to hit the gun lobby where actionable change can happen: at the voting polls. He came to 4A’s looking for a partner to help him build campaigns showing voters which side of the gun debate political candidates are on. “There are two teams now. You’re either with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you’re out.”
Zeif also pitched the idea of building an app containing a database of candidates’ verified views in order to cut through what he described as misinformation on the internet.
One of the main challenges they are up against is the NRA’s tremendous resources.
“This is pretty much a battle with the NRA right now,” Jared Helman, a leader for Change the Ref said. “You can look at how they’ve been advertising. … They’re very malicious, and they don’t hold back anything.”
Helman, who revealed tattoos with Dylan Kraemer that are dedicated to the friends and classmates they lost on Feb. 14, also explained to marketers how he wants to spread his cause’s message through the T-shirts they wear.
“Every time I’m wearing a shirt, whether it’s #DouglasStrong, #MSDStrong, #ParklandStrong or Change the Ref, people see this and they’re intrigued,” he said. “Who are we trying to change? Who are we empowering? Not just the youth, but they want to know more about us. Media is one thing, but it’s another to see someone on the street with it. When people look at our shirts, we want people to be intrigued.”
Immediately, Zalis provided an actionable idea. Her group has developed Talkin’ Tees, which are T-shirts that display content like quotes or video messages in augmented reality when users snap a photo of them in the BlippAR app. Zalis expressed hope that an FQ partner would help make the technology mainstream.
Aaliyah Eastmond, who spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., wants to engage in more rallies and is partnering with the New York-based group Youth Over Guns. She said the group plans to rally in front of Trump Tower in New York on June 2.
During the panel, Ho-Shing explained how she wants to target inner cities and give youths in those communities the confidence to use their voices. She added that functioning locks at her school saved lives, but many schools in poorer communities lack something as simple as locks, and she wants advertisers to amplify the needs of those communities.
Overall, the students’ messages and goals resonated with the marketers, not only because of what their message was, but because of what it wasn’t.
“If you listen to those kids, not one of them talked about repealing the Second Amendment or taking guns away,” Sable said. “That’s not what they’re focused on. It actually blew my mind.”
As the night wrapped around 8 p.m., Zalis reminded everyone in the room that these activists are just kids, as she ushered them out the door to their buses, keeping a promise to their parents: They’ll be home in time to study for the SATs.