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Whether or not your life has been directly touched by gun violence, it’s likely you’ve endured that seemingly endless loop in which the school shootings, the news reports, the mourning and the varied responses from politicians and protesters play on repeat. Once the fervor around one incident dies down, you’re swept back in again with yet another headline.
The Parkland students behind March for Our Lives teamed up with pop artist Kesha, her brother Sage Sebert, McCann New York and Mill+ to bring this phenomenon to light in a powerful new music video, “The Most Vicious Cycle,” aimed at getting viewers to vote in the midterms on Nov. 6. Airing hourly today on MTV and MTVu, it leverages the now-familiar storytelling device of a Rube Goldberg machine to illustrate the seemingly hopeless chain of events around school shootings and gun violence.
It opens on a teenage girl walking through a school corridor, but her sunny demeanor quickly changes once the barrel of an AR-15 enters the frame. From there, bullets fire, setting off a mechanical reaction that travels through the halls—a teacher tries to shield his students, protest posters drop from the ceiling, memorials of those lost to shootings appear. Throughout, a pensive new track, “Safe,” written by Sebert in reaction to the Parkland shootings, plays.
In a mad man’s world, happens every day.
I don’t understand why the rules can’t change.
I don’t want to be a moment of silence.
I don’t want to be an early grave.
When I’m walking through the halls I don’t want to be brave.
I just want to be safe.
But once the video finishes, it plays a second time, and then a third, further driving home the notion of the “vicious cycle.” Each rendition, though, is slightly different. For example, the posters featured within change, increasingly becoming a stronger call to action for viewers to get out and vote. In one version, names of the victims and the dates they died appear. And the room number on the classroom changes, showing that the violence is not isolated to a single place.
Along with the broadcast on MTV and MTVu, one version of the video featuring subtitles will appear in New York’s Times Square. The parties involved will be sharing on social media, and they will also present the video in a Teen Vogue essay written by Kesha.
McCann New York conceived the idea as part of its ongoing gun violence awareness efforts. The McCann producer on the project, Gaby Levy, is a Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumnus and knew some of the victims and their families. Following the shooting, she approached agency leadership and colleagues about doing something the help the students. From those conversations came the idea of the Cannes Gold Lion-winning “Price on Our Lives” campaign that put a dollar amount on how much students’ lives are worth to politicians, as well as the “vicious cycle” idea.
When the McCann team first began working on the latter, no artist was attached, but the agency had ties to Kesha from her previous work on the agency’s “Universal Love” campaign for MGM Resorts, which recreated classic love songs for the LGBTQ community. The shop also brought in the production talents from content studio Mill+ and VFX company The Mill.
Once all the talents came together, the final film started to gel. It turned out Kesha’s brother had already written a track in reaction to the Parkland tragedies. “Unbeknownst to us was that when the original idea for the video came to be, Sage had already written this song from his own personal experience,” says Levy.
While the song hadn’t been fully produced at the time, it took full shape as part of the project, with Kesha on vocals and Chika, the up-and-coming female rapper who gained notoriety for calling out Kanye West, contributing her own hard-hitting lyrics.
As for the Rube Goldberg idea, “we thought about having a bunch of different metaphors around gun violence, of a way we could show those in a cycle,” said McCann Creative Nick Larson.
“There’s something innately stupid about a Rube Goldberg [machine] that fits with the stupidity of the predictability of all this,” says Ben Smith, director at Mill+ and creative director at the Mill, who directed the film. “But we also wanted to bring humanity into the idea, so the idea was to show the reaction to the horror, with the idea being that people might feel something, relate to it and go out and vote.”
While the video is jarring to see once, watching it three times in a row powerfully reinforces the hopelessness. According to Levy, “That idea came from [McCann Worldgroup Global Creative Chairman] Rob Reilly. “We showed him an earlier cut, and he suggested we loop the video several times.” The changing elements then help to make each cycle stand out individually.
During the shoot of the film itself, that “vicious cycle” made itself clear—in the real world. “The day we were actually filming was the day of the shooting in Jacksonville,” says Creative Andre DeCastro. In response, he added the incident to the memorial wall scene of the film.
“I remember once we placed that sign in the scene, some of the prop crew were confused,” says Levy. “Not everyone had their phones on, and they hadn’t gotten that news update.”
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