JWT Created a Free Public Wi-Fi Network That Sent Out a Very Disturbing Signal

PSA for the U.K.'s Bede House

Let’s say you’re traveling in England, and in the course of trying to access the internet, you come across a network called “Free_Public_Wi-Fi.”

Upon connecting, you’re greeted not by a welcome screen, but by an apparent FaceTime call from a woman who, as you continue to watch, becomes the victim of abuse right before your eyes.

Warning: The video shows disturbing scene of domestic violence.

In fact, you’ve engaged a deceptive but cleverly executed PSA. This harrowing “Signal for Help” was devised by James Lucking and Will Wright, creatives at J. Walter Thompson in London, for nonprofit Bede House.

“It all started with Will’s passive-aggressive neighbors,” Lucking tells us. “People were changing their Wi-Fi router names to send messages like ‘Stop_Having_Parties’ or ‘Turn_Your_Music_Down,’ which got us thinking about Wi-Fi as an interesting way to communicate.”

After the brief, intense scene of domestic violence, viewers are told, “Only 16 percent of suspected domestic abuse is reported to the police.” They also have the option to save the non-emergency number 101 to their phones, in case they ever need to report such an episode. (Once the ad finishes, the window closes, and users can choose among real Wi-Fi networks.)

“Abuse hides in plain sight—it can be all around us without us ever being able to see it, much like Wi-Fi signals,” says Lucking. “We have all welcomed Wi-Fi as an essential part of our daily lives, but now we wanted to hack it to confront people with the realities of abuse.”

Launched in March, “Signal for Help” has thus far been broadcast “in commuter hubs across London, specifically Paddington, Liverpool Street and Waterloo train stations, where the highest number of people were passing every day, and people waited long enough to warrant looking for free Wi-Fi,” says Wright. “We also targeted towns with the highest rates of domestic abuse, such as Birmingham, Kettering and Coventry.”

All told, that covers 18 locations with a combined population exceeding 700,000. About 30 percent of viewers who complete the experience save the help number to their phones, the agency says.

Given the strong content of the PSA, those seeking to join “Free_Public_Wi-Fi” must first confirm they are at least 16 years old. Still, that’s probably not much of a giveaway for harried users rushing to access the web, nor does it detract from the overall impact. Yes, the campaign is intrusive and jarring. But that’s the point, and Lucking and Wright believe “Signal for Help” wouldn’t cut through the static of people’s daily routines with sufficient power if it were delivered some other way.

As it turns out, shooting the noisy abuse sequence one night with a pair of improv actors at Lucking’s apartment put the whole project in stark perspective.

“A woman next door stuck her head out of her flat just to check that everything was under control,” Wright recalls. “As we apologized and assured her it wouldn’t be much longer,” he says, the woman told the team she’d heard noises like that in the building before, but she wasn’t sure what to do, so she never did anything. “That’s when we knew we were onto something.”

Project: Signal for Help
Client: Bede House
Agency: J. Walter Thompson London
Executive Creative Director: Lucas Peon
Creative: Will Wright & James Lucking
Technical Architect: Adam Pooler
Creative Producer: Laurie Carter
Director: Connor Pearce
Senior Developers: Vicki Keeley & Julian Graheme
Editor: Stefano Nurra

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.