This Venables Bell Copywriter Went Through Hell to Understand Addiction

Jake Reilly chooses empathy in powerful PSA

Jake Reilly, a senior copywriter at San Francisco agency Venables Bell & Partners, knows the horrors of withdrawal all too well. He can empathize with those who've experienced rampant sweats, exhaustion, debilitating joint pains, cramps, vomiting, and a sensation like insects crawling across their skin. 

Yet he's never actually struggled with addiction or recovery. Rather, to understand what friends have gone through, Reilly subjected himself to 12 simulated withdrawal symptoms—as seen in the quite brutal and unnerving three-minute PSA below, which he also directed:

Yes, those were live insects wriggling on Reilly's chest, the blows he absorbed from actor Brennan Pickman-Thoon hurt like hell, and eight 1,500-watt space heaters turned the set into an inferno. While his experience can't compare to the hell of actual withdrawal, Reilly's discomfort, disorientation and heightened anxiety during the shoot were very real. (And they were readily transmitted to viewers, which of course is the whole point.) 

He began the project two years ago by collecting input from friends battling addiction, rehab specialists, doctors and case workers at methadone clinics. Impressed by his initiative, VB&P and Heist Productions helped him make the video and find a nonprofit partner, Overdose Lifeline, which seeks to eliminate the stigma of substance abuse disorder.

"In a lot of ways the project tracks my own personal understanding of the issue," Reilly tells Muse. "When I was younger, I felt frustrated and impatient that friends would turn down offers of help in favor of continued use. As I grew up, and as the opioid epidemic has exploded, I started to realize there had to be more to the issues and challenges than I ever could have imagined."

This project's ultimate goal, he adds, is to "raise the collective consciousness and remove the stigma around addiction so that people like my friends will be comfortable enough to come forward and get the help that they need."

Timed to National Recovery Month (September), the harrowing video anchors #ChooseEmpathy, a campaign that includes simple but powerful messages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, reminding us of the abiding humanity of people dismissed by some segments of society as "junkies" or "bums":

"Rather than relying on scare tactics like we see in a lot of PSAs—especially the work that comes out in our field—we wanted to focus on eliciting a different and even more powerful emotion: empathy," says Overdose Lifeline founder and executive director Justin Phillips. "Someone who may never have thought twice about what an individual affected by this disease is actually experiencing, is forced to walk in their shoes." 

At present, about 20 million Americans struggle with substance use disorders. 

"The biggest challenge for me was convincing people that we had to do all of the stunts practically," Reilly says. "In advertising and film production, we're used to faking things to a degree and adjusting them in post. But because I'm not an actor, I knew I had to go through everything for real. I also knew that if I was going to come anywhere near replicating the experience of someone who had actually been through it—and keep them from calling B.S. on the whole thing—you would need to see the pain and anguish in my face the whole time."

During two days of filming, "many of the treatments left me on the ground, seeing spots or forced me to be in the bathroom retching in between setups," he says. "Despite the shoot being carefully orchestrated and safely executed throughout, I felt overwhelmed and anxious for much of the process."

Reilly drank a gallon of milk to induce vomiting. With those heaters cranked up high, a medic on set made sure he didn't get burned. The bugs were fruit-fly larvae. "I still feel like I feel one crawling in my mouth every once in a while," Reilly says. 

Tom Megginson, creative director at Canadian shop Acart Communications, an expert on socially conscious marketing, lauds the campaign as "incredibly powerful stuff. Empathy is the foundation of great creative ideas. I tell people all the time that what we do is akin to method acting, getting inside someone else's head and seeing the world the way they do. But Jake has taken this to an extreme, being subjected to the pain and terror of withdrawal."

Most impressive, says Megginson, is that "it wasn't fear-based, 'Just say no' marketing. The message was simply 'Choose empathy.' That's what really floored me. I've seen this type of immersive approach before, in sensitivity workshops about other social issues, but this was next-level. I really hope everyone sees it."


Client Name: Overdose Lifeline
Spot Name(s): Choose Empathy
Air Dates: 9/16/19

Agency: Venables Bell & Partners
Founder, Chairman: Paul Venables
Partner, Executive Creative Director: Will McGuinness
Senior Copywriter: Jake Reilly
Executive Producer: Amy Gatzert
Producer: Emily Tarran
Director of Campaign Architecture: Gavin Jones
Director of Strategy: Mike Ronkoske
Social & Content Strategy: John Principe
Web Design: Aisha Hakim

Production Company: Heist
Director: Jake Reilly
DP: Donavan Sell 
Executive Producer: Jordan deBree 
Senior Producer: Kristen Jenkins 
1st AD: Michael MacDonald
Camera Op: Ed Ng 
1st AC: Annie Li
2nd AC: Garet Jatsek 
Gaffer: Andy Haney
Boom Op: Anton Herbert 
Wardrobe: Laura Tesone 
Production Designer: Jackie Scott 
Stunt Coordinator: Durand Garcia 
Production Coordinator: Georgia Peppe
Set Medic: Mike Muldoon 
PA: Ian Wishart
PA: Gabe deCuba
Studio 23: Tommy Maples
Creative Consigliere – Nico Gigilio 

Editing Company: Lumberyard
Director of Integrated Content Studios: Raquel Bedard
Senior Editor: Naomi Goodman 
Assistant Editor: Jason Bridges 
Senior Motion Graphics Designer: Daniel Sanchez 
Post Producer: Chelsea Bassler 

Sound Design/Final Mix: One Union
Lead Sound Designer/Mix Engineer: Joaby Deal
Color: CO3 LA
Colorist: Stefan Sonnenfeld
Color Producer: Gabriel Wakeman

Advertise With Us

Featured Clio Award Winner



The best in creativity delivered to your inbox every morning.