Six in the Six: Half a dozen burning questions for Anthony Chelvanathan, maker of the world’s most controversial anti-homelessness ad
Anthony Chelvanathan, creative director at the Toronto ad agency Leo Burnett, pulled what some would consider to be an unfair prank earlier this month, when he made members of Toronto’s Leaside community believe that a homeless shelter would soon be arriving in their upscale neighbourhood. In fact, the whole shelter story was a setup, designed to reveal attitudes about homelessness. The results are in this short ad spot, which Leo Burnett made for the nonprofit organization Raising the Roof. We spoke to Chelvanathan about the message behind the manipulation, and what it feels like to be the most controversial local YouTuber since this girl.
How did you come up with this concept?
Well, first we came up with the insight, which is that people talk about homelessness, but they don’t want to deal with it. Homelessness is somebody else’s problem. How do we bring that to the forefront of the conversation? With this kind of work, the goal is always to do something that gets people talking, that raises awareness. There are about 235,000 homeless people in Canada, and we wanted to come up with an idea that would get people thinking about that. We thought the timing was good, with the election coming up. We want people to talk about housing. Shelters are important, but they’re not a long-term solution.
How did you decide on Leaside as opposed to, say, Lawrence Park or Rosedale or Forest Hill?
The idea wasn’t to highlight any one area. We looked at a bunch of different possible sites. We found an option on College Street, but we didn’t think that would work as well, because there are a lot of people going in and out of that neighbourhood—a lot of tourists, people going to restaurants. And then there were other places where putting a homeless shelter there wouldn’t necessarily get people talking because there’s a homeless shelter down the block. We wanted a reasonably enclosed, family-oriented, really good neighbourhood.
What’s your response to Leaside councillor Jon Burnside’s comment that the ad does nothing to impact homelessness materially?
Homelessness isn’t just a material issue. One of the main goals of Raising the Roof is to change the public’s perception.
Of the many citizen reactions, was there one that you thought was the most revealing?
They were all revealing in different ways. There were some pretty heated phone calls, harsh reactions. But I think to me, the most effective reactions were from people who were more innocent. They sounded sweet and nice, but they were saying things like, “Let’s move ‘em up somewhere down south or up north.”
Did you have any qualms about essentially punking people?
We weren’t looking to make any person look bad—or any particular area. We took out faces and we pitched voices and re-recorded them so that they weren’t identifiable. We wanted to make a bigger point that everyone needs to put their heads together to address homelessness.
Any signs that your ad has done anything other than piss off a bunch of limousine Liberals?
The ad has spread really quickly, which is exactly what we were hoping for: it was on BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Global News. We were prepared for the kind of reaction we got. We put a phone number on the poster because we wanted to hear how a normal human being would react. After that, it’s about looking at the reactions and thinking about what they reveal. We hope that people who see the ad can consider their own attitudes: Am I like that? How would I have reacted? The other thing that was maybe more surprising is that about one third of the calls that came in were from people who wanted to volunteer for the shelter, so that was pretty great.