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Undercover Crosswords

Industry: Professional & Public services
Style: Minimalism
Why is this work relevant for Media?

Elderly in New Zealand are usually far removed from the technologies of the modern world. Their main modes of communication and entertainment are still the TV, the telephone, and the newspaper. With no money for an expensive TV ad promoting the helpline, and the high possibility of abusers throwing out any overt helpline material, we needed to be innovative with our media choice to enter homes undetected. And we did just that. We took a popular pastime – the humble daily newspaper crossword, which is typically a non-commercial space - and turned it into a lifeline for elderly.


Shockingly, elder abuse is rampant in New Zealand, with over 70,000 being abused each year. What’s worse, over 75% of abusers are their own family members. The Office for Seniors had just created 0800 EA NOT OK; a helpline for elder abuse victims, aged 65+. But hardly anyone was calling. Not because they didn’t need help, but because there was little awareness of what elder abuse was. Elderly believed that if they weren’t being hit or sexually mistreated, they weren’t truly being ‘abused’. On top of that, pamphlets advertising the helpline were most likely being thrown out by abusers before victims could see them. So, our job was to find a way to educate elderly on what elder abuse is and urge victims to call the helpline – all without alerting the abusers themselves.

Describe the creative idea/insights (30% of vote)

The Office for Seniors needed to covertly educate elderly on what isn’t ok and urge victims to seek help via their helpline. From our research on elderly media usage habits, we knew a digital campaign would be fruitless and that we needed to think traditional (with a twist). So, with New Zealand’s top national and regional newspapers, we launched 3.6 million Undercover Crosswords. At first glance, they appeared like ordinary newspaper crosswords – something most elderly pore over every day. But each daily crossword had one special clue, defining a type of mistreatment elderly face. For two weeks, all our clues led to the same answer: abuse, followed by the helpline.

Describe the strategy (20% of vote)

Running a campaign in the typically non-commercial space of ‘Quick Crosswords’ had never been done. So, we formed a partnership with newspapers around the country in order to have freedom to change their crosswords every day for two weeks.

We didn’t plan to use crosswords solely because of their popularity amongst elderly, or because they’re inconspicuous. The daily nature of newspaper crosswords, and the descriptive nature of the clues, would provide us with an ideal media space to give elderly the definitions of elder abuse every day, until they had the full picture on what constitutes mistreatment – So they could then decide whether they should seek help via 0800 EA NOT OK.

Once every crossword had gone out and victims had had time to seek help, we planned to get the media and the very newspapers that had run our crosswords to take the story to the nation.

Describe the execution (20% of vote)

Over a two-week period (in the build-up to World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15) we ran 10 covert crossword clues to educate elderly about the 10 most common types of abuse - such as failing to repay money, neglecting medical needs and over-medicating.

Our elder abuse clues had to be as undercover as possible. So besides changing out one clue and answer each day, and adding a small prompt to call the helpline below the crossword, we did not alter the look of the daily ‘Quick Crosswords’.
In total, we ran 3.6 million Undercover Crosswords in almost every NZ newspaper to reach elderly far and wide.

Once the crosswords had gone out and victims had had time to seek help, as planned, we got the media and newspapers that ran our crosswords to take the story to the nation; helping to finally push the issue out into the open.

List the results (30% of vote)

The first objective of our campaign was to increase help seeking via the elder abuse helpline. In the first week of the crosswords running, calls increased by 112%. Our second objective was to raise national awareness of what constitutes elder abuse. With just $6K, a press release and a though-provoking media idea, we secured 22 pieces of editorial media coverage across print, digital and primetime broadcast news. This resulted in a total PR value of $675k and an ROI of 112:1. Calls further increased during this period to 271% – an all-time high for the helpline.

Post-campaign analysis revealed that one third of New Zealanders were aware of the campaign. And, more than half of those said it changed their view of what elder abuse is and who the main abusers are. This change of perception was crucial in helping New Zealanders and elderly recognise and report abuse going forward.
Production Company:
Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2019
Bronze Media
Use of Print / Outdoor
Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2019
Shortlist Health & Wellness
Non-profit / Foundation-led Education & Awareness
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