How would a robot deal with war?
It’s a reductive question, given that using robots in a military contexts begs a far more serious one: How will we deal with the effects of robotics in warfare?
But charity organization War Child U.K. uses a childlike approach in “Escape Robot” to great effect. Created by agency Raw London and directed by Thomas Paul Martin, we follow a naive robot protagonist and its bereaved refugee mistress through everyday life in displacement.
We witness while it adjusts to its surroundings. A new bedroom, painstakingly decorated for a child despite the otherwise sad state of the house. A new classroom, filled with children that make it feel alien.
We share the robot’s jaunty sense of displacement when a ball bumping against a wall flings it into a PTSD flashback. Because of how this story is told—set to the whimsical song “I Am Not a Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds—its resulting dysfunction is gently comedic, which only strengthens the ad’s ending.
In an interview with Zoe Amar Communications, digital head Dave O’Carroll of War Child U.K. explains the campaign’s origins.
“Our advocacy team was producing a report on mental health and psychosocial support [MHPSS] for children in war at the same time as my team was kicking around ideas about how we wanted to do a strong, multi-platform, digital-led engagement campaign which would not shy away from complicated issues,” he said.
When Raw London pitched the idea of approaching the trauma of a war-torn child from a robot’s perspective, O’Carroll said “there was a long silence while we digested this news. Then [Martin] presented his concept, and we loved it.”
Modernity presents us with many weird conflicts, like a melodramatic sense of looming apocalypse resulting from environmental collapse, xenophobia, terrorist attacks and/or the rise of our A.I. overlords. Maybe this is among the reasons why we feel so disconnected from war itself, which in comparison can feel at once banal and far away.
But that’s part of why “Escape Robot” feels so powerful. Instead of driving straight into War Child’s topic of interest and hammering us with guilt, it packages human trauma in a captivating, almost playful dystopia scenario that tugs on our existential neuroses. Here, you think, is the world Black Mirror promises us: Even a refugee woman has a robot companion. And in its efforts to understand humanity, what we actually teach it is incomprehensible violence.
The initially charming, potentially scary inheritor of our world is the one that finds itself alienated and traumatized … which is actually a beautiful metaphor for children. When the robot’s compassionate mistress finally pushes a button to reveal the child hidden inside, there’s something within us that breaks a little bit—just enough to reconcile us to the real, actual humans who face this situation even as we write this.
The ad concludes, “Children wear their experiences like armor. That’s why we provide long-term support to children in war-affected countries. Help us break through.”
It’s nothing fancy, but it’s hopefully enough to compel drives to the associated microsite. Joining the email list will introduce you, via video stories, to the children War Child helps—but the organization also hopes people will linger and read about the whys of its mission.
“Digital doesn’t have to always be about simplifying issues down to 10-second videos or tweets,” O’Carroll goes on. “I believe our supporters are perfectly capable of spending 15 minutes reading about a complicated issue and understanding it, if we present it in an interesting format.”
The video went live in U.K. Parliament on Jan. 15 and went public the day after. Plays from the tweet have generated over 258,000 views so far; on YouTube it’s enjoyed a little over 4,500.
Client: War Child UK
Agency: Raw London
Director: Thomas Paul Martin
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