The trend of marketers speaking out on important social issues has been taken to a new level this week, with a campaign from fashion retailer Simons about the beauty of life that uses the real story of a terminally ill woman choosing to end her life with medical assistance to deliver the message.
Called “All is Beauty,” a three-minute film posted to YouTube on Monday tells the story of Jennyfer, who explains how important beauty has been in her life, and how she still finds beauty in her final days before ending her life. The video is part of a full campaign developed by Broken Heart Love Affair that includes 30- and 60-second versions running on TV (both at bottom or story), supported by out-of-home and print.
In a separate five-minute video posted to YouTube, Peter Simons—who stepped down as CEO and appointed the first non-family member to run the 180-year old company in March—explains why the company his family has owned and operated for five generations made “All is Beauty.” He describes it as a project that “really pushed us to our limits,” but also one “born in the roots of who we are.”
“It’s obviously not a commercial campaign,” he says. “It’s more an effort to use our freedom, our voice, and the privilege we have to speak and create every day in a way that is more about human connection. And I think we sincerely believe that companies have a responsibility to participate in communities and to help build the communities that we want to live in tomorrow, and leave to our children.”
The film opens on an empty hospital room. “Dying in a hospital is not what’s natural, that’s not what’s soft. In these kinds of moments you need softness,” says Jennyfer as the camera zooms out to reveal the hospital room is in a large container on a beach being washed out to sea, as “Simons presents” appears as a super on screen.
The rest of the video unfolds as a richly cinematic celebration of Jennyfer’s life, showing her with friends, enjoying some of the moments and experiences she finds beautiful in magical and almost ethereal ways.
“I spent my life filling my heart with beauty, with nature, with connection,” she says. “So I choose to fill my final moments with the same.”
Despite the underlying theme of death established in the opening frames, the tone throughout is light and celebratory .
“Even now as I seek help to end my life with all the pain, and in those final moments, there is so much beauty, you just have to be brave enough to see it,” she says.
The film ends with simple on-screen line: “For Jennyfer: June 1985 to October 2022,” replaced by “All is beauty” and a small Simons logo below it. (Simons and BHLA pulled the video from online channels in late November. See our update story here.)
“This is a project unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” says Broken Heart Love Affair’s chief creative officer Craig McIntosh. “This wasn’t really a film per se, it was an experience that we did for Jennyfer and her close group of friends.”
Shot in Tofino over two days just before Thanksgiving, the intent was to capture the dying woman and her friends enjoying some of the beautiful moments and experiences Jennyfer so cherished—playing with bubbles, dinner and cheesecake with close friends, luminescent whale and jellyfish puppets, singing and being on the ocean. (There is no Simons clothing in the ad.)
Her voiceover was captured through three different one-hour interviews, and was totally unscripted, says McIntosh. “Her words echo Peter’s philosophy, which is to find beauty in every single moment, no matter how typical perceptions of that moment are supposed to be.”
While the campaign’s message is meant to be about beauty in life, the decision to focus on a woman choosing to end her life could raise questions about assisted dying and why a brand is running advertising about it.
Medical assistance in dying (MAiD) became a legal medical procedure in Canada in 2016. In 2021 the law was changed to allow those with non-terminal physical conditions to choose an assisted death, and next year will change again to allow eligibility for those with mental illness.
In his video, Peter Simons seems to acknowledge the possibility of upsetting some people. (Simons declined an interview request from The Message.) “I admit I’m scared. But I would say I think without perhaps courage—I say that with humility—there is no creativity and there is no possibility of making beauty.”
And he explains why he sees Jennyfer as an inspiration. The last two years have been difficult, and people have felt less connected to one another, he says. The film is about a woman choosing to die, but also about a woman who finds beauty even at the end of life. To find beauty in the most difficult moments can lead to generosity, hope and human connection, he says.
“We decided to try to tell her story and to—as Jennyfer would say to me—maybe create a little ripple out there, a ripple of generosity,” he says. “A ripple that might allow people to see beauty in, obviously, in the nice moments. But more importantly, to have the strength and the courage to see beauty in the more difficult moments in life.”
Along with Craig McIntosh, The Message spoke with BHLA’s chief strategy officer Jay Chaney, who answered some questions about why Simons chose to run this campaign.
In his video, Peter Simons says this is not a commercial campaign. But it does feature the Simons brand and you’re an ad agency. So, what is this? Peter is moving into a much more creative role. As part of that, he was introspective about the role Simons has in society, and what they’ve been trying to build in Quebec and then bring to the rest of Canada.
What Peter asked us to do is to provide more of a statement piece to get people to think about their life, and how they experience that life. And how, coming out of a particularly difficult time in society, we should be looking at the world around us. Jennyfer’s story is a great way to inspire people to think differently about the world.
Why should a brand do that? It is new for a brand to come out and actually be more focused on helping to transform people’s perspectives and not think about this as a commercial project, though, as you pointed out, the Simons branding is on it.
It’s probably the first time in our careers we’ve been approached to create something that was not commercially driven. The point isn’t to sell anything. The point is not to promote the Simons brand in any significant manner. It is simply to transform the way people see the world, and that was the most important objective for Peter.
But as brand strategists you have to ask, is this bad for this brand or good for the brand. And obviously you’ve landed on this being good for the brand. It is good for society, and it’s what the person who owns the company ultimately wants to do as a gift back to society.
We had to look at this as we’re helping somebody facilitate societal change in some way. And ultimately, isn’t that the same thing as advertising? That’s the goal of advertising—to shift people, to get them to change the way they see the world. We’re just doing it in a way that’s non commercial, and a little bit more philosophical.
Did you discuss how you’ll respond to people who don’t understand the message, and think this is about assisted dying? As we mentioned, this is about changing the way people see the world, and conversations are an important part of that. In fact, we just wanted to generate that conversation.… We know we’re bringing Peter and Jennyfer’s philosophy to people and allowing them to have the conversation in a public forum.
What happens after this? This is a brand platform for them. So the “All is Beauty” idea—that idea of seeing beauty and in all instances, both positive and classically challenging—will be a part of their platform moving forward and part of the core philosophical underpinning of Simons moving forward. So the campaign will extend beyond this and will start to be woven through the fabric of Simons for the next few years.
So the platform isn’t about MAiD, the platform is life and all its beauty? That’s right, the idea is simply that Jennyfer has an enormous appreciation for the most beautiful things in the world, and even in her terminal illness and right up to her last moments, chose to focus on what is beautiful and bring that beauty to other people.
In his video, Peter talks about hope and optimism, but ultimately this is about illness and death. It’s about the perspective. I think it’s about perspective and gratitude… certainly illness and death is a part of all of our lives. And I think what’s most important about this message is that, yes, there are those things, but in those moments there is still beauty, and there’s benefit to focusing on the beautiful aspects. Death is one of those most challenging moments to see beauty, and we’ve been trained not to. But what Jennyfer’s teaching us is that those are the moments when we should be focused on those things.