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No and the magic system of advertising

Discussed in this essay:

No, directed by Pablo Larraín. Fabula/Participant Media/Canana. 118 minutes.

Do movies have the power to change history? Or, more specifically, can TV ads alter the course of an election? The affirmative answer is provided by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s fact-based fourth feature, wittily titled No.

The thirty-six-year-old Larraín has devoted his career to excavating Chile’s recent past, especially the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende and the brutal military regime established by General Augusto Pinochet. Documentary, however, is not Larraín’s mode. His two previous movies, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010) — the former concerned with life under the Pinochet dictatorship, the latter with its origins — are, though shot in a naturalistic style, dark, absurdist allegories. Populated by characters who suggest hungry ghosts and animated corpses, they exemplify what might be termed the political gothic.

To the degree that Chilean cinema has an international reputation, it is best known for its exiles — Miguel Littín, Patricio Guzmán, the late Raúl Ruiz and his wife, Valeria Sarmiento — all of whom left the country following the 1973 coup. Larraín represents a new generation: he is a child of the dictatorship, born three years after Allende’s ouster to a wealthy, powerful, and politically prominent family. His father, Hernán Larraín, is a senator, and his mother, Magdalena Matte, served as Chile’s housing minister from 2010 to 2011. No stranger to the marketplace, Larraín has produced television commercials and codirected an action-drama series on cocaine cartels for HBO Latin America, but thus far his overriding interest has been what we might call his birthright.

Given the charnel-house atmosphere of Tony Manero and Post Mortem, it’s striking that Larraín concludes his Pinochet trilogy on a note of near-giddy optimism. Although sunnier than the first two installments — it depicts the peaceful dismantling of the Pinochet regime by a 1988 plebiscite — No, like Larraín’s earlier films, has its supernatural aspect. Larraín’s subject is what the British cultural critic Raymond Williams once called the “magic system” of advertising. No is a feel-good movie that enacts, even as it satirizes, the sorcery that makes us feel good. There hasn’t been a more positive argument for advertising as a mass mood-altering drug since Don Draper pitched the Kodak Carousel as a personal time machine.

Larraín has always been fascinated by the spectacle of delusion. Tony Manero is named not for its protagonist, a sociopath, but rather for his idol, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. In Larraín’s film, Santiago is a Stygian labyrinth haunted by the memory of los desaparecidos, those disappeared by the junta — as well as by an unsmiling madman with fanatical dreams of disco glory. Raúl Peralta (played with frightening conviction by the avant-garde stage director Alfredo Castro) goes to screenings of Saturday Night Fever as if attending Sunday mass, enthralled by the movie’s vision of the American dream and intent on memorizing Travolta’s lines for a production of Saturday Night Fever he’s staging with an inexplicably adoring cult of losers in a grungy Santiago cantina.

Shot on 16-millimeter film, Tony Manero has a purposefully murky look and a frantic pace appropriate to its ferretlike protagonist, whom Larraín’s camera shadows as he darts through the city’s empty alleys and vacant lots. Peralta is an affectless man oblivious to the curfews and tribunals of Pinochet’s police state and to the ineffectual subversive activities carried out by those around him. He stops at nothing, least of all murder, to fulfill his dream of becoming Chile’s reigning Tony Manero impersonator, bludgeoning an old lady in order to appropriate her color TV, defecating on a rival Manero’s white suit, and throwing a violent tantrum when he discovers that the theater he frequents has switched out his sacred Saturday Night Fever for Grease. (One of several signifiers of dictatorship in the film: these two Travolta vehicles were the only American movies the regime’s censors permitted to be shown in Chile.)

Tony Manero suggests that lawless police states enable all manner of freelance killers. The movie’s violent, “Stayin’ Alive”–obsessed zombie struck some critics as a miniature Pinochet, reproducing the brutality of the regime in his willingness to steal, exploit, betray, and kill in the service of an American-produced fantasy. At the same time, the movie is an attempt to reanimate a repressed period. Larraín has noted his difficulty depicting the Santiago of the 1970s: “Hardly anybody remembers how it was, which is very sad: there’s nothing worse than indifference to history.” Contemporary Santiago is “a city of steel and glass that advances by destroying and building over its past.”

