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Write What You Know: Blood, Sweat, and Tear Gas


An almost implausibly ill-fated trip to Chile has given Snap London creative director Liam Wilson some perspective on the value of perseverance in advertising

Write What You Know: Blood, Sweat, and Tear Gas

The holiday season rapidly vanishing from our rear-view mirror. Swimming pools replaced by drowning in pitches. The summer’s heatwaves swapped for heating bills. The pound is on its arse and the Queen is dead. A recession looms. Clients will be getting twitchy as budgets are cut and the phrase “some nervousness internally” will be used as a reason to ditch a gag. But panicking is not the answer, consistency is key, as Snap London’s Liam Wilson can testify to…

I once got teargassed twenty minutes into a holiday.

No, I hadn’t defied orders and left my Center Parcs cabin on the day of the Queen’s funeral.

I was in Santiago, Chile. And I had touched down in the middle of the 2019 uprising.

I had planned the trip with two mates, James and Franky, months before.

But as our holiday grew closer, the civil unrest had started to gain traction and was making the news in the UK.

So much so, that Franky was going to pull out.

James and I, however, were going to plough on. And with an ample amount of peer pressure applied, Franky reluctantly agreed to come.

He regretted that decision as soon as our cab pulled up to the hostel. We all did.

The driver ushered us out of the car, chucked our luggage out of the boot, pointed at the building opposite the smouldering debris, and wheel-spun off in a hurry.

The building opposite the smouldering debris was indeed our new home. The hostel’s façade looked like an East End pub toilet cubicle: covered in graffiti and stinking of piss. My Spanish isn’t great but even I managed to translate ‘asesinar al presidente’. A handy diagram of the president in a sniper’s crosshairs aided my understanding. 

The door to the hostel was this huge medieval iron gate. It was like we were knocking for Saruman to see if he wanted to come out to play.
A head poked out of the door, darted left and right, and beckoned us in urgently.
“You’ve arrived just in time” the man said, now stood behind the reception.

Happy hour? Free upgrade to the penthouse suite? Pool party for the Victoria Secrets photoshoot that was happening out back? Not quite amigos.

The riots start at 4pm and it was ten to. We had got to our seats just in time for kick off.

We had inadvertently booked a hostel in the main square, overlooking quite a famous statue and fountain. A symbol of historical and political importance that had become the rendezvous for the protests every day.

The hotelier suggested we lock ourselves in for the evening, but we fancied some food and a drink because we were Brits abroad and them’s the rules.  So we ignored his local expertise and ventured outside. Into a scene from The Joker.

We like our Pisco like we enjoy our political atmosphere. Sour.

Anybody else’s eyes on fire?

My eyes were burning like I’d walked in on my mum and dad chopping onions while making love in the kitchen.

Suddenly we heard a fizzing noise and looked down to find a tear gas canister that had just been launched and landed in between Franky’s feet. He’d been nutmegged by a tank. Olé!

Then through the smoke, armoured vehicles arrived and started hosing people down with high-velocity water cannons. We had been on a 15-hour flight in economy so were grateful for the shower. You can experience all of this at home without the long-haul flight by simply rubbing Original Source Mint & Tea Tree in your eyes while you power shower as your neighbours stand in your bathroom chanting Assassinate the Presidente.

I slept well that night with twenty thousand people trying to topple a regime outside my window.

We decided Santiago was a wee bit sketchy, especially as we couldn’t use the local subway as it had been reduced to rubble. On day two we’d attempted sitting for a nice coffee and breakfast in a quaint little street, but had to leg it when the police started firing rubber bullets at us. Coffee usually makes me shit myself at the best of times without the help of an oppressive militia shooting projectiles.

So we flew to the Atacama desert to escape. We thought we had fled the worst of the Chile Con Carnage. But we were wrong. Again.

The Atacama is the driest place on earth (well, second to my Cannes Lions trophy cabinet).

We picked up a hire car at the airport. A Ferrari-red Nissan Navarro: a 4x4 and a bit of a beast. Standing in the back of the truck, wind whipping through your beard as you chase the desert sun, it made you feel like you were part of Isis, if Isis decided to give up on the whole terrorism lark and instead enjoy South American holidays as a break from their corporate jobs in finance and advertising.

