This Daring PSA for Organ Donation Introduced the Jerk Everyone Came to Love

The Martin Agency earns Adweek Arc Award

We come from different places, have our individual jobs, families, hobbies, charms, quirks and beliefs. But among the things we all have in common: everybody everywhere knows somebody who's a giant asshole.

That indelicate little fact of life made a PSA promoting organ donation one of the most successful ads of the past year, and probably one of the most daring pieces of marketing ever—beginning with its very racy title.

"The World's Biggest Asshole"—a nearly three-minute film created by The Martin Agency for client Donate Life, an organ donation advocacy group—tells the story of Coleman F. Sweeney, an unseemly character who, among other things, pees in a beer bottle while speeding along in his pickup, then tosses it out the window; shoots his paint gun at a neighbor's dog; steals women's underwear from a laundromat, and children's Halloween candy; and haggles with a waitress over the skimpy portion of fries that comes with a $1.99 lunch special. But when he kicks the bucket, we discover that Sweeney (played to irritating perfection by Thomas Jane) had, against anyone's expectation, signed up to be an organ donor. We are then taken through the stories of individuals Sweeney's selfless act saved—and see how the jerk ultimately ended up doing good in the world.

Donate Life set out to reach millennial men—generally speaking, a notoriously self-centered demo and one not all that inclined to check that little box on their driver's license. They're also famously ad-phobic, and The Martin Agency knew it could only get through to them with originality, irreverence and comedy—in other words, by speaking their language. The result was a big, fat hit. The short film got more than $450 million in earned media, was viewed more than 80 million times in 76 countries, was shared millions of times on social channels and got covered by news outlets ranging from Forbes to The Onion.

All that led to the campaign's ultimate goal: more donor sign-ups. Donate Life went from 149 to 1,022 registrations per day, a 586 percent increase. Sign-ups among millennials shot up 127 percent at last count.

The campaign is all the more notable because, this being a nonprofit, there was no media or production budget, and the time and talents of everyone involved—including the agency, the actors, and famed commercial directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon, who've done work for brands like Pepsi, Samsung and Martin client Geico—were donated.

The story of Coleman Sweeney definitely hooked young men, but the tale behind how "The World's Biggest Asshole" became a reality is also compelling.

Donate Life president and CEO David Fleming says he had a back-and-forth with the agency for three to four months before he felt comfortable enough to present the controversial concept to his organization. "Honestly, I thought it would get squashed from the get-go," he admits, recalling that it took some doing to persuade the donor community and the board of Donate Life—people who deal with the sober reality of death and dying every day.

"They were used to campaigns around lollipops and rainbows and butterflies," he says. "It was a big leap to even consider something this edgy."

Loyal to the storyline, the video features some pretty jarring visuals: urine in a bottle, piles of dog poop, the unkempt antihero in bikini briefs. But the biggest issue by far among those who needed to approve the ad was the use of the word "asshole," recalls Joe Alexander, Martin's chief creative officer. Substitutions like "a-hole" and "jerk" were considered—but nothing else packed quite the same punch. "We kicked around a lot of ways to say it, but it doesn't work if you don't use the word 'asshole,'" Alexander insists. "Otherwise, [the message] loses its teeth."

It certainly wasn't your run-of-the-mill PSA. "The American Cancer Society would've never done something like this," as Fleming puts it. "This is not the Ice Bucket Challenge."

The ad had a lot of competition in getting across to young men: skateboarding stunts on YouTube, video games, bloody, sexy Game of Thrones episodes—not to mention other advertisers. "From a marketing standpoint, our competitors were not other nonprofits—they were Geico and Pepsi and Coke," says Fleming. "We're all competing for consumers' time, and we were competing with the [brands] who are the best at it, who spend millions of dollars. It was nice to elbow our way in there."

"We knew it couldn't be passive—it couldn't be just another video [young guys] came across," says Alexander.

He stresses that masterful storytelling is more important than ever for marketers, noting, "Something that engages you will be something that you remember. There's such a thirst for great stories, in TV, movies, online content. It's what this audience has been brought up on—they like multiple stories, they binge watch their favorite shows, they share them online with their friends."

And with engagement comes results. "I tell my staff all the time: Remember, you have a job to do, and when you can tell a story that goes beyond just the clicks, that's when you've won the game," Alexander says.

This story first appeared in the January 16, 2017 issue of Adweek magazine.

Click here to subscribe.