Communicating for Social Change: Lessons from Chile’s “No” Campaign



In the wake of the recent presidential inauguration south of the border and subsequent, record-breaking global mobilizations in protest of the new president’s policies, I’ve been thinking a lot about social change. Why are some people compelled to take action to address injustices? Why aren’t others?

In 1988, progressives in Chile were also struggling with this question. This piece examines some lessons learned from the campaign to overturn dictator Augosto Pinochet’s rule, and how they might be applied in our own social change work.






People get ready! Impediments to being the change a-coming


I’m sure I’m not alone in my pondering of why more people don’t take action against situations that are unjust or undesirable, despite that, in many cases, those situations encompass circumstances that contradict their own value systems. For example, if we cherish our water and believe that it should be in good health (and polling has found that 93% of Canadian residents say water is our most precious resource), why do we allow activities that threaten our waters?


Many a social change activist has disparaged over this question. In my youth, it was a quandary that really plagued me. I was hoping for a simple answer. I thought that inaction was a result of lack of knowing. I thought if I could just explain social and environmental issues to my friends, peers and family clearly and factually enough, that they would understand the scope of some of the problems we face, and take more action to address them. However, as I’m sure many reading this will relate to, simply providing more information is not usually enough to compel people to act. Or put differently, just because you are right (or think you are), doesn’t mean people will listen or act differently.


Now that I’m a bit older, I know that human motivation is a complicated and multifaceted question on its own. Add in complex social relations that distance agents from the source of the problem, layers of political power and interests, and the question becomes even more convoluted.





However, while there is not a singular explanatory variable, it is also not so obtuse that it is an unsolvable question. There is quite a bit of research out there that examines the so-called “value-action gap.” Some popular explanations for why people don’t take action include:

  1. Personal benefit. For example, even when people are aware of an issue, they might not take action because they are benefiting from the issue directly, or from circumstances that gave rise to the issue. Giving up behaviours that benefit us can be challenging.

  2. Conflicting or unclear value systems. Values themselves can be nebulous (for example, we may not agree on what “fairness” means), and we can value things that might contradict each other when it comes to particular issue. For example, we may value health and prudence, but also value efficiency and convenience. So, we may drive to that appointment instead of bike or walk.

  3. Unclear connection to self. Some problems are easily identified: X proponent has Y project that will compromise Z waterbody that provides my drinking water; we know who the villain is, what the issue is, and what’s at stake. But some problems are a lot less cut-and-dried, and it’s hard to see the connection to our own situation, especially when the brunt of a problem is beared by far away communities or ecosystems.

  4. Overwhelm. Some problems are big, layered, and complex. Even if we can see the connection of an undesirable outcome to our actions, it might be unclear where the locus of influence is, and how we can take action to effect change. This overwhelm can lead to feelings of inertia, apathy or despair, which inhibit action.

  5. Sense of powerlessness. And finally, even if we do know where we should be exerting influence to change an unjust situation, we may just feel like we don’t have the agency or the ability to actually effect the change. We may feel isolated or doubt ourselves, so instead of taking action, we ultimately don’t do anything.


Framing an issue in order to overcome these barriers is a challenge, but simply explaining facts doesn’t tend to be the most effective strategy. In some cases, just providing facts can even reinforce the barriers to action outlined above (e.g. overwhelm). Thankfully, humans have other ways of sharing information.


Crafting a Story: The “No” Campaign


Although storytelling is as old as human beings, lately, the communications and marketing world has been rediscovering the power of stories. A simple Google search for “storytelling and communications” yields 13,000,000 results. Indeed, in our own trainings, we here at the Freshwater Alliance have also focussed on the power of narrative as a tool to help drive constituencies to action. Stories are powerful rhetorical devices for many reasons. They are easier to remember than facts and much less didactic--which is good, because most people don’t like to be told what to think, at least not explicitly. Stories conjure emotion and tap into our values, which people are more likely to respond to. Stories appeal to different kinds of learners; they are timeless; we like them. A powerful story can help to overcome some of the barriers outlined above.


However, not all stories are made equal. Not all stories are good, and not all are effective.


A couple months ago, my partner and I were looking for a good movie to watch, and came across a Spanish-language movie called No. The film is about the campaign for the “No” vote in the 1988 plebiscite concerning dictator Augosto Pinochet’s reign in Chile. A “no” vote would end his 15-year rule, and commence the transition to free elections. The story follows the fictional character René Saavedra, an advertising specialist, who has been hired by the political opposition to craft the “No” campaign. René is tasked with creating a visual identity for the campaign and a video spot that will be aired on national television. 