We stayed in a remote house in the middle of the desert. The instructions to get there read along the lines of ‘turn left when you see the pile of small white rocks and then drive straight for 30 miles until you see a house in the desert’.

Our host was a friendly young chap named Ramires. He was a student helping his mum out while she was away. He did all the usual things a host does when they welcome you at check-in, like telling us how the shower works and informing us that he’d spent the afternoon prior to our arrival sweeping the house for any highly venomous spiders and advising us not to stray too far from the house because of the nearby landmines. Oh and not to be alarmed if we hear any barking through the night. It’s just stray, rabid dogs.

That night, I did not sleep for fear of venomous spiders, rabid dogs, landmines, civil unrest reaching the desert, and whether he said to turn the shower tap left and forward or right and backwards.

Ramires woke us up the next day, excitedly.

“Come, come. Let me show you something!”

He took us around the back of the house to show us a spider he’d found.

Sicario he called it. Nice, friendly Sicario.

Not sure if you’ve ever seen the film Sicario with Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro but there’s a lot of killing in it. The Sicarius spider gets its name from the Latin for assassin.
That word was cropping up quite a bit on this trip. Assassinate.
I don’t know about you, but I like my holiday’s related search terms to generally be along the lines of “beach” and “relaxing”. 

Anyway, Ramires excitedly told us how the spider’s bite causes necrosis and rots your skin.
So I slept well again that night knowing this new information, hoping one day – if I ever made it out of South America alive – it would pop up as a question in a pub quiz

Over the next few days, we did some organised activities with a tour guide. It was pretty bloody epic. We did stargazing one night. We also visited the lunar valley and learned some geology. We drove to the salt flats. But we came to the conclusion we hadn’t really used our beasty truck to its full potential. So we decided to visit the local tourist information centre and ask where we could safely visit on our own in our car.

We’re not complete idiots, so we wanted to talk to a local and get some advice and a map.
This guy was stoned off his box, so we should have taken his recommendation with a pinch of salt from the salt flats. But he pointed to a volcano we could visit. It was driveable and we’d see pink flamingos! Yay!

He marked on a map the roads we should take. 
We got ourselves plenty of water, food, fuel and appropriate hiking wear.
And we ventured forth to the volcano.

After driving for several hours and not seeing a single human, it quickly became apparent where the word ‘deserted’ derives from.

We saw a few cars that had been abandoned. Rust-ridden. Metal carcasses discarded in the arse-end of nowhere. A graveyard of gearboxes. Naturally, we stopped and posed for photos beside them. Oi Oi! Lads on tour! Wheeeey! 
Little did we know, in about an hour our car would be sharing the same fate.

We did see flamingos and close cousins of both llamas and ostriches though.
But pretty swiftly Google maps stopped showing any kind of distinguishing features. 
We were just a blue flashing dot on a steep ascent.
Then the flamingos and close cousins of both llamas and ostriches were nowhere to be seen either.
The altitude made my family bag of nachos balloon.

The landscape looked like a scene from a Road Runner cartoon. 
We came to a fork in the road and the map told us one branch was the B365, as directed by the tourist information stoner.
I use ‘road’ in the loosest sense here.
So off we went, bearing left. It definitely wasn’t right that’s for sure. We beared very wrong.
After 20 minutes the road started descending and it never occurred to us that at some point we’d have to ascend again.
I say ‘us’. Franky had pointed it out but he was in the back and I was riding shotgun in charge of the tunes and the directions. With hindsight, the tunes shouldn’t have been the priority…

We reached the bottom of a little valley, midway up on the volcano.
And it became very clear, very quickly that we were stuck on a rock in a dry place.
4,000m above sea level.
Our wheels were clogged up in the sand and – despite being a 4x4 – it didn’t have enough power to get anywhere close to achieving the incline. 
We dug ourselves out and decided it was best to go back the way we came from.
James did a 37-point turn on the edge of a sheer drop and managed to get the truck facing the other way. 
Franky and I got out to lighten the car to give it our best shot at driving up the climb.
The lack of oxygen meant the truck didn’t have as much oomph as it normally would. 
The terrain was also giving way underneath.
The truck simply couldn’t cope with the angle we were asking for.
We tried for over an hour.
After one final attempt, James switched off the engine and got out of the car, scratching his temple.
“Lads…I think…I think we might be a little bit fucked here”.
He swallowed the last part of that sentence.
Franky started retching, bent over. A panic attack.
If he thought he was in the trouble then, wait until he finds out I’ve already eaten the family bag of nachos in the car.

