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'No' shows how commercials saved Chile

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Published:   |   Updated: April 5, 2013 at 11:44 AM

Here's a fascinating piece of history that escaped much of the world's notice when it happened back in 1988.

That's the year that international pressure finally caused the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to hold an election in Chile, the country he and his fellow generals took over in a bloody coup in 1973. They offered Chileans the chance to endorse the current regime or reject it. Vote "Si" (yes) if "stability"' and "order," at the cost of political executions, "disappearances" and one-party rule works for you. Vote "No" is you'd rather take a chance on that great unknown - democracy.

"No" is about how that "No" campaign was concocted.

Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries") gives a poker-faced performance as Rene, an '80s hip advertising executive who was educated abroad and builds every ad campaign around pop music, "Chile is ready for the future" and mimes. The son of a politician, and a single dad whose estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) is a radical Rene is constantly having to rescue from jail, he comes off as apolitical.

When he's approached by "an old family friend," a socialist leader, to take on the ad campaign for "No," Rene has plenty of reasons to say "no" himself. "The election's fixed," insiders complain. They only have 27 days to come up with 15-minute blocks of infomercials to convince voters to side with them.

But Rene changes his mind. Maybe he likes a challenge. Maybe he wants to convince the wife to come back to him. The voices of leftist dissent are bitter, wounded, grieving for murdered friends and relatives, determined to wipe the regime's ugly history in its face with their 15 minutes of air time. No, Rene says (in Spanish, with English subtitles). "This doesn't sell."

In debates with politicians, colleagues and the passionate director (Nestor Cantillana) who considers Rene a lightweight, Rene argues that "happiness" is how you reach frightened voters lost in their "hopelessness." Give me a jingle, he says. Let's use humor and optimism.

"No," based on a play, gets bogged down in brainstorming sessions, arguments over what props to use on the sets of the commercials and the input of "focus groups."

And the ads themselves - "Coca-Cola commercials," the politicians complain - are a retro riot: companeros singing "no mas" and dancing in front of a rainbow flag.

They're just the sort of thing that taught "the world to sing"? in the '70s and '80s. But as silly as they were, in Chile, they made history.

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