How to eat a human
In terms of taboo, chowing down on one's own species leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. The Swedish Food Federation's mockumentary, Eat A Swede, justly deserved this year's Cannes Grand Prix win (Entertainment category) for its exploration of putting homo sapiens on the menu. Here, Adrian Botan, McCann Europe CCO and ECD/producer Markus Ahlm, reveal the ingredients behind the campaign.
What was the genesis of the Eat A Swede concept?
Adrian Botan, Chief Creative Officer, Europe at McCann: The initial brief was to speak to the world about sustainability of the Swedish food producers (represented by the Swedish Food Federation) but through the prism of the Swedish values.
We started with a joke that by eating Swedish food you’re having a taste of the Swedish values. You can find them in the 30 seconds commercial Erik is showing to the first investor (initially we made those films to promote the Swedish values and we debated if we should air them or not).
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Markus, did your background as a restaurateur, as well as a director and producer, help in the creation of this food-themed film?
Markus Ahlm, now ECD/Producer, at Stockholm agency Colony: I love food in all shapes and forms, or at least so I thought until this idea landed on my plate. Jokes aside, I do love working with food related ideas and I also think it helps a lot to have a sort of split creative-producer vision.
Of course there were people who simply couldn’t simply stomach the concept.
I’m not sure if the restaurateur in me added to the equation on Eat a Swede, but having in-depth knowledge, or carving out the time to do proper research, is something I really believe in. It's sort of execution planning really. Add as many facets as possible to an idea, start peeling the onion, and move forward knowing you picked only the best truffles for your creative dish.
Adrian Botan, CCO Europe at McCann Worldgroup.
You've mentioned before Adrian, the pleasure of watching viewers at screenings having that 'what the fuck?' moment. Can you expand on that?
AB: Indeed – from the moment people realise the idea, they become embarrassed – people avoided eye contact in the room. The concept was borderline reckless and genius, which is how most of the great ideas start. So, I think the genius of Josefine Richards [CD] and Markus [producer], Daniel Hallberg [director] and the team was to find the way of making this idea credible enough to be placed out there so people can engage with it. So, getting the character of the 'scientist' Erik Karlsson right was crucial.
The discovery that a considerable amount of people would actually consider eating human food content was dynamite.
So we did lots of private screenings on various audiences – some were friends or family, some people from the agency. We even did copy testing on it (and it survived, can you believe this???!!!) when the campaign was put in front of a new board of the Swedish Food Federation.
And, of course there were people who simply couldn’t stomach the concept. Many got carried away with the story and took it seriously, got offended and disgusted. We even had a funny serious reaction from an entrepreneur friend who was criticising the business pitches Erik was making. Some had trouble watching it (the initial edit was much darker) – initially we wanted to pretend that Erik was genuine person, we were going to create an online persona for him.
Markus Ahlm, who was ECD at McCann during the project and is now partner at agency Colony.
Was Eat A Swede inspired by behavioural scientist Professor Magnus Söderlund’s talk, Can you Imagine Eating Human Flesh?
MA: It was one of many ingredients that sparked this idea. Professor Söderlund’s talk about the future food crisis and the reaction to it was intriguing in more ways than one. Was he – perhaps, deliberately – misunderstood by the press? Sure. But his discovery that a considerable amount of people would actually consider eating human food content was dynamite.
We knew we needed dynamite to break through to a young audience.
The environment is a constant subject, but we tend to focus on shaming air travel, and what kind of power we use, rather than our vulgar sized avocado sandwiches and mid-winter exotic fruit platters.
AB: Every good prank is based on a grain of truth and keeping an eye on culture is how you come up with great ideas: so, we took a fringe subject that was already there, and also was consistent with a certain narrative about Swedes that is being put out by the media: they’re climate conscious, sustainable and driven by social policies taken to the extreme sometimes.
Professor Magnus Söderlund, who, at Sweden's Gastro Summit of Sep 2019, spoke about eating human flesh.
At the summit Söderlund suggested the notion of cannibalism was a 'conservative' taboo that should be lifted to solve the upcoming food production crisis. Do you feel that the climate emergency and the global food shortage are, in themselves, taboo subjects that the consumerist developed world doesn't really want to face up to?
AB: I don’t think the food crisis is a taboo, but there’s fatigue about it, especially among 'conservatives'. And yes, Swedes are driving this fatigue, look at Greta Thunberg, who is amazing, but her tactics are actually not working with the climate-change deniers.
The truth of the matter is that food waste in the UK alone is a much bigger contributor to CO2 emissions than the aviation industry!