It had dawned on us just how much of a pickle we were in.
There was a very real chance we might die in the desert.
Which was annoying as I’d always said I’d wanted to go out face down in a dessert.
Bloody autocorrect for you.

We had no phone signal between the three of us. We hadn’t for hours.
And nobody knew we were here, except for a stoned tourist information bloke who probably wasn’t even in the same dimension as us by now.

If anybody was to find us, my guess would be an account person in need of some copy tweaks by EOP back in London. They always find you eventually.

We had roughly four hours of light left before sundown.
We weighed up whether to stay with the car so that we had somewhere to sleep or to walk in the hope of finding civilisation.
We decided nobody was going to find us on the side of a volcano and we’d use up more water by staying in the car for days, so our best bet was to hike.
The map said there was a small town called San Francisco. A quick bit of maths and some GCSE geography told us that we could get there in about three hours.
But these three amigos were more accustomed to Leyton Orient than Latent Orienteering.

The whole time on the walk, we were all silently thinking the same thing: is this just one slow, final march towards our inevitable doom?

I also came to the conclusion that we wouldn’t get much sympathy if we did die and the news travelled home.
We were hardly the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
We were the broker, the banker, the advertising wanker.
There would have been no campaign in The Sun newspaper to bring our boys home.
I can only imagine the uni photo the Daily Mail would have dredged up alongside the headline ‘ADMAN GETS JUST DESERTS’.

But as we reached a peak – an act of fortune in the form of 4G. Phone signal!
We made the call on who to call.
No girlfriends or family, that would just worry people.
We rung a reliable friend and gave coordinates, our direction of travel, and instructions to ring the embassy if he hadn’t heard from us by 11pm.
What made me laugh was the very British trait of participating in small talk even when your hours from a dehydrated death.

“Hi Dan mate. How are you? Yeah not bad thanks, yeah Chile is great. Real eye-opener. Listen, got ourselves into a slight quandary over here…sorry you’re not out for dinner or anything are you? No? Cool. Right, so here’s the thing…”

Our second call was to the Dutch guy who we’d given our passports and phone details to when we signed a disclaimer for our Lunar Valley excursion a few days earlier.
We told him our predicament and that we had got stuck on the B365 road but it’s fine because we were heading towards San Francisco.

“The B365? That’s a very dangerous road”

“No shit sherlock” we silently screamed.

“In fact, they closed that road years ago because too many people got stuck and died there”.

He followed that stonker up with:

“San Francisco?” his voice whispering like he was uttering Lord Voldemort’s name.
“You won’t find anything there. It doesn’t exist”.
“You what mate?”
“San Francisco. It doesn’t exist.” 
“Not recognised by the United Nations exist, or Hogwarts isn’t real exist?” we enquired.
“It’s a ghost town. There’s nothing there anymore. Everyone left after the earthquake a few years ago. All you’ll find is stray dogs and empty buildings”

“And fucking Sicario spiders I bet” I cursed.

He told us the plan.
We were to keep walking down until we reach flat land and head towards the sun.
And then we would wait for Pablo, a man he knew with a big truck who would drive us back to San Pedro.
It sounded like a wind up.
Pablo would be the first name I’d think of If I was making up a random South American geezer. Or a very successful London advertising agency.
Don’t know if you’ve ever had your fate resting in the hands of a man you’ve never met called Pablo before, but it’s not reassuring.

I never thought there would be a time in my life where I’d actually long to be back in the safe company of a tear-gas deploying police force, or tucked up in bed with an eight-legged highly venomous arachnid, or even doing last minute copy tweaks for programmatic banner ads.

We walked. And we walked some more.

