Agency TBD along with Adolescent directors Shea Glover and Claire Jantzen on a campaign that encourages teens to think
Two thirds of teens say they have experienced bullying, yet most teens don’t think they contribute to the problem. The numbers don’t add up. That’s largely down to people who aren’t aware of how their actions can affect others. Pushing someone or making fun of someone’s differences are blatant enough but the 21st century has brought with it a far more insidious forms of bullying. Posting bad photos of someone without permission, deliberately excluding them from group chat… the drip-drip of poison pixels makes social media a potentially toxic place for young people.
In a bid to combat this trend, the Ad Council, along with San Francisco agency TBD, has launched ‘Because of You’, a bullying prevention campaign. It’s not preachy, instead encouraging teens to think and reflect on their actions.
TBD enlisted the help of youth production company Adolescent to bring the campaign to life. The ‘Honest Yearbook’ short film was directed by 20-year-old Shea Glover, while the campaign’s PSA was helmed by 19-year-old Claire Jantzen. Adolescent is a company that specialises in youth creative and behind-the-camera talent to connect authentically with young audiences.
LBB’s Addison Capper spoke with both Shea and Claire, as well as TBD’s CEO Jordan Warren to find out more.
LBB> Two thirds of teens say they have experienced bullying - can you talk us through the kind of research that went into this campaign? Were there any findings that were particularly surprising?
Jordan> The Ad Council’s bullying prevention campaign is supported by a number of excellent educators, subject matter experts and non-profit partners including Be Strong, Born This Way Foundation, The Bully Project, GLSEN, PACER National Bullying Prevention Center, and The Trevor Project. In addition to the research we were provided, we decided that to really immerse ourselves in the issue. We needed to spend concentrated time with teens, so we conducted a series of codesign sessions with local high school teens.
What that revealed to us is that with the rise of social media, bullying behaviour has become much more subtle and nuanced. In fact, the term bullying no longer resonates with teens. Often times teens say and do things that can have a negative impact without even knowing it. Things like starting a group text and leaving someone out can make them feel isolated or rejected. Posting a picture of them without their permission can make them feel embarrassed or betrayed. The goal of our campaign is to wake up teens and cause them to reflect on the impact the things they say and do have on others – both positive and negative.
LBB> This may seem like an obvious question given the subject matter, but why was it right to get Adolescent involved to produce the campaign? And how was it working with the team there?
Jordan> In assembling our team to bring the idea to life, we knew that authenticity was going to be critical for teens to embrace the campaign, so we began thinking about how we could engage teens to be part of our production team. That’s when we were introduced to Adolescent. And we were immediately blown away not only by the idea of a youth production company, but by the talent and sophistication of Adolescent’s youth directors.
LBB> Claire and Shea, why was this campaign something you were keen to get involved with?
Claire> This campaign is so important beyond words. The key word I keep coming back to with this project is empathy. Growing up, I have experienced and witnessed words (and actions) being thrown around as if they don’t have meaning. If we, as a society ,continue to dismiss the fact that the things we do and say indeed have an impact on those around us, we will continue to be divided. This project showcases the importance of being aware of what you say and do to both strangers and those you are close to. It was so important to me to be part of this. Even in my own past, I've said things jokingly to people I love that I didn’t think would affect them like they did. This is the concept I am most passionate about, hands down. I think it is the umbrella of all other issues today.
Shea> I was excited to work on this project because of the opportunity to work with real people. Adolescent and I really pushed for it, because we know that’s what makes the impact real. People aren’t dumb. When they see a commercial or campaign that’s all about spreading positivity and kindness, we live in cynical times and people are going to spot when it’s faked or written. For a project like this, when you’re trying to impact the behaviour of teenagers, they’re going to know when it’s created for them by adults and there’s an agenda being pushed on them. Nobody likes that. You get that all the time when you walk outside your house, you can’t escape from advertisements or people telling you things. So it was a very exciting thing for me to work on something that was real and genuine and honest.
LBB> I really like the approach - it doesn’t shame bullies nor does it dwell on negative stories. It’s not preachy and instead it makes the viewer think. What inspired this creative strategy?
Jordan> There has been so much focus on the negative effects of bullying that teens tend to feel lectured to and tune it out. While we included both the negative and positive effects teens can have on each other in the PSA, we really wanted to highlight the profound positive impact even the simplest gesture can have on someone else in the Yearbook film. We love the idea that kindness is contagious and wanted to focus on encouraging positive behaviours.
High school yearbooks are keepsakes that people treasure for the rest of their lives. They capture an important moment in time when teens are transitioning into adulthood. And the yearbook photo is a representation of how teens want to be seen and remembered. Yearbooks are also a place where teens write messages to each other about their experiences together and what they mean to each other – sometimes superficial and sometimes profound. We thought, rather than having teens write in each other’s yearbooks, we’d film testimonials and capture the real, honest reactions to hearing the impact their positive words and actions had on others.
