How the Ad Council and R/GA Created the Powerful ‘Love Has No Labels’ PSA

The second most viewed community activism campaign of all time

Chris Northam didn't know what to expect when he set up a giant, ersatz X-ray installation at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., this past Valentine's Day. But what he ended up with turned into one of the most beloved public service ads in recent memory—the iconic and award-winning anti-bias message "Love Has No Labels" made by R/GA for client The Ad Council.

"Obviously, the subject matter of what was going on might be polarizing for certain people, so there was a bit of a worry going in of what that could stir up in the crowd," says Northam, one of the executive creative directors of video, the crown jewel of The Ad Council's broader "Love Has No Labels" campaign. "It was overwhelmingly positive, which was really interesting given that it was a live crowd."

The idea behind the campaign was to make individuals—even the most progressive and accepting of us—realize that we harbor our own implicit judgments.

"This campaign really got people to start thinking about how they react to their own unconscious biases," explains Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of The Ad Council. "Ultimately, the goal was to get people to start acting differently as a result of that."

The germ of the idea developed about a year ago when Wendy Clark, Coca-Cola's president of marketing, approached The Ad Council (under then-president Peggy Conlon) about having major brands come together for a spot about love and diversity that would reach a wide audience. "Wendy was astute enough to understand that this was a really great idea but bigger than one company," says Sherman.

The demonstration showed different sets of skeletons kissing, hugging and dancing before revealing themselves to passersby as gay, lesbian and biracial couples and friends.

"You see two skeletons interacting and your brain fills it in," says Northam. "Then they stepped out, and there's that real moment where you go, 'Oh, I didn't expect that.'"

The three-minute video instantly went viral after debuting in early March.

"I kept refreshing, because I couldn't believe within a minute there would be 10,000 more people who had seen it," says Sherman. "I've never experienced anything like that in my life."

The video now has amassed more than 110 million views and ranks as the top-performing video ever on Upworthy and the second most-viewed community and activism campaign of all time, behind Kony 2012.

"An important subtext to all of this was for people to recognize their own prejudices," says Nick Law, global chief creative officer at R/GA, which produced the video and created the "Love Has No Labels" campaign. "It's more than a metaphor; it's actually a bit of a heightened demonstration."

Sherman remembers exactly when the video hit it big. While attending the 4A's conference in Austin, Texas, she overheard a barista in Starbucks discussing it with another barista. "The numbers are amazing, but what I was so taken by was the comments," says Sherman. "Really powerful, emotional sentiments coming from this spot."

One reason the video resonated so deeply with viewers was that the couples featured were actual couples, not actors, which meant that Northam and Eric Jannon, also executive creative director at R/GA, had to go out and find them. "From the get-go, we wanted to make sure we weren't casting actors," says Northam. Jannon adds that they watched all the submissions twice—once with the sound on and again with it off. "We spent two days watching casting," he says.

Law explains that the team's approach to making the video was most unusual. "It's sort of inverted," he says. "Generally, you start from a strategic place and build to a creative. Here we started with a creative endpoint and then backed into an expression of it."

Six different brands encompassing three fierce corporate competitors came together to fund the campaign: Procter & Gamble and Unilever, State Farm and Allstate, and Coke and Pepsi. "Even the metaphor of these brands coming together just speaks to the power of this idea, that they were able to rise above that," adds Sherman.

The campaign also involved eight leading nonprofits, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Since The Ad Council does not promote individual brands, it presented another challenge for Law and his team. "It was sort of a difficult thing to crack because we had to somehow imagine an idea that was dependent on a brand in a way that was not branded," he says. "If we can't use brands, what's the equivalent of a label on a person?"

And for those wondering, no, that wasn't an actual X-ray machine—the whole thing was done using motion trackers. "It was a great parody of Total Recall," notes Northam.

The effort's timing couldn't have been more perfect. The issue of LGBT rights was punctuated by the Supreme Court's landmark decision in June to legalize gay marriage. "Certainly, there is enough discord in the country, whether it's race, religion, gender [or] sexual orientation," says Sherman. "It felt like an area that was ripe for a positive message of inclusion."

Read more about (and watch) all of this year's Watch Awards winners:

16 Programming Winners

Programming Spotlight: R/GA's Soaring, Viral PSA About Love

6 Talent Winners

Talent Spotlight: Joel McHale, Indefatigable Host of The Soup 

9 Production Winners 

Production Spotlight: Tinder's Tale of Modern, Globe-Trekking Love

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.