Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Christmas in the Columbian jungle; Adverts to end a war

Until a few months ago I was completely ignorant to civil war turmoil in South America, I had never heard of a “Guerrilla”, and I certainly wasn’t well versed in the ongoing violence and unrest between the Columbian government and the The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

However, after watching a TEDTalk from advertising exec. José Miguel Sokoloff, who was commissioned by the Columbian Ministry of Defense to create a campaign persuading fighters to disarm, demobilise, and quit the FARC; I became fascinated with the use of propaganda to end a war.

First, a little background for those as clueless as me. A guerrilla is a member of a rebel group which fights against large in-power forces. For over 50 years the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the oldest guerrilla militant group in the world, has fought against the Columbian government. Made up of around 6000 rebel soldiers, the FARC live in deep jungle camps and march through towns and villages. The conflict between the government and the FARC has lead to half a century of unrest in the country.

In 2010, with the task of marketing peace to the FARC, the advertising company Mullen Lowe SSP3, noticed that demobilisation numbers spiked over the Christmas period. Guerrilla Soldiers wanted to go home.

So began “Operation Christmas”. An advertising campaign not on TV, print or radio. The aim was to create a real life “taste of Christmas” for the guerrillas. Huge, 75 foot trees were covered top to bottom with motion sensitive Christmas lights. When an unsuspecting guerrilla would walk past a tree in the middle of the Columbian jungle, it would light up and display the message: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilise. Everything is possible at Christmas”.

As a result, 5% of the guerrilla army demobilised, a 30% increase than in December the previous year. Furthermore, Operation Christmas gained international acclaim and was voted the most effective campaign in the world in 2011.

From then on, every year José and his team would make a new Christmas advert. Think John Lewis in the jungle. 2011 brought “Operation Rivers of Light”, in which they collected sentimental trinkets and messages from families of guerrilla members and floated them down the rivers in glowing plastic balls. 6823 glowing plastic balls to be precise. This lead to approximately 1 demobilisation every 6 hours, and won several prestigious advertising awards.

In 2012, “Operation Bethlehem” lit huge spotlights in the sky which lead the way out of the jungle. The message Guerrilla, this Christmas follow the light that will guide you to your family and your freedom.” was no less powerful than those before. 2013’s campaign, “Mothers Voices” displayed childhood photographs of fighters in villages that the FARC would pass through. Displayed below the photo was the message: “Before you were a guerrilla you were my child, come back this Christmas. I’m waiting for you.”.

Why is the message of family, and the sentimentality of the holidays so powerful in changing the behaviours and intentions of rebel fighters? In-group favouritism and out-group hate, the us vs. them mentality, is often cited as motivation for intergroup conflicts. By praying on a moment of weakness and sentimentality for the guerrillas, attempting to diminish the perceived distinctions between the in-group and the out-group may be the catalyst needed to motivate disarmament. 

A fundamental theory highlighting biased intergroup relationships is the Minimal Group Paradigm (Tajfel, 1971; Billig & Tajfel, 1973). The Minimal Group Paradigm outlines that prejudice and group discrimination can be observed even when groups are arranged on arbitrary terms without significant meaning.

In these studies, participants were divided based on painting preferences or the toss of a coin. Therefore, there was no experimental basis for stereotypes to form. Furthermore, as the participants did not know the other members in either group, there was no personal grounds or history between members to justify any attitude formation other than the group categorisation.

In the experiments, participants were tasked with anonymously distributing rewards. In both experiments, all groups showed significant in-group favouritism (rewards for in-group members were significantly higher than for out-group members), and displayed evidence of intergroup discrimination. The distributions of rewards in both the original 1971 study and the study 1793, are displayed in Table 1. Repeated studies, (Brewer 1979) have found similar results; that the mere categorisation effect can motivate in-group biases.

Table 1. 

For José and his Christmas adverts, not only do they attempt to reduce in-group out-group separations, but they also remind the fighters that family is their original in-group.


Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology(1), 27–52. 
Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin86 (2), 307–324.
Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology(2), 149–178. 

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