Dark Balloons Symbolize Secondhand Smoke in Beautifully Creepy PSA From California

Drifting silently into our lives

Scared of balloons ever since IT came out? Well, here's an eerily effective PSA from California about the dangers of secondhand smoke that raises the stakes. And there's absolutely no clowning around.

Depicted as silent, airborne invaders, these balloons are dark as soot, or ash. They're malevolent menaces adrift on the breeze, a potentially deadly force that arrives seemingly out of nowhere. 

At first, they're mild distractions. One or two blow across the street, casting shadows on the ground. Ultimately, however, they're a gathering horde, and seemingly everywhere. Shots of the inky orbs bobbing in the windows of cars and school buses, floating through kids' baseball games and into office buildings, convey a nightmare quality that's tough to shake: 

Dark Balloons

"How do you depict secondhand smoke exposure without it feeling like hyperbole?" asks Anne Elisco-Lemme, executive creative director at Duncan Channon, which devised the minute-long spot with Corner Shop director Sara Dunlop for the California Tobacco Control Program. "We knew we didn't want massive smoke clouds engulfing people, or smoke trails seeking out unsuspecting people around corners. We needed a visual metaphor to represent the smoke."

What's more, "secondhand smoke isn't just from cigarettes anymore," she says. "The danger is coming from many new forms—so we needed the metaphor to tie all those sources together as a single threat. Why is it that a person might be upset to have someone smoking a cigarette next to them, but totally cool if someone is blowing a huge vape cloud into their face, just because it smells like mango?" 

Copywriter Andy Whalen and art director Adam Zash came up with the idea of using dark balloons because their appearance and movements are sinister and smoke-like. 

The work recalls an Instagram stunt from May, when the cast of IT: Chapter 2 posted images with mysterious red balloons lurking in the frame. Given the gravity of the health issue here, however—50 percent of Californians are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke, and exposure from marijuana and vaping is way up—these "Dark Balloons" carry a far more urgent, unsettling message.

"If you watch closely, you'll notice that some people are distracted or bothered by the balloons, and others aren't," Elisco-Lemme says. "For example, a mother with her young kids will try to get away from the balloons. And a waiter, trying to do his job, has to suffer through what seems like a wall of them. But a young boy in the outfield might actually become intrigued by the smell of a candy-flavored vape, so he's drawn towards them." 

Such reactions deepen the PSA's compelling, bad-dream vibe. And since you were wondering, the team used real balloons throughout. Director Sara Dunlop insisted on practical effects to motivate genuine responses from the actors.

"The balloons were hard to work with when the wind kicked up," Elisco-Lemme recalls. "And they didn't always take direction well. Sara did a lot of R&D with [VFX experts at] The Mill before the shoot—lots of sophisticated rigging and wires" came into play.

The youthful voiceover—"It drifts into our lives, exposing us to a risk we never asked for"—was performed by the 13-year-old daughter of a Duncan Channon creative staffer. 

"We asked her to do a read for us early on, just to see what a child's voice did to the overall feeling of the spot," says Elisco-Lemme. "She's a pretty wise kid—kind of an old soul, actually—it just seemed to click. There was something so compelling about her delivering this message—a child seeing something that the adults were missing."

She adds: "You have to think about it differently when your talent is not only a kid, but a kid who's never been in a recording studio before. We'd say things like, 'Pretend you are telling your brother a story that he doesn't know will end up scaring him.' And she'd say, 'He doesn't really scare easily.' Then you have to try another tactic: 'OK, read it like you are really, really bored.'"

Her ethereal, and indeed, at times disinterested-sounding narration arrives toward the end, elevating the PSA's bad-dream atmosphere.


CTCP - 'Dark Balloons'

Production Company – The Corner Shop 
Director – Sara Dunlop
Founder, Executive Producer – Anna Hashmi 
Head of Production: Jessica Miller 
Producer – Greg Haggart
D.O.P – Michael Gioulakis
Production Designer – Brock Houghton

Client: CTCP
Media & Communication: Valerie Quinn
Public Relations Manager: Frank Ruiz
Senior Financial Analyst: Amelia Anderson
Advertising Specialist: Cortney Ceccato

Agency: Duncan Channon
Executive Creative Director: Anne Elisco-Lemme
Senior Art Director: Adam Zash
Senior Copywriter: Andy Whalen
Senior Producer: Rita Ribera Channon

Agency: ACENTO - Hispanic Market
Producer: Brian Reyes
Art Director: Luis Galvan
Senior Copywriter: Randy Cantu
Creative Director: Amanda Pizzaro

Editorial : Work Editorial 
Editor: Bill Smedley
Executive Producer: Marlo Baird
Producer: Brandee Probasco

VFX: The Mill
Executive Producer: Fawn Fletcher
VFX Supervisor, 2D Lead: Adam Lambert
Art Director: Clarise Chin
Coordinator: Vanessa Yee

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