Strange what your brain does when it’s procrastinating to avoid thinking about your potential demise. I remember thinking how odd the lyrics to Shakira’s 2001 hit Whenever, Wherever were:

Lucky that my lips not only mumble
They spill kisses like a fountain
Lucky that my breasts are small and humble
So you don't confuse them with mountains

I’d spent the last eight hours up a mountain and not once did I have them confused for breasts.
That said, there were three tits from Essex severely lost on a volcano.

And so we waited for Pablo.
I wish I could lie and say he arrived in a Citroen people carrier so I could call him Pablo Picasso, but he didn’t.
It was a monster truck.
Its lights beaming through the desert night sky like an ethereal glow from the Gods.

The only words he said were: “I am Pablo.”
Yes, yes you are Pablo. You beautiful, beautiful man, you.
We sat in silence the whole ride home, watching out the window as the sky turned violet, then indigo, before finally fading to black. 
I looked at his speedometer as the desert crept into darkness.
He drove for two hours at 130km/h.
We didn’t see a single other soul the whole time.
I did the mental arithmetic.
We wouldn’t have made it had he not turned up.
The desert would have swallowed us up within days.

Oh shit! We just left a brand new £50k hire-car up a volcano!
Forgot about that. 
One for the morning.

When we got back to our accommodation, we had a long three-way hug, followed by an ice cold beer. 
The enormity of the situation we’d wriggled out of was overwhelming.
We rang the insurance company and told them about the car.
They were weighing up the costs of getting a helicopter to winch the car out.
In the end, they sent two Chilean engineers down at first light.
About 2pm, we got a phone call saying our vehicle was ready and waiting in a car park.
We turned up to find the Chilean lads covered head to toe in dust, every inch of them including their eyelids. They looked like sand sculptures or something out of The Mummy Returns.
They handed us over the keys and pointed to our truck. Fair to say, it was no longer Ferrari-red.
It had taken them eight hours to get the truck off the volcano.
The bill for our misdemeanour? £13.09 each.

We had a few more encounters with the Grim Reaper before the holiday was over.
A mass brawl at a desert rave, a visit from a tarantula, Franky got bit by a dog, we accidentally walked through a minefield, we drove through a fire to avoid the rioting mob jumping on cars, and nearly got crushed by a convoy of the capital city’s bin lorry fleet blockading a bridge on our way back to Santiago airport to fly home.

Right, that’s me down the volcano. Somehow, I’ve now got to drag this article up the metaphorical mountain home to adland…

What we did do throughout our Chilean ordeal, was not panic.
We stuck to our plans rather than being frozen by fear.
We kept a sense of humour, even when it all looked rather bleak. 
We carried on making silly jokes all the way down that volcano because if one of us had suddenly changed character, it would have panicked us all.
Far too often, clients and colleagues panic when shit hits the fan.
Twitchy trigger fingers mean advertising budgets get shot down at the first signs of fiscal uncertainty, despite it being proven that it’s the worst thing you can do.
Clients change strategies as quick as they change marketing directors.
They kill a campaign before it’s had time to blossom properly, because it wasn’t an overnight success.
But the best big ideas are given time to evolve, rather than tossed to the side like an abandoned car in the Atacama.
You build a brand and its tone of voice through consistency.
Just look at “Should’ve gone to specsavers”.
That idea gets better the more it gets done. It wasn’t some overnight success.
During covid, a lot of brands felt they suddenly need to change their tone, ditching funny for forlorn. 
I’m sure that will happen with the cost of living crisis too.
But if your mates suddenly changed personalities or the way they spoke, you’d be a little scared. The same with brands in tough times.

So keep walking on. Push on up that volcano. Stay creatively hydrated. Or you will perish in the advertising wasteland, where nobody will remember you.

Besides, by the time you’ve finished this article which is a literary ordeal in itself, the recession will have all blown over. Like tumbleweed in the desert.
All the other stuff your clients were worrying about – like whether the key cast should be wearing blue or yellow in the telly ad, or whether you should stick the url on the poster –  all of that will have come to pass.

And if your campaign really isn’t working, you can always resort to tear gas. 
Or as I prefer to call it, programmatic display advertising.

Liam Wilson is chief copywriter for the Chilean Tourist Board. He prefers desserts to deserts. His first born child, regardless of gender, will be named Pablo.

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Snap London, Mon, 26 Sep 2022 14:10:54 GMT