As the Cannes Lions get underway, we talk with creatives about the key decisions that helped them transform their visions into award-worthy campaigns.
The “Becoming Sweetie” campaign had a lofty aim: to mobilize the world to end webcam child sex tourism. To achieve that goal for Terre des Hommes, a children’s rights organization, the Amsterdam agency Lemz created an online sting operation designed to show how predators from all over the world are eager and willing to take advantage of kids and how it is possible to identify them.
A little girl named Sweetie was the bait. While she appeared to be a real child, she was actually a computer-generated character. During a 10-week period, Sweetie interacted via online forums with 1,000 adults who offered to pay to see her perform sex acts.
The predators’ identities were ultimately uncovered, the information was shared with the proper law enforcement authorities, and Terre des Hommes released a video chronicling the effort so that everyone from government officials to members of the public could get a sense of the scope of the problem and see what can be done to end the abuse.
“I strongly believe that this campaign has made predators aware that they are taking a grave risk when they go online and abuse kids. They now understand that people with resources and dedication are working to stop them,” says Mark Woerde, co-founder and strategy director of Lemz. “I also believe that law enforcement agencies have always wanted to stop child abuse in all forms but did not necessarily have the mandate or solution that this campaign has given them. Our call-to-action to them is: If we can identify 1,000 predators in just 10 weeks with such a small team, you can identify 100,000 a year.”
Woerde, a vocal proponent of advertising creatives using their skills to benefit society, takes Co.Create through the creation and execution of this ambitious and groundbreaking project.
The Sweetie project was born when I was sitting at home early one morning, drinking coffee and reading the paper. I came across an article that really struck me. It was about this growing new form of online child sexual exploitation, which we later named webcam child sex tourism. The article included quotes and information from Terre des Hommes Netherlands, who are really at the forefront of the fight against this exploitation. And as I read further, what struck me—in addition to the horrifying brutality of this kind of child abuse—was the fact that law enforcement agencies around the world are doing so little to stop the men who pay for this abuse. Most of the child victims live in developing nations, while most of the men who abuse them live in wealthy countries, including the Netherlands. The article made it clear that NGOs in the field are doing a lot to address the root causes leading vulnerable children to be forced to perform sexual acts for money, but it’s the global demand for kids behind webcams that stimulates the rise of the phenomenon. As a marketer, the model I used to understand this problem was one of supply and demand: It was clear to me that the demand-side needed to be stopped in order to stop growth of the “supply” of child victims.
How to stop online predators who pay to watch and direct kids performing sexual acts in front of webcams? Go online and catch them in the act.
That day, we went online to a random public chat room to gauge how prevalent this kind of abuse actually is. It was before we had arrived at the idea for Sweetie, so as we interacted with people in the chat room we claimed to be an adult man from Holland. And very quickly, an eight-year-old boy who claimed to be in the Philippines contacted me and turned on his webcam. He was so small and we could see he was talking to someone outside of the view of the camera. We could see that he was sitting on the ground and there appeared to be no windows in his room. He typed slowly and almost immediately offered to take off his clothes if I sent him some money. I slammed my laptop closed and started crying. I had never been so directly exposed to such darkness. Basically, everything I had read in the article was confirmed.
I thought about that little boy every single day as I tried to come up with a way to stop the predators who make up the international demand for kids like him. Then one day, we realized that he was the key. We would create a kid that would catch predators in the act and convince them to identify themselves. We would turn the vulnerability of these children into a weapon against their abusers. To do that, we needed to create a kid that was realistic enough to get predators to actually commit the crime of soliciting her for a sexual performance.
Our art directors worked with the master artists and animators at Motek Entertainment and Brekel 3D. I can’t speak highly enough about the skill and dedication of those guys who were working long after normal working hours to develop and perfect Sweetie. We came to them with the almost impossible task of creating a 3-D child that looks and moves so realistically that 1,000 adults around the world would not question her authenticity. And they absolutely delivered.
The stakes were very high. Sweetie had to be totally convincing because if one predator suspected her of being a trap, it’s highly likely that he would sound the alarm through his network and the entire operation would be blown. Thanks mostly to the credit of our art directors and the 3-D animators that that never happened.
Four of us spent eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, for 10 weeks on chat rooms, using Sweetie as a disguise with which we interacted with online predators and collected their names, locations, and webcam video footage of them until we had finally identified 1,000 of them—999 men and one woman—living in 71 countries.
We made a short documentary about the project with one of the all-time best Dutch documentary makers, Peter Tetteroo. That documentary became our online film.
YouTube helped enormously by donating a designated channel that could handle as much traffic as this film brought. We used that channel as the online hub, where we posted our 120-page research report about our findings and all other related documents and pictures.
To raise global awareness, we positioned our research findings as one of the largest sex abuse cases in recent history. How often are such an enormous number of child abusers and a comprehensive body of highly incriminating evidence against each one of them delivered to Interpol? So we began our global PR campaign. We contacted journalists, editors, and bloggers in every news medium in each of the 71 countries to invite them to attend or view on live stream the Terre des Hommes press conference at which they explained the project and handed over the evidence to Interpol. Over 1 billion people have seen Sweetie in the news.
We collaborated with YouTube to donate a designated channel, with Media Monks to digitally produce that YouTube channel, with Motek Entertainment and Brekel 3D to design Sweetie, with Avaaz.org to develop and run our online petition, with Brouhaha for stage design, Code d’azur for the online infrastructure, Tetteroo Media for the documentary, with a number of legal and policy consultants around the world to develop our call to action and our understanding of the problem, but especially with Terre des Hommes.
It was extremely easy to get people on board this project. To me, that’s one of the most beautiful and inspiring parts of this story. When we asked people to help us in whatever capacity to help stop Webcam Child Sex Tourism, no one hesitated to join the cause. People donated huge numbers of hours and huge amounts of resources to make this a success. To me, that shows just how much people want to use their creativity and skills for a good cause.
We took secrecy extremely seriously. Not only was it vital that predators not find out who or where we were, but police couldn’t know that we were essentially doing their job, and vigilante hackers could never find out that we were in possession of the identities of 1,000 child predators. There was a lot to lose if anything leaked.
We rented a space in a warehouse in an industrial part of Amsterdam and set up our research wing there. The computers we used to interact with predators were secured with encryption and relay software and they were rerouted to have a Filipino IP address. We used a separate computer to store all of the data we collected against the predators. That computer had what is known as an “air gap,” which means that it was not and had never been connected to the Internet or any internal network. That made our data as secure as we knew how to keep it.
I think for the people working on this project, one of the strangest things was not being able to tell their coworkers, friends, or family members what they were doing all day. For several months, we had to pretend that every day was “just another day at the office,” while in fact we might have identified 40 online predators that day. It was an extreme exercise in mental compartmentalization.
My hope, however, is that this campaign has also shown people in all creative industries, including advertising, that the world needs their skills and gifts to solve real global problems. Creativity is the key to progress and progress is desperately needed to get humanity out of the muck that we find ourselves in these days. We can’t just rely on government bureaucrats to reverse climate change or to end protracted conflicts, or to do anything else for that matter. They lack the creative resources that people in our industry are so rich in. As Arthur O’Shaughnessy and Willy Wonka famously said, “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” I believe that we creatives have a greater responsibility to humanity than perhaps many of us realize and I hope the Sweetie project has succeeded in giving creatives a concrete example of how we really can use our abilities to contribute viable creative solutions to global problems, to influence political agendas, and to make the world a more just and peaceful place.