Earlier this week, The Ad Council released a YouTube video called "Love Has No Labels." It quickly went viral, and after three days just the YouTube version of the video had amassed over 26 million views. Upworthy uploaded the video to their own Facebook page and pulled in another 38 million views. It's safe to say the video went everywhere.
The viral video, though, is yet another in a long line of viral stunts meant to tug at heartstrings, raise awareness of some ambiguous social injustice, and maybe not-so-secretly promote a brand. Except, possibly for the first time, the team behind the video put the message — and more important, its subjects — first.
"Love Has No Labels" might be the first of this kind of video to actually get it right. It wasn't done by some teenage YouTube star as "social experiment." It wasn't created by some home-brewed digital marketing firm. It didn't secretly use actors. And if you wanted to learn what brands sponsored the video you would have to click through to the Ad Council's Love Has No Labels website and then scroll all the way to the bottom of the page.
The actual video, the one that has been probably viewed around 50 million times since Tuesday, is a stand-alone, feel-good video. And that's important.
Chris Northam and Eric Jannon are the masterminds behind "Love Have No Labels." The duo work as executive Creative Directors for R/GA, ad advertising agency based in New York. They told BuzzFeed News that when they were putting together the concept of the video they wanted it to be as real as viewers would want it to be.
"When you watch the thing you just want to truly believe the love," Jannon said in a thick French accent. "So it has to be true."
Northam, his Australian counterpart, echoed those same concerns. He said they hired a production company to find real sisters, real couples, and real friends. As for the audience you see in the video, Northam and Jannon admitted to dropping in a few casted audience members.
"Just to help invite an audience forward," Northam said. "We had hundreds of people coming past at any given moment. What you see on the screen was pretty arresting, so we had so many people filling up."
In fact, their premise was so arresting that they started getting audience members during a tech rehearsal the night before. Northam recalls that as they were putting the finishing touches on the technology that allowed their screen to simulate an X-ray, a couple walked by and started watching.
The couple you see doing sign language in the video decided to come back the next day and put their trip to Disney Land on hold so they could watch the real deal. "A male gay couple came past and started asking about the production and of course we told them all about it and they actually put their holiday on hold ," Northam said.
As for the brands involved: According to The Ad Council's site, the video is sponsored by Coca-Cola, P&G, Allstate, StateFarm, Pepsico, and Unilever. Those are huge brands. But you don't see a fingerprint of theirs on the actual video.
"The Ad Council gets their backing," Northam said. "It just shows you that these big — what many outsiders might consider — conservative organizations absolutely embracing this message and this idea of change and equality and diversity. Which is just so thrilling."
Jannon added that to sponsor the ad the companies involved had to prove to The Ad Council that they would respect the calls for diversity featured in the video.
"I think what's incredibly refreshing is that when you get to the end of our film there are none of the logos of our supporters," Northam said. "If they were just trying to milk this that would be front and center."
The apparent lack of cynicism around this video might have a lot to do with the subjects they used. Northam and Jannon described a moment in the editing bay that for them really set the tone of the production.
"That moment when the little girl comes out with Down syndrome," Northam said. "We had a couple of cynical creatives and a director and an editor and a producer who have all made many commercials and many online films and we all kind of got that lump in our throat and awkwardly looked at each other."
That little girl's name is Maddie Gray, and her father Tim spoke to BuzzFeed News about the wonderful and bizarre feeling of watching your 10-year-old daughter zoom around the internet. Gray told BuzzFeed News that his wife Michelle was there at the promenade texting him updates as Maddie and her sister Sophie poked their heads out to the crowd of hundreds.
"What I heard is that as they came around the screen and peeked their heads out, the crowd just erupted with a huge applause," he said.
Maddie is 10 and her sister Sophie is 8, though Gray said Sophie has taken on the older sister role. The girls got involved with the video after a family friend who works as a casting agent for people with disabilities told them about it.
The Gray family didn't really expect the video to go as far as it has. He said his wife told him she might not have let Maddie do it if she knew millions of people were going to share it.
"I've been sending it to people and they're like 'already saw it,'" he said.
Ultimately though, Gray said he was honored that Maddie and Sophie were able to be involved with something like this.
"This video just made me think there are a lot of really good people in this world," he said.
Katie Robinson, the woman on the right in video's opening couple, told BuzzFeed News she saw the posting and immediately signed up. Robinson was a captain in the U.S. Army and was honorably discharged in June 2012 after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her girlfriend Peyton McDavitt is an actress.
She said she remembers something very special happening the moment when she and McDavitt poked their heads out from behind the screen.
"There was a little boy who asked him mom loudly, 'Is that allowed,'" Robinson said. "I think that just shows how important this project is and starts a conversation that otherwise may not have happened."
Robinson's also been in contact with Maddie Gray's dad Tim since the filming. She said Maddie and Sophie nearly broke her hand with all the high-fives going around.
"I absolutely love that the video has spread worldwide. I've received messages from people in the Philippines, France, Brazil, and the UK," Robinson said. "I've received messages of thanks from individuals who said it opened their eyes and made them think hard on their prior judgment. People I know who are homophobic actually shared the video. I think that says it all."
Michael Zinati and Iyad Hajjaj have been friends and neighbors ever since they met in Los Angeles a few years ago. Hajjaj, the Palestinian man, told BuzzFeed News that Zinati makes him drink Turkish coffee and he makes Zinati eat hummus with him.
"One day I got a phone call from Iyad letting me know that he had this opportunity," Zinati said.
"I volunteered to do it and brought my friend Michael so we could both demonstrate our true friendship," Hajjaj said. "And show that in America, we can be best friends."
Hajjaj said he's completely overwhelmed with all the messages he's been receiving since the video went live.
"I am honored to be a part of this and I am always going to be proud of this accomplishment wherever and however it goes," Zinati said.
Hajjaj said one of the coolest things about being involved with project was the fact he got to meet all the other members of cast. He said there was this very real and wonderful feeling of excitement backstage the whole day.
"The skeletons concept was amazing as we all share the same structure," Hajjaj said. "I myself even never thought of it that way."
Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of The Ad Council, told BuzzFeed News that she hopes the video can actually translate into real change. Which is perhaps why this video does feel so genuine. The people in it and the people behind it actually cared about it.
As for the corporate sponsors, Sherman is adamant about only taking backing from companies she feels will respect the message of the campaign.
"We identified the partner companies based on the work they were already doing to promote diversity and inclusion within and beyond their organizations," she said.
Is it perfect? No. And maybe it's even a little sad that a good viral video stands out this much in a world of bad ones. But The Ad Council's small steps seem to have payed off.
"Our hope is that these kinds of videos start conversation," Sherman said. "We've haven't solved any problems with this video, we've just lifted the veil a little bit."
Northam and Jannon said they had the same hopes, starting small conversations. When asked about how silly it seemed to have 50 million people talking about skeletons, Northam said that weirdness was kind of the magic of it.
"When you see those skeletons kissing you can't help but fill in the rest of the image," he said. "I think that's the strength of it, that little moment of surprise."