The film, which combines documentary footage with new footage, is a fascinating exploration of political communications in an era of high stakes, and a divided populace. The film is not an entirely accurate depiction of the circumstances around the “No” campaign, and certainly has its critiques. Elements of the story are fictionalized, and it definitely oversimplifies a complex political moment with its focus on the marketing campaign and omission of crucial elements of the grassroots movement to oust Pinochet. Notwithstanding, there are some interesting lessons to be learned when it comes to communicating about important issues to a broad constituency.


Spoiler alert: the campaign is successful, with 56% of Chileans voting “No” to Pinochet.


Lesson #1: You are not your constituency   


When René first meets with leaders of the opposition to discuss the “No” campaign, they show him materials that they’d like him to use in the campaign: graphic footage of military personnel committing gross abuses of power, like attacking unarmed civilians and arresting people who are against the regime; and statistics of the number of people who have been killed, arrested, tortured and exiled. Those present in the room watch the footage with interest and disgust. The trauma of the regime is evident.


When asked what he thinks about the materials, René asks if they don’t have something nicer or lighter to show. The opposition is quite disturbed by the question. “Do you think there is anything nice or light about the regime?” one asks. René clarifies his intention: do you think that footage will help the “No” vote to win the plebiscite?


Members of the opposition debate the question, and finally one woman claims that she does not think the campaign has a chance of winning at all. They expect, rather, that the plebiscite is a political ploy to give the appearance of democracy, but that the results will be defrauded or not heeded. However, even if they don’t think the results will be respected, they are still committed to using the airtime to mobilize Chileans against the regime.


Another opposition party member chips in: “I think the main objective of this campaign is to open the eyes of those who don’t want to vote.”


For the opposition activists, the human rights abuses of Pinochet’s regime were so flagrant and odious that simply showing the extent of the violence is enough to compel the populace to take action and vote. However, as René puts it in rather crude marketing terms, those kind of images “don’t sell.” In fact, by focusing on the oppressive and brutal tactics of the dictatorship, the team ran the risk of entrenching the aforementioned barriers of overwhelm and powerlessness, which could inhibit citizens from taking action.


After some back and forth, René works with the team on a very different presentation for the campaign. The result is a campaign with a look and feel that is indeed much “lighter” than the initial proposed material. A rainbow with the word “No” underneath becomes the campaign’s logo. The video--the actual campaign video that was used in 1988--shows Chileans young and old working, dancing, playing and singing a song for which the main refrain is “Chile, la alegría ya viene”, or “Chile, happiness is on its way.” Although the abuses of the regime are alluded to in the lyrics, no footage of military personnel or political violence is shown. The result is a somewhat saccharine, but uplifting montage of everyday people sharing in joy and freedom of thought, expression and movement. It is something we can see ourselves in.






That we are not our constituency is, I find, one of the hardest lessons to learn and act on. Activists and organizers may fancy themselves to be “in the know”, but can be out of touch with what majority opinion. I myself am sometimes guilty of the moralizing Facebook rant, even when I know that it can alienate those who don’t already agree with me. Although meeting people where they are at is a long-standing pillar of some social change methods (see: Paolo Freire), it is something we need to be reminded of again and again.


Lesson #2: Story of self, story of now, story of us


In many grassroots organizing circles, organizers are taught that a good public narrative should include the story of self, the story of now, and the story of us. Take a look at successful campaigns that have a strong grassroots component, and you’ll see it over and over again.


The “No” campaign is a great example of the story of self, now and us. The lyrics in the song to the campaign video switches between the collective “we” to the personal “I” in the same line, a subtle rhetorical move that helps make the connection between personal actions and what we as a society can achieve. While images of people working, dancing, playing, singing, etc. are being shown, the theme song is crooned by a series of different voices, and by a chorus of singers when the line “vamos a decir que ‘no’” (we are going to say ‘no’) is sung.


Let’s take a closer look some lyrics: 


Vamos a decir que no, oh con la fuerza de mi voz, (We are going to say ‘no’, oh with the force of my voice)

Vamos a decir que no, yo lo canto sin temor, (We are going to say ‘no’, I sing it without fear)

Vamos a decir que no, vamos juntos a triunfar, (We are going to say no, together we will triumph)

Por la vida y por paz. (For life and for peace)


Notice the switch between the collective “we” and the personal “I” in the first three lines.


