Haunting Hydro spot shocks viewers

A haunting and emotional piece of commercial filmmaking is the main ingredient in an ad campaign for Hydro-Quebec, the provincial electricity company.The 30-second tv spot, created by BCP Strategy-Creativity, Montreal, opens with a hazy, brown-and-white shot of children trying to retrieve...

A haunting and emotional piece of commercial filmmaking is the main ingredient in an ad campaign for Hydro-Quebec, the provincial electricity company.

The 30-second tv spot, created by BCP Strategy-Creativity, Montreal, opens with a hazy, brown-and-white shot of children trying to retrieve a ball from behind a fence.

The fence borders a hydro pole. Morbid, funeral organ music kicks in and a sad, haunting voice starts: ‘I knew I was taking a chance.’

We know even at this point in the spot that something is wrong, somebody is telling us a sad story. The heavy music and voice-over is contrasted with the children talking and laughing. The shot pans up the hydro pole to a man with wings, an angel perched at the top.

‘Trying to cut a branch with the ladder too close to the electrical wires. It was a dangerous thing to do and I can’t say I wasn’t told.

‘Don’t ever make the same mistake. Thirty-four is too young to die.’

The supers appear: ‘Stay away from electrical wires,’ ‘Call us first,’ ‘Hydro-Quebec.’

This is a masterpiece. How powerfully effective.

The dead man’s admission that he had been forewarned about going near electrical wires speaks poignantly. Everyone can appreciate or identify with this because we have all been warned, mostly by ads of this kind, about dangerous situations.

‘The problem is people know [that they should not go near electrical wires], but they don’t think,’ says Hugues Leger, account co-ordinator. ‘They know its highly dangerous, but they still do it.’

Michel Bissonnette, account executive, says some people still believe the hydro lines around their house are not dangerous.

‘They think the only dangerous power lines are the hydro towers you see in fields,’ Bissonnette says.

There is also a strange and perverse aspect of human nature that leads us to do things we know we should not do and take unnecessary risks.

Things such as driving too quickly, or driving under the influence of alcohol, or jay-walking across busy streets when you could walk the extra couple of feet to the intersection and cross more safely.

In the spot, the last shot/angle is haunting because it is a fantasy situation in which we can imagine ourselves if we died in a freak accident.

We can imagine being a ghost or angel looking sadly at the scene of the accident at which our life ended and watching as life continues on without us as it does in the ad with the man watching the children play.

It is a common belief that if we die, our spirit still exists. The spirit, the narrator of the spot, recounts sadly the unfortunate way in which he had to die.

‘If you listen to the voice-over, the man is so sorry, it’s so sad and so tragic,’ says Michel Lopez, a creative supervisor on the campaign.

The spot plays on this psychology of death.

‘We played on death, electrical wires and religion all in one 30-second tv ad,’ says Lopez.

The campaign was a bold step for Hydro-Quebec, Lopez says.

‘They were nervous about making this kind of statement in this way,’ he says.

‘We were trying to shock people, but at the same time, we were trying to tell them that Hydro-Quebec is a responsible corporation that cares about your health.’

The message is aimed at men aged 18-54. The agency says that ‘something like 98%’ of deaths from electrocution are men in this age group. And the accidents are all of the type recounted in the spot.

The campaign consisted almost entirely of tv spots.

A pamphlet was also created and sent to Hydro customers. The tv media buy consisted of sports programming such as the Stanley Cup hockey finals (which ran quite a while in Quebec) and Montreal Expos baseball.

The high quality of this campaign runs in stark contrast with advertising running in Vermont for the same purpose.

That shows a series of people in situations in which they are touching power lines: a man trying to remove a kite caught on a hydro pole, a man cutting tree branches near a hydro pole.

Each four-second situation ends with a buzzing sound and with the positive image turning to a negative. It looks cheap partly because it is shot in video. It is also careless and tasteless. The buzzing noise sounds like one of those backyard, purple-light mosquito electrocutors. What attention to detail.

Creative kudos on the Hydro-Quebec campaign go to concepteur-writer Alain Bourgeois (who was unavailable for comment), art director Judith Poirier, who is no longer with the agency, producer Cosimo Cavallaro and Le Films Figaro International, Montreal, and music from Art Fx, Montreal.

Michael Judson is president of Publicite Judson Woods, a full service advertising and public relations company in Montreal.