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You too could save someone's heart. Just use your braaaaaains.

A new ad from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada is aiming to teach a younger audience about CPR. The ploy to get their attention? Zombies.

The video that launched online on Thursday shows a post-apocalyptic downtown Toronto, with the obligatory frightened blonde woman running from a zombie. When she fights back, only to find herself surrounded by a horde, she has a heart attack. The small army of darkness springs – or rather, shuffles – into action. One dials 9-1-1 with bloody, mangled fingers. Another begins chest compressions. When the woman comes to, blood once again flowing freely to that head of hers, she is appetizing once again and the zombies attack.

Not the type of thing that the board and senior leadership of the non-profit organization usually goes for in its public service announcements.

"It was incredibly difficult to get it approved," said Mark Holland, the director of health promotion and public affairs at the foundation.

But Mr. Holland made a case for the pitch from advertising firm Agency59, because Canada is lagging behind in CPR education. In every province across the country, the "save rate" for people in cardiac arrest is stuck at 5 to 6 per cent, Mr. Holland said. By contrast, Seattle's rate is 16 per cent. That's a lot of people who could survive with CPR but are dying here, he said.

And the foundation's research showed that people under 35 are most in need of education, and also most likely to learn if given the right content.

"We looked at how we were delivering our traditional CPR messaging, and it's pretty bland," he said. "Humour is one of the best ways to teach people. We started with that."

What they did not start with, however, was a big budget. With the number of actors needed, the resources to shut down a city street for two days in August, and all the special effects required, (the first zombie to appear in the video is all-CGI, which took artists many hours to do), the full cost of the spot would have run to roughly $1.4-million, Mr. Holland estimates. They did it with less than 10 per cent of that amount.

That was possible because Vincenzo Natali, the director behind the movies Splice and cult hit Ginger Snaps, donated his time. So did special effects company alter ego.

The campaign will involve CPR training across Canada to mark CPR Month in November, and on Oct. 25 the Foundation will be attempting to break the Guinness world record for the most people trained in CPR at one time at amusement park Canada's Wonderland. (The Singapore Heart Foundation currently holds the record with 7,909.) It is promoting the story on Twitter and through a partnership with Toronto Zombie Walk, and hosted a zombie takeover of Yonge Dundas Square in downtown Toronto on Thursday.

Because the budget does not allow for a television buy, it needs to be compelling enough to be passed around online and on social media. While the agency knew zombies would get attention, however, there was some hesitation about pitching the idea.

"In advertising, there's a lot of zombies. Initially, I said I'm not comfortable going with zombies," said Brian Howlett, chief creative officer of Agency59. "You keep thinking that the whole horror thing has jumped the shark. Werewolves. Vampires. Let's get over it. But maybe we never get over it. The buzz over the Walking Dead – people can't wait for it. Its moment hasn't passed."

The video launched online on Thursday and had reached nearly 12,000 YouTube views by Friday afternoon. It's not always appropriate to use humour. The same agency did work for Amnesty International in 2010 showing a person being beaten and threatened with guns, in an attempt to shock the viewer and make people angry about the human rights abuses the organization tries to combat. But Agency59 has also done anti-drunk driving ads for Labatt, eschewing the body bag imagery and finger-wagging and choosing instead to joke about the other things people regret doing when inebriated.

People within the Heart and Stroke Foundation were very nervous, Mr. Holland said. He built the case with his bosses by doing extra research and focus groups with the young audience they were trying to reach – almost all of whom were surprised this type of video was coming from the Foundation. But they also said it was something they would share with their friends.

In advertising, demand is on the rise for Web content that is good enough that people choose to watch and share it (as opposed to a television ad that depends on a passive audience). For the same reason, Mr. Howlett believes that a lot more charitable causes and non-profits should be thinking about how to incorporate a more in-your-face style into their PSAs.

"What we've done before hasn't worked. It tends to be too instructional, too much like something you'd see in a homeroom class in high school," he said. "The message we have is incredibly important, but that doesn't mean that we have to bore people to death."

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