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Problem Solved: How VMLY&R COMMERCE Mexico Turned Ambulance Sirens into Donations


Executive creative director Adriano Lombardi explains how modifying ambulance siren's to the Spanish for 'donate' allowed the Mexican Red Cross to advertise for free

Problem Solved: How VMLY&R COMMERCE Mexico Turned Ambulance Sirens into Donations

A multidisciplinary creative with a visual communication and arts background, born and raised in Buenos Aires. 

With almost 20 years of experience, award-winning creative Adriano Lombardi’s career has brought him to WPP agencies across Argentina, Peru, Colombia and most recently Mexico, where he serves as executive creative director at VMLY&R COMMERCE Mexico.   

Adriano has created industry-defining work for global clients, including Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Unilever, Mondeléz, Campari, Mazda, Chevrolet, Puma, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Belcorp, and Diageo among others. His experience across South America provides him with both local and regional multicultural experience and insights.

An award-winning creative, Adriano has had success across Cannes Lions, Clios, D&AD, The One Show, LIA, PHNX Awards, El Sol de San Sebastian, El Ojo de Iberoamerica, and more.  

He has also served as a juror at international awards shows and now mentors the next generation of creatives as a university lecturer.


In Mexico, the Red Cross is the first responder for natural disasters, car crashes, and pandemics. As a non-governmental humanitarian assistance organisation though, they rely solely on private donations to attend to emergencies. There are no other healthcare institutions in the country whose operating funds coming from individual donations.

To reach the wider audience needed to receive funding, the Mexican Red Cross needed mass media – but every penny spent on marketing is a penny that could have gone to saving lives. So, the Red Cross turned to the largest and loudest outdoor media network at their disposal. One they owned – ambulances.

With a slight adjustment of their authorised siren modes (one that still kept within Mexican laws and regulations), the Red Cross modified their ambulance siren to say 'dona', the Spanish word for 'donate'.

With more than 448 owned ambulances across 32 Mexican states, they created a new way to advertise nationwide for free.  


There is a belief that donating just once is enough to help. In reality though the Mexican Red Cross needs donations on an ongoing basis to continue operating. We were tasked with creating a continual “call to donate” throughout the year with the knowledge that there was no media budget available. People in Mexico already know how to donate; they just needed to be reminded.


We started working with a sound engineer to modify the original sound of the Hi-Lo mode, one of the authorised sounds of the siren. The sound needed to send the alert, while also keeping within Mexican laws and the NOM-34 mandatory technical regulations. Once the sound was modified, we started piloting it on different ambulances (not all of them had the same sound system).  We realized quickly though that the modified sound worked across all of them. Each digital siren has a RCA entry port, so by plugging a music player in the system, we were able to send the audio signal with the new sound created by the engineer.

We really needed to stay within the emergencies budget. Realising that ambulances are extremely loud (the speakers have a sound reach of 700ft), we knew that by creating a sound-led advertisement we would be able to spread a donation message while attending to emergencies.

We brainstormed a lot of guerrilla marketing tactics – branding the first responder uniforms and such – but in the end we realised that what was really needed was a reminder. A simple message. In terms of production, the biggest roadblock was emulating a sound that keeps the alert front and centre, but at the same time says the word 'dona'. We went back and forward a lot until we finally got the best sound result. It was a matter of creating the file, plugging it into the ambulance sound system, and then testing it to see if the message was both understandable and loud enough for people on the street to understand.

Our inspiration came from the streets of Mexico. The idea was inspired by a technique called 'perifoneo', a type of sound-led advertisement very common in Mexico. It consists of a sound system mounted on a vehicle that broadcasts a message across several streets. It’s a great example of the streets providing inspiration: "Mexico is a loud country, and Mexico City is its loudest. No one visits this fine city without asking as least once ‘What’s that noise?’”.


There were so many interesting aspects to this campaign. Nailing it down to just a single one or two is definitely not easy, but being able to work with a sound engineer to really polish the sound craft of the siren and make it sound like a donation call was an amazing experience! We had to go from an actual voice recorded in the studio to a piano in order to add notes; and then ultimately force it into the same tempo as the original siren, but with a word now added so that the final product had that consistent siren sound – well in a word, it was an awesome experience to pull it all off!  Then, of course, working with the Mexican Red Cross team to implement the idea on the actual ambulances was another challenge, but it really helped us to better understand how the emergency systems work and why. Overall, it was just such an amazing experience.

One thing that really sticks out in my mind is one particular night working with the sound engineer. We were testing the sixth voice of the casting into the siren sound – the previous five didn’t work at all – and at one point we started to think that maybe we should switch over and try it with AI instead, recording the word 'dona' from a text to speech machine voice. It had just been such a long process trying to perfect that voice/sound. After we tried it though, we realised almost immediately that the best option had been the first one, but with a different audio processing in place. In the end it’s really a lot like cooking. You add a little bit of salt and then some pepper to a recipe to make it taste just right. In this case, the salt was autotune and the pepper was a flanging effect, where you mix two identical signals together to get just that right effect. Like cooking, it takes patience.  You can’t add it all in at once because the taste – or in this instance the siren experience – just wouldn’t have been right.

The one and only – and definitely the most important talent of all – the sound engineer. That poor guy. Such an amazing talent, but also super patient to bear with the creative team’s desires, the Mexican norms, emergency regulations, and the sound system of the ambulances. He should take all the credit.

When creating a new emergency sound, there are many potential challenges. Firstly, lives are at risk and if the sound does not continue to alert motorists, cars may not give the right of way to ambulances. Secondly, there was a great risk of being fined by the government for modifying the sound, so we had to ensure it was identical to the original. Lastly, the reputation and credibility of the institution could not be tarnished by a desperate attempt to obtain donations. It was important that this new siren sound continued to fulfil its main function of alerting.


Being able to go to the studio, record and edit a few sound files, and then go to the Mexican Red Cross to test them on the ambulances was key. Then listening to what worked and what did not, and potentially returning to the studio again to edit, was crucial to make this idea work as well as it did. 

The biggest issue was the varying audio systems. The studio had a professional audio system, meaning that the speakers were sharp and sounded perfect. The ambulances, however, had super loud but poorer quality systems, which meant that playing a track that sounded perfect in the studio, didn’t replicate nearly as well on the ambulance speakers. 

Looking at the data and feedback, the numbers are just amazing! We reached a huge audience all across Mexico, which was the objective. Now we are currently working on simplifying the steps to convert – QR codes to scan to donate, one-click transactions partnering with banks and direct donation spots to make it even easier to help.

For me, being able to tell everyone that the new sound of the Red Cross sirens you hear in Mexico are because of the work we did with them. It’s just simply amazing. I love that part of my job.

These are just a few numbers we’re able to share from the first three months of the campaign:

  • 448 ambulances used as media channels 
  • 5.9 billion outdoor impact
  • Estimated cost of +2.5 M USD in outdoor advertising
  • All within the emergencies budget
  • Zero media budget
  • +24% donors vs last year
  • +39% donations vs last year
  • Average individual donation increased by 20%
  • 6.8 USD Million (+39% vs 2021) 
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Categories: Charity, Corporate, Social and PSAs

VMLY&R COMMERCE Mexico, Fri, 26 May 2023 12:29:06 GMT