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J Walter Thompson London’s visceral posters portraying country flags as the wounds of domestic abuse have been shared well beyond their media plan, shocking and educating the public on the link between football and violence in the home. But if it hadn’t been for the confidence of its creators, the work may not have been seen by anyone.

‘The Not-So-Beautiful Game’ is a true piece of proactive, reactionary work. Maya Halilovic, a creative at JWT, was flicking through tweets tagged with the World Cup hashtag during the earlier stages of the tournament when a piece of research caught her eye: reports of domestic violence increase 26% when England play and 38% when England lose.

Immediately she turned to her colleague Jo Taylor and began to describe the image forming in her mind’s eye – blood forming into the shape of the St George’s Cross. Taylor mocked up the visual, which proved its power almost immediately. A team was pulled into the project, the concept was signed off by an executive creative director midway through Cannes and the idea began to develop.

JWT was eager to present the work to long-standing client the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV). But there was one problem – the client was on holiday and unreachable.

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“For those first 10 days ... we were desperately trying to reach them,” remembered Halilovic. “But we all agreed we wouldn’t stop production because we were waiting for client sign-off – otherwise the World Cup would be over, and we’d have missed our opportunity. We just kept going ahead, we were able to call in favours on our end which made things a lot easier and [the client] was instantly on board once we did get through to him.”

By the time Mark Groves, the chief executive of the NCDV, had given his stamp of approval, the work had evolved to comprise much more than Halilovic’s original England flag design.

“I think every creative’s natural tendency is to go, OK I have one [poster], how can I have three to make a campaign?” she said. “Once we’d nailed the scamp for the England flag we began to think, could we do Brazil, could we do Belgium, could we do France?

“We immediately brought up a table of flags from all the countries playing in the World Cup and sat there thinking, that could be a bruise, that could be a swollen eye, and so on."

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The task required a unique blend of creativity mixed with sheer mental endurance – spending days designing bruises, cuts and wounds against a context as sombre as domestic violence was a world away from writing jokes mocking Colombia, for instance. And the visuals do not hold back. Some are so powerful, Halilovic explained, that a lot of media owners were hesitant to run them.

“They were worried it would upset too many people,” she explained, adding that she still struggles to understand criticism levelled that the campaign glamorises, or even trivialises the issue. She cites the basic semiotics of the world’s flags – all singular colours and clean lines – as the barrier preventing the victims’ faces from looking too gory.

The campaign has led to a huge spike in website traffic for the NCDV and the insight that Halilovic first read on Twitter has been amplified around the world. It’s a major coup for the creative team and client, given that the entire project was produced within 10 days.

“It reminds you of the power of a really good idea,” said Jo Wallace, creative director at JWT. “The learning is to never give up because this is proof of how effective [a campaign] can be when the idea is right.”