DeVito/Verdi’s Bold Stand for Free Speech

GraphisApril 4, 2024

DeVito/Verdi's advertising campaign for FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) skillfully addressed the topic of free speech with creative flair, earning it the Gold award at Advertising 2024. Led by executive creative director Eric Schutte, art director Scott Steidl, and public relations director Kelly Durcan, the campaign highlighted the challenges of "cancel culture" and the importance of the First Amendment through compelling visuals and copy. By focusing on the nuances of public discourse and the right to express differing opinions, DeVito/Verdi's work for FIRE successfully blended impactful messaging with creative excellence, resonating deeply with audiences and stakeholders alike.

By: Kelly Durcan, Director of Public Relations, DeVito/Verdi

When we first began working with FIRE (The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), free speech on college campuses was under assault. Speeches were canceled, voices were shouted down, and violence always seemed to lurk whenever a controversial firebrand was invited to take the stage. But the issue went far beyond the walls of academia: festering in the arts, business, school systems, and anywhere an unpopular opinion had been delivered or was about to be uttered.

We’ve long been an agency that takes on difficult issues to illuminate hypocrisy, discrimination, racism, political and religious overreach, and other societal ills. In fact, we aim to dedicate 15 percent of our work each year to cause-related campaigns. Here was another chance to do something creatively that would change minds and alter behavior. The assignment wasn’t lost on us; we were expressing something that needed to be heard.

When given the assignment, the creative team saw this as the chance to take on an issue at the root of our democracy. It sounds hyperbolic, but freedom of expression isn’t the fourth, fifth, or sixth rule the Founding Fathers devised when laying out their vision of this country—it was the first.

The First Amendment is an easy issue. Everyone believes in it… until stresses in society fracture its foundation. So, when you have COVID and its polarizing debate, and the resultant hate toward Asian-Americans, and then a contentious election and right up to today with universities not even able to articulate a stance on free speech, stresses multiply, and suddenly there’s pushback and fuzzy lines for unfettered free speech. This is when the creative challenges multiply.

Inspired by the agency’s heritage of famed work done on behalf of the ACLU, child abuse, and Planned Parenthood, creative director Eric Schutte asked creatives to envision a world where Cancel Culture led to what was ultimately seen or heard. He also pushed to boil the issue down to its simplest form to demonstrate the dangers of trampling on the First Amendment. What do we become when we shut down people’s voices, and what could we have lost if we had silenced those yearning to speak?

Eric and others understood the campaign’s importance. “Sometimes advertising doesn’t just help sell things,” Eric said. “Sometimes, it can help protect the things we hold dear.”

The primary focus was on the concept of “cancel culture,” which was becoming more prevalent. It was a difficult needle to thread as we debated where is the line, where does it tilt from acceptable to unacceptable, and who is worthy of judging someone whose livelihood depends on expressing themselves freely and openly. We may not like that joke, but that’s how that comedian earns a living.

The print ad, “Cancel Culture Cancels Culture,” was simple and concise. Two repeated words clearly captured the essence of the issue. A TV spot with the statue “David” wearing underwear might appease those with delicate sensibilities, but art and culture would be the ones stripped of a classic creation. And the ad that was half red, half blue was totally spot on when reminding us that freedom of expression is for all Americans.

“I think many creatives can look at this campaign and see how it was based on classic creative training and not what’s really being taught today,” said Schutte. “I think you’ll see a high degree of complexity that is smart, interruptive, and has a bit of a surprise to it.”

Ellis Verdi, founder and president of DeVito/Verdi, said the creative teams had several “aha” moments and lessons learned in producing the work. “Lots of obvious creative solutions had to be thrown away because of an inherent desire to be bombastic and not just smart,” Ellis said. “The First Amendment stands tall, but the concept of ‘cancel culture’ requires a greater degree of thought and understanding, which led us to the right place.”

FIRE, which is solely dedicated to protecting and preserving one’s freedom of expression, wanted to raise the salience of threats to free speech, particularly surrounding “cancel culture,” while also connecting the FIRE brand with the free speech issue in general. The national campaign achieved its goals.

“The campaign resulted in increased attention from job applicants, donors, and citizens interested in getting involved in FIRE’s broader mission. It also gave us a better understanding of what messages surrounding free speech resonate with which audiences, which was helpful to our organization beyond this discrete campaign,” said Nico Perrino, executive vice president at FIRE.

Ellis says winning Graphis Gold is a “reaffirmation that the classic teachings for great creative work remains powerful, viable and serve as the underpinning for so many advertising successes.”

DeVito/Verdi is a medium-sized, privately-held, full-service advertising agency that continues to win accolades for its work in all departments, including creative, strategic planning, media buying and planning, public relations, promotions, guerilla tactics, and digital solutions, the fastest-growing department within the agency. Our creative philosophy is based on the view that our job is to capture the truth. What works, and we have proven it time and time again with all of our clients, is the need to find and hit a consumer nerve that resonates as valuable, truthful, and unforgettable. Since our inception in 1991, we have been one of the most creatively honored agencies in the country, year after year. We have been named “Best Mid/Small Size Agency in the U.S. for General Excellence” six times by the 4A’s. This is a record that no agency, large or small, has beaten.

Social: Instagram, X, LinkedIn

To see more Advertising 2024 competition winners, click here.

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