The story of now is pretty apparent in this case--the plebiscite is a big political moment and the the campaign is all about mobilizing people to seize it and vote “no”. Nonetheless, the lyrics do remind the listener that it is an opportunity that should be seized.


Es la oportunidad de vencer la violencia, (It’s the opportunity to overcome violence)

Con las armas de la paz. (With the weapons of peace)

Porque creo que mi Patria necesita dignidad. (Because I believe my country needs dignity)

Por un Chile para todos, vamos a decir que no. (For a Chile for everyone, we are going to say ‘no’)


Lesson #3: We value values.


Good stories don’t just tell us what to believe; they tap into feelings that we have about values we hold. Humans are complex, but also deceptively simple at the same time. We try to be happy and well. We might be deluded about what will bring us happiness and wellness and chase after things that have the opposite effect, but it’s a pretty universal drive among us humans. What makes us happy is culturally mediated, but the drive for happiness and well-being is not. 


Values are ideas about what matters--frames or kinds of behaviour that can help us to achieve that good life of happiness and well-being. When stories talk about what matters--freedom, fairness, love, adventure--they activate emotions in us. Emotions are some of our most primordial responses to external phenomena. Often, we react emotionally to something before we even realize what’s happening. Some emotions drive us to action, and others tend to make us check out or turn away from the source of distress. While emotions like apathy, despair, isolation and self-doubt can provoke inertia, feelings such as hope, urgency, connection and solidarity can incite action.


I have often heard the complaint that too many environmental organizations rely on ‘negative campaigns’--i.e. campaigns to stop happenings (development, deforestation, resource projects, etc.)--instead of campaigns in favour of things. Often, when those discussions arrive, I hear arguments that negative campaigns reinforce emotions of despair and overwhelm, and that “we should do more to say what we stand for!” Usually, in such conversations, others lament that it’s much harder to campaign in favour of something, because a sense of urgency is more easily communicated when there’s something that could be lost or is at stake.


However, what I find so interesting about the “No” campaign is that it manages to dismantle the dichotomy between “what we’re against” and “what we’re for”. Although the campaign is clearly against something--namely, Pinochet’s rule--it taps into core values (freedom, dignity) to trigger positive emotions (joy and happiness), and a sense of “we (I) can make a difference” and change the current state of affairs. The tone of the music and footage of people laughing, playing, dancing and singing complement the lyrics, and reinforce those positive emotions.




Interestingly, the main refrain, “Chile, happiness is on its way,” underlines the way in which actions taken in the current moment (voting in the plebiscite) will inevitably lead to a better outcome. The takeaway is that happiness is already on its way, and all we have to do is take action to be part of this historic, collective moment.


Lesson #4: We still need to organize


Finally, the fourth lesson I’ve gleaned from watching No and researching the “No” campaign is that although storytelling and communications surely played a significant role in collective perception and action to end the dictatorship, it merely complemented--not replaced--a long standing ground game in the country.  No matter how good the story, we still need to organize and be organized.


Indeed, during the 15 years of Pinochet’s rule, thousands upon thousands of activists in the student movement, unions, civil society organizations and political parties organized tirelessly to build a multi-sectoral resistance. The “No” vote would not have won were it not for sustained grassroots efforts to register some 7.5 million Chileans to vote.


In the wake of the recent presidential election in the USA, there have been discussions about whether a ground game even matters in an era of mass media. Although Obama’s electoral victory was by and large the result of a flurry of grassroots organizing, commentators have noted the surprising lack of field offices and ground game of Donald Trump. However, other commentators have noted that actually, Trump had much more of a ground game than it would appear, although the networks may have flown below the radar of many observers.


In any case, in nearly all successful campaigns, including in the case of the “No” campaign in Chile, a robust, organized ground game was instrumental to getting citizens to the polling stations and ultimately ending a despotic regime.


So, tell your story--and tell a good story--but make sure there are people on the ground helping your constituents to make connections and take action.

Christine Mettler is the Freshwater Alliance's Communications and Special Projects Lead. If you have an idea for a blog, drop her a line at [email protected]


Image credits:


“The Value-Action Gap” by Christine Mettler. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Plebiscito” by Paulo Slavchesky. Modified under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Logo of the 1988 “No” campaign in Chile.