Sir John Hegarty on the Value of Cinema, and What We Lose When It Goes Dark

The advertising icon made the medium a key part of his work for the Nobel Prize-winning World Food Programme

Refugee children sing a rendition of Cat Stevens' 'How Can I Tell You' in powerful hunger PSA. World Food Programme

LONDON—The future of some cinema chains hangs in the balance as venues are forced to close or limit capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic, and studios delay major movies releases or release them on streaming services and VOD.

Just last week, Cineworld, which owns Regal in the U.S., announced the temporary closure of all its venues throughout America and in the U.K., with the chief executive telling The Wall Street Journal the chain was like a grocery store without any meat, fruit or vegetables and simply couldn’t stay open without major products—blockbuster movies—to sell.

But also paused is the value of cinema as a powerful advertising medium, a benefit illustrated through new data from research firms Mesh Experience and Realeyes, conducted for the United Nations World Food Programme, which last week won a Nobel Peace Prize. The report looks into the impact of the NGO’s “Feed Our Future” cinema campaign, which was created by BBH co-founder Sir John Hegarty and premiered at the Cannes Lions festival last year.

The sobering 60-second film, which aired in cinemas across 35 countries using screen time donated by SAWA, the global cinema advertising association, showed a choir of Syrian refugee children singing together while standing on piles of rubble in a war zone.

The children, who were filmed outside a refugee camp in Lebanon, sing the song “How Can I Tell You” by Cat Stevens. One by one, they disappear. The message of the campaign is a call to action: 3 million children die of hunger each year, and donations to the World Food Programme can stop this tragic cycle of loss.

Both reports found that the PSA prompted a higher than average emotional response, compared with other ads.

The Realeyes data showed the cinema ad resulted in a positive brand impact with a memorability level of 91%, almost 20 points above the standard level, while the Mesh Experience data indicated 43% of respondents were more inspired to learn more or take action prompted by cinema advertising, versus online.

A captive audience

Speaking to Adweek, Hegarty described cinema as an enduringly effective medium that was too often overlooked in advertising. Its power, he said, was in giving brands a captive audience with consumers who have often, if only for a brief moment, stopped scrolling on their phones—and in its sense of being a space where “great stories unfold.”

“In a world of distraction, and in a world where we’re increasingly told you can’t get someone’s attention, you have this wonderful medium where people go into this large room and sit down in front of what I like to call the mother of all screens,” he told Adweek.

“It’s an environment where people want to be spoken to in an entertaining, enduring, imaginative way, and I think the advertising industry has undervalued its power. … You’ve also got this wonderful ambience of the surround sound, and an experience that is absolutely unique.”

“Cinema has survived world wars and Spanish flu.”

Sir John Hegarty

The “Feed Our Future” ad did well in particular, he said, because in developing it the World Food Programme and Hegarty were mindful to create a sense of “shared humanity” and empathy in a “positive way,” as opposed to pity that might not ultimately lead to action.

The cinema was the right place to launch the ad, he added, because it provided an opportunity to interrupt an already engaged audience with a profound, if unsettling, message.

@saramayspary Sara Spary is a freelance journalist based in London. She's been a reporter for eight years, covering advertising and consumer brands.