The title Post Mortem suggests a similar attempt at exhumation, in this case of modern Chile’s primal trauma. According to Larraín, the inspiration for the film came from the story of the assistant coroner who performed the autopsy on Allende. The movie’s opening shot has a tank rumbling over a Santiago street filled with detritus — mopping up after the coup. The blank-faced, lank-haired protagonist, Mario Cornejo (named for the real-life coroner and played, once more, by Alfredo Castro), is a gray “functionary” in the city morgue who pays court to an over-the-hill nightclub dancer named Nancy Puelma (Larraín’s wife, Antonia Zegers). Both equally self-absorbed and convinced of Nancy’s star power, the two carry on largely indifferent to the political crisis unfolding around them — this despite the fact that Nancy, who lives with her father and brother, is surrounded by left-wing activists. Bored by the politicals meeting in her house, she drops in on Mario, her neighbor, to initiate one of the most desultory affairs in the history of movies. Mid-film, Larraín flashes forward to the last time the couple will meet — in the morgue — as if to suggest that they are already dead.

The implication, as Jonathan Romney wrote in the British magazine Sight & Sound, is that, unlike these morts vivants, “only those who resisted and were slaughtered had a true claim to be alive.” Mario emerges on the morning of the coup to find empty streets and smashed cars. His workplace is a grotesque, bureaucratic nightmare, occupied by soldiers and overflowing with bodies, some still alive. Mario is drafted to document the Allende autopsy that, in one of the movie’s most harrowing scenes, his colleagues are too distraught to perform. When Mario finds Nancy again, he is, in his way, a member of the newly installed fascist regime; she, in hers, is a political fugitive headed for the grave.

Ten years after the period depicted in Tony Manero and exactly fifteen years after the coup, Chile staged its own cinematic event. Pinochet, confident of his hold on power, and with a certain amount of prodding from the Reagan Administration, agreed to hold a plebiscite, giving Chileans the option to vote yes to keep him in power for another eight years or no to opt for an election that would determine his successor.

Pinochet assumed it would be an easy victory until the numerous opposition parties unexpectedly joined forces. Their symbol was the rainbow. The Coalition of Parties for NO saw its main disadvantage as a lack of access to Chile’s strictly controlled national television, which the regime had begun using months in advance of the plebiscite to broadcast propaganda. According to the political scientist Gwynn Thomas, who devotes considerable space to the subject in her Contesting Legitimacy in Chile, the regime aired an average of thirty spot ads each day from January to August 1988 (and at the same time made nearly 1,800 political arrests). Their slogan was “Democracy, YES.”

Sportingly, it was agreed that, during the designated twenty-seven-day campaign period in September 1988, both sides would receive equal airtime on TV in the form of fifteen-minute broadcasts, or franjas, shown consecutively in alternating order. The franjas were deliberately scheduled outside prime time — late at night on weekdays and at noon on weekends. There was no real parity, in that the regime maintained its prime-time propaganda blitz, but, according to Thomas, this actually proved to Pinochet’s disadvantage. Viewers had long become accustomed to tuning out the general’s agitprop. The NO broadcasts were, by contrast, a novelty.

The franjas soon became the most popular regular programming on Chilean TV, in part because viewers were fascinated by the dialogue between the two campaigns. The forces of NO were compelled to submit their franjas thirty-six hours in advance of broadcast, thus allowing the YES campaign to prepare rebuttals. But, as noted by the economist David E. Hojman, author of a scholarly study of the franja war, this advantage was often dissipated by YES’s maladroit copying of NO’s style, a practice that only served to highlight the NO campaign’s originality.