LBB> And as directors who aren’t too much older than the target audience here, what are your thoughts on that?
Claire> I wanted to strip everything down and be honest. So many young people nowadays are scared to be honest. We all hide behind some sort of filtered persona online, and think everyone lives a perfect, fun life. The truth is: everyone feels. Opening up and being vulnerable should be celebrated.
Shea> Like I said previously, people can tell when an agenda is being pushed on them. You can tell when someone is perhaps trying to inspire you or make you think about something you don’t often think about, versus telling you that you need to do something in order to be a better person. It’s about inspiring people instead of telling them what to do. I know for a fact that I’m super stubborn - and that could be part of my naivety and lack of experience, only being 21 - but I think no one really likes having ideas forced upon them. We have enough conditioning to unlearn.
LBB> You’re not working with actors here - how does that influence your approach as a director? How did you go about making them at ease in front of the camera?
Claire> Communication. Connection. Empathy. Expressing to each person that I understand and, may not have experienced the same thing firsthand, but am with them. Having a discussion, as a human-to-human, prior to each interview, was key.
Shea> With things like this and commercials, I try to work with real people as much as possible because it’s the most fun and I don’t want to make things that are too polished or perfect. That’s humanity, we’re not perfect. I’ve always found that I’m pretty friendly, I’m a talker and I love getting to know someone. I love people and I’m pretty good at befriending them, honestly, so it’s really fun for me as a director to get to do that as my job.
Making them at ease was just about befriending them, cracking jokes. I have a really dark sense of humour so I usually ask someone what kind of trauma they’re going through and then make jokes about that. And to make them feel like they’re not talking to a director, because when you’re in a room with producers, ADs and all these people running around, that can be overwhelming to someone that’s never done anything like that before - it’s even overwhelming for me sometimes. I just try to talk to them and try to make them feel as normal as possible, like they’re just hanging out with me.
LBB> How did you source each of the stories that make up the Honest Yearbook? Did you work with a particular school?
Jordan> This was the magic, and greatest source of anxiety, in planning the production. First, we had to find teens willing to tell their stories. Then we had to figure out how to get the receiver of their messages to show up for the photo shoot without giving away the surprise. We began by reaching out to Southern California high schools to see if they were interested in supporting the project and we received an overwhelmingly positive response. From there we put out a call for teens who were willing to tell their stories for a documentary we were putting together. Once we met the teens and heard the powerful things they had to say about the impact others had had on them, we asked if they would be willing to participate in our experiment. They provided the names of the peers their stories were about and agreed to let us surprise them with their testimonials. Most importantly, they agreed to keep the secret.
LBB> Were there a lot of other students’ stories that didn’t quite make the cut?
Jordan> One of the hardest parts of the project was deciding which stories to feature. We had so many brave teens willing to open up about everything from being teased about their appearance, to dealing with eating disorders, to coming out, to self-harm and everything in between. We really could have made a documentary, but knew the best approach to reach our target was to create short films that were appropriate for the social channels teens frequent every day.
LBB> A fundamental part of the campaign is for the yearbook students not to know what they’re actually taking part in. They need to believe it’s the yearbook shoot. How did you go about that?
Jordan> The two-day shoot was one of the most powerful experiences any of us had been a part of in our careers – the client, the agency and the production company all shed plenty of tears over those two days.
On the first day, we brought in the teens that were going to tell their stories. We found a fantastic high school in Los Angeles where we could use a different location with each teen we were filming. This is where we really witnessed the brilliance of Adolescent. In order for the teens to feel safe and willing to open up about their experiences, the only people on set were the teen, the director, 19-year-old Claire Jantzen, and the director of photography, Michael Kortlander. Claire immediately put the teens at ease and was able to relate to them on their level. She did a fantastic job of getting them to open up and share their deeply personal stories. Even more impressive was her ability to help them find their voice and navigate their emotions. While on location, we gave the teens an iPhone and had them record the testimonials we would be surprising their peers with on day two.
As if day one wasn’t emotional enough, day two added the additional stress of not knowing who was going to show up and whether the experiment was going to work. The parents of the teens being surprised were incredibly helpful. They understood that their kids were going to hear about the powerful, positive impact they had had on their peers and even went so far as to embellish the story about the photo shoot in order to avoid suspicion and get their kids to participate. This time it was 20-year-old Shea Glover who had to not only earn the teens’ trust as the photographer, but also draw from them how it felt to hear about the impact they had on their friends. While many of these teens already shared a special relationship, it was clear that they had never communicated with each other in this way. In many cases, the teens delivering the messages were so excited about what we were doing, they wanted to come to the shoot so they could be with their friends after the surprise. Their reunions after the shoot were almost as powerful as the experiment itself. It will be fascinating to check in with them a year from now and see the long-term impact this experience has had on their relationships.
