Sitting in the glow of a crackling campfire, tourist Danny Kean has a theory.
"There's a reason why people close their eyes when they kiss, when they cry and when they pray," he says. "Because the most essential things in life must be felt with our hearts."
It's more than a bit of musing: This moment, in a video from Tourisme Québec, also acts as an explanation for why the provincial agency chose Mr. Kean – a man who has been blind since birth – to star in its newest advertising campaign.
The video in French and English – which, at 3 1/2 minutes, is pitched like many other long-form ads as a mini "documentary" – has racked up roughly 2.5 million views on Facebook and YouTube in the first week since it launched. It's a twist for tourism marketing, which has traditionally been preoccupied with visual images. This campaign in some ways is no different, with lush imagery of the province in summertime. But by having someone without sight act as a guide, the agency hopes to highlight a different kind of story.
"If you don't try to find new angles, you always end up with just those beauty shots and slogans. You're not going to engage people emotionally with that," said Sylvain Talbot, head of advertising at Tourisme Québec. "If you can engage people, they will sit through it."
Some viewers actually have done that. In addition to the 31/2-minute video, there is a full interactive website where people can view videos of Mr. Kean's different experiences, including riding a roller coaster, tasting locally made cheese and receiving a visit from a whale while kayaking. The average time spent on the site is eight minutes, 37 seconds, a huge jump from the average for the Tourisme Québec website, which is closer to two minutes. That's huge for any advertiser. More budgets have flowed into digital marketing, but it can be particularly hard to get attention in that extremely crowded environment and on the Internet in general. That's a big reason why so many advertisers have turned to emotional stories as a kind of Trojan Horse to push their products.
The ad began as an idea to show Quebec through all five senses, and ad agency lg2 suggested experiencing a trip through the perspective of a person who does not have one of those senses.
"There was initially some worry that people might think we were exploiting someone," said Audrey Lefebvre, group account director at lg2. But if handled correctly, they believed, "it could be a testimony to all the province has to offer."
So far, the response has been positive. While the industry has been making great strides recently in portraying more diversity in advertising, including more gay couples and multiracial families for example, that push for diversity has one key missing component: Ads are overwhelmingly populated with able-bodied people.
That's especially true in tourism marketing, where the visual nature of the product is even baked into the language: Travel is synonymous with sight-seeing.
"I'm very impressed," said Diane Bergeron, executive director of strategic relations and engagement at The Canadian National Institute of the Blind. "I'm blind myself, and I love to travel. So it's exciting to see a piece that shows everything there is to experience … from the perspective of other senses and other abilities."
Ms. Bergeron particularly praised the fact that the campaign is available in described video, something that normally the community has to "beg, plead and grovel for" and that is all too often overlooked by both media producers and advertisers. She expressed the hope that more campaigns would consider making described video part of their campaigns.
"It's beautiful," said Marie-Camille Blais, the Quebec executive director for the CNIB. "It's a tribute to inclusiveness."
The campaign has received a very positive reaction within Quebec. The first million views came in with no advertising support – simply through outreach on social media, according to Mr. Talbot. The challenge now is to increase viewership to the campaign's target market – people outside of the province, who so far account for roughly one-third of the video's views. It has only been a few days since digital ads have launched on media sites such as Lonely Planet, BBC Travel and Le Monde, designed to reach travellers particularly in the key markets of Ontario, the United States and France. Because of the positive response, the agency will also soon be pushing out the campaign in China through social media there.
The tourism agency is also undergoing its largest PR campaign ever, reaching out to celebrities and "influencers" in an attempt to increase the number of people who are sharing the video online.
"We're trying to get Justin Trudeau," Mr. Talbot said. "We haven't gotten him yet."
In order to do a campaign like this, lg2 had to ask its client to change the entire way that they work together. In the past, Tourisme Québec used a lot of stock images and videos in its advertising, because it was working on short timelines. This time, the agency got the brief for the campaign more than a year ahead of time and was able to find a real person to star in its ad and take him on a whirlwind journey. The ad was filmed over 14 days in September in a range of locations all along the St. Lawrence, and as far away as the Îles de la Madeleine.