While some NO franjas directly addressed the suffering brought about by the dictatorship, they generally (and programmatically) eschewed a downbeat approach. Their attitude was as lighthearted, inclusive, and reassuring as commercial television itself. The NO campaign recruited Patricio Bañados, a beloved TV newsman who had resigned after the coup in protest of the regime’s censorship, to host their franjas; they also adopted the slogan “Chile, happiness is coming,” delivered each night in a catchy anthem with a clap-friendly rock beat. In short, NO successfully packaged itself as a product and turned the plebiscite into a ratings war. Larraín, then twelve and, like his parents, “one of those millions of people supporting the YES on the streets,” has compared the carnival atmosphere surrounding the plebiscite with that of the World Cup.

Visually, No is daringly cruddy. Using a thirty-year-old U-matic camera, Larraín re-creates the light-smeared, low-definition look of a 1980s videocassette while seamlessly incorporating all manner of archival footage. (This sleight of hand extends to several historical figures — notably Bañados, who appears as a grand old man and magically transforms into his younger self when seen on TV.) No also incorporates a number of the original franjas. The viewer is reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “historians and archeologists will one day discover that the ads of our times are the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities.” No has its nominal origins in a one-man play by Antonio Skármeta (another exile), and in essence it is, as one character in the film says of the YES ads, “a copy of the copy of the copy.”

Alfredo Castro appears once again as the embodiment of the dictatorship, in this case a smooth and cynical advertising mogul named Lucho Guzmán. Here, however, Castro’s character is overshadowed by a younger figure — his protégé René Saavedra, played by the puppylike Gael García Bernal. The movie opens with the two admen pitching a TV campaign to the makers of Free cola, Chile’s short-lived alternative to Coke and Pepsi. “Let’s be honest,” Saavedra murmurs as he hits the VCR remote. “Today Chile thinks of the future.” The spot that unspools is all Pepsi Generation pixilation, featuring hysterically celebratory young people, a taste of pop ecstasy, and a mantra promising viewers that Free cola was “born for you” and is “unbound like you.” The clients are uneasy; one is humorously bewildered by the presence of a mime in the frenzied montage. It’s not clear whether they sign on to the campaign or buy Saavedra’s explanation of its message (“If you’re brave, you’re free”), but it’s clear that we are witnessing the birth of a notion. A middle-aged representative of the NO parties soon shows up to recruit Saavedra to mastermind their advertising strategy.

Saavedra’s father was a victim of the regime, his estranged wife (played by Antonia Zegers) is an unreconciled Pinochet opponent who believes the plebiscite to be a fraud, and he himself grew up an exile in Mexico. Still, he is essentially apolitical, at least at first. He signs on as a NO consultant, it would seem, mostly for the chance to vindicate his Free cola theories by applying them to the plebiscite. The initial NO ad is a grim drumbeat of statistics — 200,000 exiled, 2,110 executed, 1,248 disappeared — scored to tragic music. Asked to give his thoughts, Saavedra suggests they try something “nicer.”

The YES men have long since seized the term “democracy”; Saavedra instead sets out to sell the concept of “happiness.” This game plan occasions considerable sectarian discussion. Saavedra has to convince his new, mainly older comrades, most of whom, he’s surprised to learn, regard the plebiscite as a teachable moment and have little expectation of winning, that glorifying happiness is not inherently disrespectful to the dictatorship’s victims. He commissions a jingle and rounds up his usual performers, producing a prototype that, upbeat and inane, verges on self-parody — another Free-cola montage, complete with mime, that promises the nation imminent joy.

Not everyone is thrilled. Invoking the martyrs of ’73, a furious, granite-faced leftist points out that Saavedra is proposing “a campaign to silence what has really happened.” True enough; Larraín provides no rebuttal. Cursing those who remain, the leftist walks out of the meeting, the movie, and Chilean history. This scene is crucial. No may seem like a film made in the spirit of such high-minded Carter-era Hollywood productions as All the President’s Men, The China Syndrome, and Norma Rae, but unlike those proudly liberal polemics, it embodies its own critique. Saavedra’s strategy is something like television for its own sake — he is using “liberation marketing” to advertise the freedom of the liberated market.

