Boston might have been named the Smartest City in North America this year, but back in July, it was also deemed the meanest city in America. “Usually in Boston you’ll experience random acts of ugliness,” said Joe Berkeley, group creative director/writer with Hill Holliday.
So when the Boston ad agency was approached a year ago by Samaritans Inc. Executive Director Roberta Hurtig and charged with bringing awareness to the issue of suicide prevention, Berkeley saw an opportunity to enact a mentality shift of sorts in how we talk about and deal with mental illness, conjuring what he called, “Unconventional ideas on how to make a difference with this cause.”
Berkeley and two Hill Holliday colleagues—Dave Gardiner, group creative director/art and Andrew Butler, account planner—created “Happier Boston,” a pro-bono campaign built around a website, PSAs and what the team calls “social experiments”—cheering on commuters at MBTA stations, surprise skyscraper sing-alongs, or encouraging area CEOs to hand out oranges to employees, emblazoned with the smirk-inducing slogan, “Orange you happy?”
The idea, Berkeley told me, is not at all to make light of the issue of suicide, but rather to destigmatize the issue, bringing it out from behind closed doors and into the light, where those afflicted feel safe enough to talk about it. “There was a time when people whispered the word ‘cancer,’” said Berkeley. “At the moment, mental illness has a stigma attached to it. We want to put this cause in the best light possible.”
Conventional, hackneyed advertising wisdom would likely produce images of, say, a person about to jump off a bridge, said Berkeley, coupled with a ubiquitous message about calling someone for help instead.
Berkeley, Butler and Gardiner decided to approach the issue from a different angle instead, highlighting the parts of Boston that can make people smile, from a Fenway Park sunset to a citrus fruit with a twist. “We’re not putting a happy face on this,” said Berkeley. “We’re not ignorant. But at the same time, can we make Boston a happier place and raise awareness?”
The campaign is multi-pronged. There’s the Blues Engine, which encourages people having a bad day to put their feelings into song via an interactive soundboard currently powered, and endorsed, by Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and catchphrases like “I want another parade” and “going deep.” It’s impossible not to smile as Big Papi sings the blues. A Mayor Menino Blues Engine is coming soon, too, said Berkeley.
There’s also Happy Thoughts and Happy Spots, both of which encourage Bostonians to submit the messages and images that make them smile. “It’s OK to have a sad day,” said Berkeley, adding that small things can make a big difference, and happiness breeds happiness. “I see this as changing the way people view Samaritans, mental illness and, with any luck, Boston.”
Berkeley gives a lot of credit to Samaritans for allowing Hill Holliday to do something different, and in so doing, acknowledging that a different approach might be just what the issue needs.
“Samaritans took a leap of faith,” he said. “For us to tell them that [the campaign is] going to go from on the bridge to making Boston a happier place, it was very, very difficult for them to say ‘Yeah, we want to do that.’ It took guts. It’s not human nature. I have to thank them for seeing what this idea had that can really change things. It’s struck a chord with people.”
Thanks are in order all around. The campaign has seen success so far, and I can only hope the city continues to open its eyes to the issue of mental illness and suicide prevention, and perhaps become a little happier in the process.