The Day After campaign took place over 30 years ago, but it is worth describing in some detail. It was a remarkable, even historic communications effort, demonstrating how Josh Baran tackles challenges and thinks big.
Ad Week wrote, “In 1983, the same year President Ronald Reagan gave his hawkish ‘evil empire’ speech, ABC aired The Day After, a made-for-TV movie about a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Those marketers brave enough to wade into politically charged waters were rewarded with the largest audience in history for an original TV movie. Some 100 million people — or, a Super Bowl-sized audience — watched Armageddon unfold in Lawrence, Kansas."
The New York Times wrote that The Day After “is no longer only a television film, of course; it has become an event, a rally and a controversy, much of it orchestrated. Part of the controversy has to do with whether The Day After makes a political statement, which it does, although the statement is muddy, and part of the controversy has to do with how we confront the nuclear abyss. Champions of the film say it forces us to think intelligently about the arms race; detractors say it preaches appeasement. In fact, both sides have something going for them in their arguments, even if the champions of the film, for the moment, are being heard more clearly than the detractors."
The remarkable and relatively unknown fact about the marketing and outreach effort was that almost none of it was done by ABC at all, but by Josh Baran and his team, acting independently without ABC’s permission or even cooperation. Many think it still ranks as one of the most audacious and unconventional PR campaigns in history.
Although ABC had produced the film, they were getting cold feet. Their censors were editing the film down and cutting out “upsetting” scenes, and ABC’s board of directors didn’t want to disappoint their buddies in the Reagan administration. There was even a rumor that Reagan himself had asked the chairman of ABC not to air the film. The network was still going ahead, but all indications were that their promotional efforts would be minimal and cautious with no effective outreach.
It was clear the issues that the film addressed were just too important to be left in the hands of fearful television executives.
Josh had just finished running the communications for the successful California Nuclear Freeze Campaign, a statewide ballot initiative that engaged lots of Hollywood executives, directors, and celebrities. One of his insights coming off the campaign was that a much bigger effort was needed to further galvanize public opinion about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. He was actively looking for some way, some vehicle that could be used.
He had heard rumors about The Day After and then a friend connected him to the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer. Nick showed him a rough cut of the film secretly (yes, at midnight — so dramatic!!) and then briefed him on the tenuous and political situation at ABC. Nick wanted his film widely seen. Josh quickly saw the film in a different light. Yes, he also wanted good ratings, but more than that, he envisioned the film as the centerpiece of a massive publicity and educational campaign that would create a broad national or even global dialogue on the arms race.
Josh was fairly new to PR and knew little about television publicity, per se, so there was no voice in his head that said, “You can’t do that.” What he imagined actually had never be done. After all, in the world of American television, the network owned the film and was in charge of the marketing, wasn’t it? You couldn’t just run your own independent campaign, could you? Maybe it was illegal, certainly it had never been pulled off.
At the end of that midnight screening, Nick Meyer handed Josh the rough cut of film on a VHS cassette and said to him, “Do what you have to do.” Armed with the actual film, he created a multi-layered campaign out of whole cloth — that engaged anti-nuclear activists, religious leaders, elected officials, academia, and the media. While ABC was risk-adverse and dithering, Josh secured some minimal funding from Rockefeller family members and went to work, spreading the word that this film had the potential to reach many more people than any activist campaign could achieve. Yes, what he was planning was wildly unconventional, but it wasn’t illegal, and frankly he didn’t care that ABC would have their feathers ruffled.
To ABC, this was a television film. To Josh, this was planetary survival. They were playing very different games.
ABC wouldn’t hold early screenings for the media (they wouldn’t even talk about the film), so Josh did. he flew all over the country, briefing activists, politicians and religious leaders and showing them the film. He went to Lawrence, Kansas, the town featured in the film, and showed the film to the mayor and all the folks that were extras in the film. The media was now calling Josh, not ABC, for background information on the film. He convinced People Magazine, back then a hugely important media outlet, to do a major story on the film seen through the lens of the people in Lawrence, Kansas. He secured the covers of Newsweek and TV Guide. He got 60 Minutes to do a story on the controversy around the film.
ABC was left in the dust, furious and confused, but the campaign was working. He even briefed ABC on aspects of the campaign. They were apoplectic, even threatening to sue him. “Sue me?” Josh asked. “On what grounds? What are the damages for tripling your ratings and bringing your network tens of millions of dollars in increased ad revenue?"
The Day After was fast becoming the most exciting television event in history, and not just because of the big ratings, but how the film was being used as the centerpiece for serious mass public discussion. Joining Josh is the effort were many leading anti-nuclear activists including PR maven David Fenton.
Nearly every television station in the nation was covering the walk-up to the film. Every talk radio show was focused on the nuclear arms race, for days, even weeks. There were literally thousands of articles, opinion pieces, columns written about the nuclear arms race. Churches, schools, colleges in hundreds, thousands of communities were holding conferences and town hall meetings. Josh even arranged for the Pope to see highlights of the film in the Vatican.
When the film finally aired, it was the biggest television event in history. Half the country were tuning in, an unprecedented audience. The streets of America were literally empty that night because so many people were home in front of their TVs. As one journalist noted, “The film was inescapable.”
One of the messages of the campaign was "Don't Watch this Alone!!!" Nuclear war is terrifying, so that message encouraged people to watch the film with their friends and family, in groups and talk about it afterwards. Kids were encouraged to watch with their friends and parents.
Josh arranged for a big community gathering in Lawrence, which then became part of Ted Koppel’s 90-minute special that aired after the film and included appearances by Secretary of State George Shultz, Carl Sagan, William F. Buckley, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
But more than that, this television film did indeed become the centerpiece for mass discussion, education and potential action. The New York Times criticized the controversy around the film as “orchestrated.” Of course, it was planned and managed and amplified. How else would it happen? Every marketing or education campaign is orchestrated. But in this case, it was not amplified for financial gain or awards or fame, but for public engagement.
For too long, the public had not faced the dangers of the nuclear arms race — and now they were. Because of this special wild effort.
What Josh imagined, created, and implemented with minimal resources was astonishing. Talk about “out of the box” thinking — this was so far out of the box, it was on another planet. This indie campaign still remains an extraordinary example of brilliant thinking for the greater good. Josh was not hijacking the outreach for his own gain, for profit, or for fame — but purely — and this is absolutely true — to sound the alarm that the nuclear arms race had to be stopped. He never took any special credit for the success of the film. He never publicized his role.
Films by themselves do not change the world. However, the effort around a film, using the film as a centerpiece for action, engagement, conversation, can make a big difference. Josh's campaign impacted President Reagan. From Wikipedia: "President Ronald Reagan watched the film several days before its screening, on November 5, 1983. He wrote in his diary that the film was "very effective and left me greatly depressed," and that it changed his mind on the prevailing policy on a "nuclear war". The film was also screened for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A government advisor who attended the screening, a friend of (the film's director) Meyer's, told him "If you wanted to draw blood, you did it. Those guys sat there like they were turned to stone." Four years later, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed and in Reagan's memoirs he drew a direct line from the film to the signing."
Still, today, in 2016, and as Trump assumes the presidency, nuclear weapons remain a continuing enormous danger to the world — and we are still not facing it squarely. Maybe we need another Day After… or something that collectively and powerfully wakes us up.