Guzmán, Saavedra’s boss, is the only one who understands how thoroughly YES is losing the campaign, and, after the initial hard-line attempt to sell Pinochet as the father of the nation fails (one franja includes the unfortunate image of a NO-identified steamroller poised to pancake a toddler), he is given the YES account. Guzmán immediately pulls the general and the military from his ads and tries, with varying degrees of success, to respond directly to the NO franjas; at the same time, he encourages the authorities to open a second front by directly intimidating Saavedra (who is now fully committed to the cause). For much of the movie, Saavedra ping-pongs between his suavely menacing right-wing boss and those doctrinaire compañeros whose idea of effective rabble-rousing is to have half a dozen bereaved widows and mothers perform a traditional Chilean folk dance.

Like the franjas themselves, No is a contest. When a NO spot is censored, the campaign responds the next night with man-on-the-street interviews decrying censorship. When the YES spots turn threatening, Saavedra underscores their unpleasantness by increasing his own work’s jocular amiability. The word “no” becomes a female rejection of boorish macho, used by a wife to stave off her husband’s advances until he too agrees to vote no; Pinochet appears as a ridiculous, fusty relic about to be swept away by the tide of joy. For NO’s grand-finale franja, a gaggle of Hollywood stars (Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve, and Richard Dreyfuss) descend from heaven to make their endorsements. As much fun as Larraín has with this footage, he has even more quoting a YES franja featuring the fire-and-brimstone televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

No’s outcome is a matter of historical record. If contemporary news reports are any indication, the forces of NO were confident of victory weeks before the actual vote, as public-opinion polls predicted crushing defeat for Pinochet. Still, Larraín has contrived a suspenseful movie replete with last-minute dirty tricks and a foiled attempt (as actually happened) to reimpose martial law. Initially dazed when the authorities concede, Saavedra melts into the celebratory crowd, unnoticed and unthanked, clutching his young son. (Thus the filmmaker inscribes himself in the film, albeit on the winning side of history.)

< em>No is nothing if not a tribute to the power of positive image-making. It’s worth remembering that the plebiscite took place during one of the most negative presidential campaigns in recent American history. Under the tutelage of Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, George H. W. Bush ran in support of the flag and the pledge of allegiance, against the “L word,” the ACLU, and the furloughed convict Willie Horton — an issueless race that for Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an analyst of political advertising, provided conclusive “evidence that campaign messages do matter.” At the same time, televised glasnost contributed mightily (if inadvertently) to the fall of Soviet communism.

In his final franja, Patricio Bañados (who at least once extolled the NO productions as superior television to those of YES and suggested this provided reason enough to vote against Pinochet) told the audience that “a triumph for NO is a triumph for all, even for YES supporters.” The Chilean premiere of No last summer was attended by three former presidents: Patricio Aylwin, the Christian Democrat who succeeded Pinochet; Eduardo Frei, Aylwin’s Christian Democrat successor, the son of a pre-Allende president; and Ricardo Lagos, the socialist who succeeded Frei. Missing was Chile’s current, right-wing president, Sebastián Piñera, a onetime television and credit card magnate who spent millions on his campaign and who maintains that he, too, voted no back in 1988.

Did television really overthrow Pinochet? In their 1991 history of the regime, pointedly titled A Nation of Enemies, Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela credit American pressure, a re-energized network of activists, a number of eloquent opposition spokesmen, and Pinochet’s considerable overconfidence, as well as the nightly franjas, with the result of the plebiscite. But certainly YES lost the narrative. The dictatorship was unable to convincingly frame the plebiscite as a crusade against those supposedly advocating a return to the internecine strife of 1973, while NO successfully presented itself as genuinely forward-looking and committed to preserving the Pinochet regime’s economic accomplishments — that is, without Pinochet.

Larraín’s ending has the heroic adman returning to work — introduced by his proud boss to a new set of clients as the genius behind the NO campaign. “Today,” Saavedra tells them, as he did the cola manufacturers, “Chile thinks about its future”: consumer capitalism forever.

is Gelb Professor of the Humanities at Cooper Union. His most recent book is Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (Verso).

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