PSAs tend to provide creative agencies with much more opportunity to be provocative than does branded work for clients — especially in the pharma space. But even by the more relaxed standards of the PSA, the spot for the Concussion Legacy Foundation done by Fingerpaint stands out.

The 30-second spot shows the Turbos, a youth football team, firing up cigarettes for a smoke break during a game. The source of the smokes? A mom who offers a pack of heaters to the cherubs in pads. It’s all done in the service of making the point that the banging of heads that happens on every play in tackle football can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as certainly as smoking leads to cancer. And, parents, you wouldn’t let your kid smoke, would you? Then why let them play tackle?

Chops caught up with the team from Fingerpaint to learn more about the campaign.

Where did the idea come from?

Angela Harrison, creative, Fingerpaint: A study published in October in the Annals of Neurology found that for each year a person plays tackle football, his risk of developing CTE goes up by 30%, and that the risk compounds over time. The study changed the conversation about CTE, which previously centered around concussions. The risk conversation is now about the volume of sub-concussive blows over time, both big and small, regardless of number of concussions or level of play.  

When the Concussion Legacy Foundation asked Fingerpaint to develop a PSA on their behalf, we saw the data showed the relationship between tackle football and developing CTE is not unlike the way smoking and cancer are scientifically correlated — the longer you do it, the greater the risk. We knew smoking was something every parent could relate to, and hopefully be affected by. 

How did you get connected with the client?

Ed Mitzen, founder, Fingerpaint: Angela connected Fingerpaint with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. She had moved her family from New York City to Saratoga Springs to work with us. The move came not long after her dad died and she made the decision to donate his brain to the VA-BU-Brain Bank. After researchers there discovered Angela’s father had suffered from the most severe form of CTE because of his years of playing football, Angela started volunteering her creative services to the foundation and became a family ambassador. 

Just about a year ago, Angela approached us about lending our services to the Concussion Legacy Foundation after learning about the data coming in, and knowing that Chris Nowinski, founder of the CLF, wanted to develop a public service campaign based on that data to get across the message that tackle football can wait until players are older.  

Angela, can you talk about your family’s experience with CTE?

AH: My Dad played football in high school and college. He played both offense and defense, so basically, he was always on the field. We saw his cognitive skills decline, and at the very end he needed care available only at a skilled nursing facility. It was heartbreaking. 

For a long time, I suspected his problems were a result of CTE, especially given the fact there was no family history of dementia and his siblings as well as his parents were still alive. So when he died I donated his brain to the VA-BU-Brain Bank to be studied. They confirmed what I suspected. I didn’t have a million dollars to donate to the cause, but I told the CLF, I do know how to create effective messaging out of science and I wanted to help stop this epidemic. In addition to volunteering my creative services and being a family ambassador, I was just recently appointed to the foundation’s board of directors.  

Where was the piece shot?

AH: It was filmed at the Pacific Palisades Polo Field in California. Finding a location was a bit of a struggle, as any registered location in Los Angeles now has a law that prohibits showing children smoking, be it real or simulated. We were lucky enough to have a quick-thinking production and scout team at Bully Productions that uncovered the perfect place, within the city limits, to do the shoot. We were really down to the wire finding a work-around for these strict smoking laws but we think it worked out beautifully. 

I should also mention our director, Rebecca Carpenter, an established documentary film maker based in LA, who also lost her father, NFLer Lewis Carpenter, to CTE. She helped with the location scouting in addition to directing the spot. I met her through other CLF events and asked her to come on board for the shoot. It was her deep understanding of the message we were trying to convey, the sport and the risks players face that really helped push this over the top. 

How did you cast? Did the child actors or their parents squirm?

AH: We used an LA-based casting agency and were able to cast the entire spot in a single day.  We were fearful it would be difficult to find enough kids that would be cleared for the smoking scenes, but once the parents understood the message, they were very supportive. There was no doubt, even during casting, the content we were working with would be controversial. That was clear from the start so everyone knew what they were getting into. 

One important thing to note is that both the smoking and the tackling were simulated. 

What’s the response been? I have to think that in the Internet era, you’ve been trolled some.

EM: The response has been overwhelmingly supportive across many audiences — everyone from agency colleagues about the creative to families who have been impacted by health conditions connected to head-to-head impact have reached out.

The earned media has created exposure rates we have never seen before. Major new outlets, from CNN to the Associated Press, as well as regional print and TV stations across the country have devoted time to the topic and shared our spot. We have been non-stop fielding inquires from cable news outlets like, HLN (Headline News) who did a live national interview with Angela just a few days after the launch to sports media publications earlier this week, who want to learn more. As with anything put into the public arena, especially living in the Internet era and when you are delivering such a striking message, there will be critics. The PSA is based on a scientific study, which is hard to poke holes in. 

What’s the pickup been? Anybody refuse to use it?

AH: Fingerpaint is lucky to have a media department that is as strategic as it is creative. We knew this PSA might create problems for itself when it comes to getting broadcast time. No one has to air it, since we shot it at PSA rates, and we can’t pay for placement. We cast a wide target using social channels, and connected TV. The results of this effort, and conversations around the topic, have been nothing short of unprecedented. To date, no one has refused to show it. Here are some of the results:

  • More than 100 earned media features in all major national news networks including CNN, NBC, FOX, ABC, The AP, Ad Age, US News and World Report, Headline News and many more resulting in nearly 1 billion impressions worldwide
  • National PSA broadcast in #1 markets
  • More than 1 million impressions across Facebook and Instagram, 
  • Static ad CTR of 8.1% which is 4x the benchmark of 2%
  • Nearly another 500k impressions across Connected TV and programmatic banner ads
  • Website engagement
  • Average time on site is 02:31
  • 33% of users consume all content on website