When “No” meant “Yes we can!”

The iconic poster from the "No" campaign

Si se puede

In 1988, the people of Chile were presented with an unexpected choice: a plebiscite where a “yes” vote kept the brutal regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (who had himself seized power in a murderous coup) in office and a “no” voted him out. The election could have been a tragedy foretold, but for the creativity of an ad guy, who upended not only a dictator, but also the way Chileans felt about their country and themselves. This time, it’s not the product as hero, but advertising itself.

Part marketing case study, part political thriller, the film takes you behind the scenes as creative director Rene Saavedra, works “freelance” for the “no” candidate. (His boss, the ad agency owner, is also working freelance—for Pinochet.) While the “making of” will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in advertising, the approach—for the time—was totally new and counter-intuitive: promote the candidate with feel-good, aspirational imagery, beautiful people, bouncy music and a theme (“Happiness is coming”) better suited to packaged goods than politics.

There are the usual stony  “Yes” men (and women), who dismiss then clumsily imitate “No’s” new style, personal threats and a violent attack on a joyful “No” demonstration that contrast with the preternaturally calm Saavedra going about his life, pitching and creating work for other clients, tending his son, trying to win back his estranged wife. And there is a happy although somewhat unresolved ending. Pinochet is defeated and Chile launches itself into the messy world of democracy.

“No: the movie” has a documentary feel, integrating historical footage with 80’s-style video effects. Unlike Mad Men, the vintage styling enhances the story rather than becomes it. And the acting is superb. Totally natural, unshowy and believable. We all know people like this. Which makes them all the more heroic.

“No” broke through Chileans’ fear and indifference and gave them the courage to “think in its future.” We should be so lucky.

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