‘Not a Gun’ Campaign Highlights Racially Biased Police Violence

Courageous Conversation worked with Goodby Silverstein & Partners on the PSA

an arm and hand holding a candy bar
The campaign will run from Feb. 24 to March 22 with placements in broadcast, outdoor, print and digital media. Goodby Silverstein & Partners

In a new public service campaign, Courageous Conversation Global Foundation is highlighting racial bias in policing, encouraging law enforcement agencies to incorporate CCGF’s unconscious bias training into the curriculum for officers.

The campaign, which launched this week in Austin, Texas, will run for four weeks. Its debut comes at a critical moment for the state capital: The initial monthlong run encompasses the last week of Black History Month, South by Southwest and Super Tuesday, when Texans will cast ballots for presidential candidates and a slew of competitive local races.

A 75-second cinematic spot directed by Kevin Foley of Rakish serves as the center of the campaign, and shows several customers entering a convenience store to buy candy bars. Each exchanges pleasantries with the cashier, pays and walks out. But when a black customer walks in and asks for the same item, the candy bar briefly turns into a gun—and then back to a candy bar—as the customer puts it into his pocket.

As the customer leaves the store and walks down the street with his hands in his pockets, police lights begin flashing. Officers shout at him to stop as they draw their weapons, and he turns around with his hands up, holding the candy.

Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Based on data collected over the last several years, a black person is three times more likely than a white person to be killed by the police, according to CCGF. And too often, those killed are armed with “nothing more than a candy bar,” the foundation says in the spot. It ends by asking viewers to “help everyone get home safe,” by signing a petition.

For the creatives who developed the campaign, that story is personal. As black creative directors, Rony Castor and Anthony O’Neill respond to the realities of the world through storytelling—and that’s exactly how this campaign came about. “We live with this innate fear,” Castor said. “Walking down the street, I’m wearing a hoodie, I have my hands in my pocket. And all of a sudden, I’m seen as a threat.”

One night shortly after moving to San Francisco to work with Goodby Silverstein & Partners, O’Neill was walking home to his new place. As he stepped through his front door and emptied the pockets of his hoodie and jacket—he had a packet of Mentos, wallet and phone—a feeling of relief washed over ‘him.

“I was just like, ‘Man, I’m kind of lucky to have not gotten stopped by the police,'” O’Neill told Adweek. “Because if I had my hands in my pocket, these things—any of these things—could be taken as threatening.”

The next morning, O’Neill talked with Castor about the idea for an ad campaign based on that realization. They made drawings of those things that get mistaken for weapons when they’re in the hands of black and brown people—phones, candy, wallets, whatever. Then, brand strategist Madison Cameron walked into their office.

For several months, Cameron had been working on a way to address the issue of racially biased police violence in her work at GS&P. “After the last election, I was heartbroken by the increase in hate crimes that were happening across the U.S.,” said Cameron. “While researching, one thing started popping up again and again in the news—things like, ‘officer mistakes candy bar for gun.’ At what point do we stop accepting that as an excuse?”

Cameron had written a brief for the partners at GS&P that was quickly approved, but still hadn’t settled on a plan for the creative. When she saw what O’Neill and Castor were working on, it was an ideal fit.

Around that same time, GS&P employees were undergoing unconscious bias training with Courageous Conversation. “It was a perfect storm,” Cameron said. With the approved brief and new plan for creative in hand, Cameron, O’Neill and Castor approached CCGF with the idea for a broader campaign, including a video spot and outdoor ads. “They were instantly on board,” said Cameron.

The end goal of the campaign is more than just awareness—it’s policy change. “It’s not about just showing beautiful images and film, it’s about real change that people can really get home safe,” O’Neill said.

In Austin, residents, visitors and SXSW attendees will see “Not a Gun” billboards above the Torchy’s Tacos in West Campus. Print ads will run in the Austin Chronicle, and the campaign also includes digital and broadcast components.

The city’s police department has had its share of criticism. Just last year, assistant chief Justin Newsom stepped down after complaints surfaced accusing him of using racist language to describe a black City Council member, black police officers and former President Barack Obama.

The mayor’s office in Austin, however, has expressed interest in CCGF’s unconscious bias training for police officers, said O’Neill.

“Unconscious bias towards black people has been problematic among police for such a long time,” said Glenn Singleton, founder of Courageous Conversation, in a statement. “To spark change and to ensure we all get home safely, we either need the police and the community to solve it together, or we need policy change. One way or the other, something has to happen.”

UPDATE: The Austin Police Department has been working with a DOJ-sponsored program similar to Courageous Conversations’ unconscious bias training for the last few years, according to Commander Mark Spangler, who runs APD’s training academy. “We absolutely welcome these conversations,” he said. “We are absolutely engaged in these conversations, and we understand the importance of them as we train not only our cadets but also our incumbent officers.”

@klundster kathryn.lundstrom@adweek.com Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.