Shea> That was really tricky because we had to delve into these kids’ lives and learn what was going on with them, who’s important to them, the friends they’ve recently gained, if they’ve lost family member and so on. And then you have to try and get the other person to try and figure out the storylines. What kind of friendship do they have with that person? What is something those guys have gone through recently? Have they just become their friend or have they had any drama recently?
We really had to befriend these kids and know what was going on within the intricacies of each relationship they had going on. And then we had to find that other person who is important to them to get involved too, making sure they could do it on the same day, and make sure that we had someone who could help us with the surprise video. There’s a lot to get all these different storylines together, especially because we wanted to make sure that there was a storyline that people could follow, either the theme of bullies getting them down, or dealing with an eating disorder - but without creating them. We didn’t want to just say, ‘hey kids, what’s some stuff you’re going through that we can capitalise on?’ We just wanted to get to know these kids. Interviewing, interviewing, interviewing, and feeling like a conspiracy theorist with lots of pictures on a wall with red lines tagging them all together. The friendliest version of stalking possible.
LBB> How was it for you personally working with the students and hearing their stories?
Jordan> I have two teenage boys, and as much as you think you know about what they are going through, nothing comes close to hearing these stories directly from the teens. In addition to gaining a deeper appreciation for what it’s like to be a teen in the social media age, the focus on self-reflection had us all thinking about our experiences growing up and the things we said and did that affected others, as well as the things others said and did that had an impact on us.
LBB> How was it for you personally working with the students and hearing their stories?
Claire> Emotional, of course, but enlightening. I was so impressed by how willing the students were to open up and speak about their experiences. It’s not easy to do with someone they just met, especially when being recorded. It just goes to show that when young people have a safe, comfortable environment to speak within, they (most likely) will do so.
Shea> It was amazing. I cried a few times, and I didn’t expect that. This sounds like such a pretentious thing to say - ‘I’m good at making people open up’ - but I am! But I didn’t expect to hear all those stories. All of these kids had something pretty dramatic that they were going through. Even though I’m not that much older, I forget that high schoolers are mini adults, they’re not children. They’re still kids but they’re dealing with real adult issues. It was hard at times but it was a beautiful experience to get to know a stranger for a moment and what they’re going through, and just hug them and say thanks for opening up.
LBB> Within the PSA it’s made up of a mixture of school kids and four influencers - who are the influencers and why were they perfect to appear in the film?
Jordan> The four influencers in the film are actor Lonnie Chavis (‘This Is Us’), YouTuber and actress, Jenn McAllister, content creator and makeup artist, James Charles (the first male Covergirl) and musician, Jacob Sartorius. I have to admit, I didn’t know any of them. But on set, the high school teens we were shooting were going nuts, taking selfies and messaging their friends. Credit the Ad Council for lining up the perfect participants.
LBB> What were the trickiest components when producing this campaign and how did you overcome them?
Claire> Whenever working with real people who have emotional stories it is difficult in general to switch between being a conversationalist and a director. You have to have the right balance, especially in a project like this, that allows the talent (real kids) to feel at ease, safe, and comfortable. Also, finding those powerful one-liners without asking them to repeat the story a hundred times. Authenticity is important, but respect for a story even more so.
Shea> Creating the storylines, the interview process, and figuring out which kids we were going to use for the surprise element and whether their storylines worked. And by storylines I mean the themes - if they were going through something specific. We didn’t want a bunch of kids just saying, ‘you mean so much to me, thanks’. We wanted specifics - ‘I was dealing with x, y and z, and then you helped me’. Finding specific storylines that we could really convey on screen and that someone could understand by hearing just 10 seconds of that story - that was tricky.
But I didn’t want to exploit these kids’ problems and feel like we were crafting a fake story. I’ve been in that situation where a real person’s story wasn’t working and someone is pushing you to fake it. That’s not fun. I didn’t want to be in that situation and I was worried at times that that’s where we’d have to go. Thankfully we didn’t at all because they opened up and the friends surprising the kids were very excited to be a part of this project. I’m glad that was an issue that resolved itself.
LBB> And how about most memorable moments?
Jordan> By far the most memorable moment was seeing the first teen come in for the photo shoot. After months of planning and trying to anticipate everything that could possibly happen, the moment was finally here. We had seen the teens from the first day during the initial casting. But because the photo shoot was a surprise, we had no idea who would be showing up, or if they would show up at all. We all waited anxiously, hidden away in a loft at the photo studio and struggling to stay quiet and contain our excitement. And then this happened…