So, our challenge was to overcome this fatigue. We realised that scare tactics don’t work, neither do positive forward-looking messages (that’s happy Swedes on green pastures, we tried them in the past). Instead, we decided to take the third route: paint an unsavoury, but almost probable (hypothetical) future.
So, we tapped into this taboo, which, we knew, would incense the conservative audience. It is part dark satire/part advertising stunt meant to work as a wake-up call to the entire food industry.
We could do with there being bigger taboos around certain food products and not eating local. And the biggest of taboos is food waste.
MA: I agree, I wouldn’t necessarily call it taboo. More ignorance or lack of knowledge. The environment is a constant subject, but we tend to focus on shaming air travel, and what kind of power we use, rather than our vulgar sized avocado sandwiches and mid-winter exotic fruit platters.
We could use bigger taboos around certain food products and not eating local. And the biggest of taboos - food waste. The truth of the matter is that food waste in the UK alone is a much bigger contributor to CO2 emissions than the aviation industry!
Did Professor Söderlund see his appearance in the film as a chance to redress the media's portrayal of him as a ‘mad scientist’?
MA: We did prompt that possibility to him when we approached him. But I think he just liked the idea a lot. He's smart, and he understood the need to be bold to get people to stop and think. Thank God for that because the credibility he brought to the campaign was paramount.
AB: We wanted to make a tribute to him and also, making him part of the 'documentary' was adding credibility to the story, he was the acclaimed academic who started this hypothesis Erik has fully embraced. And he makes those points, if you watch carefully to the end.
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How easy was it to get Alexander Skarsgård involved in the film?
AB: Our Swedish ECD, Josefine has a direct line with his agent, haha! Not easy, but agreed to have a cameo as a voice on the telephone.
We had a personal connection [with Skarsgård] and, just like Söderlund, Alexander instantly liked the creative. So, he agreed to be our 'plat du jour'.
MA: I think celebrity endorsement is a weird beast. Sometimes you have a project and a number that you think is a given, and other times it's a lot of work and you still don't manage to close. I have made a habit out of putting my creative brain to work before asking because it's a lot about how you ask!
We had a personal connection and, just like Söderlund, Alexander instantly liked the creative. So, he agreed to be our “plat du jour”.
Actor Alexander Skarsgård – the campaign's tasty dish of the day.
Erik Karlsson, the founder of Swede Meat is a fantastic creation. Can you tell us something about the development of the character?
MA: We talked long and hard about finding the right tonality for this film. And since story is character and character is story, the script development went hand in hand with the development of Erik Karlsson. Daniel – who has a background as both creative, director and actor – came up with the brilliant idea of finding someone that really was from the scientific community rather than an actor.
This ensures authenticity, both in language and persona.
The genius decision from Daniel was to not cast an actor as Erik, but rather a scientist. That made Erik very persuasive, because he knows his science and almost plays himself in the real life.
This film had to leave the audience with a question mark, is this real? Or else it would fail! Daniel then used a very gentle way of directing that was more setting the premise for each scene with Erik. Then since most of the other talent wasn't in on the joke, we had to run with it… and shoot a lot!
AB: I think the genius decision from Daniel was to not cast an actor as Erik, but rather a scientist. That made Erik very persuasive, because he knows his science and almost plays himself in the real life.
When Erik sets out to lure investors, his promotional videos are far from persuasive. Are you making a comment on the difficulty of promoting a leftfield concept? Or did you just want to portray Erik as a hopeless marketer?
MA: What do you mean? We intend to win in Cannes next year with Erik’s epic infomercials! Honestly, we wanted big reactions from the investors so making them as you put it “far from persuasive” felt like the best way to go.
Fictional scientist Erik Karlsson, is actually a scientist.
There are subtle comic details in the film – Erik mentioning skin samples from a donor's gluteus maximus (backside); discussing how carrots feel about being eaten; and the investor's line, "are you asking me to eat Alexander Skarsgård?" Are these planted as hints that the film is a satire?
MA: Great question! Forging this script and later editing it was a balance. As mentioned, it had to leave you with that feeling; 'is this real?'.
We watched a lot of Ali G [alter ego of comic Sacha Baron Cohen] shows to try to find that balance that he masters so brilliantly. Then we basically put every scene on the 'authenticity scale'. That killed a lot of very funny scenes and we had some real gems that we had to leave on the cutting room floor for the sake of authenticity.
You spotted two of the scenes that actually didn’t make the scale test but simply were too good to drop. But then again what's a dish without spice right?
We did lots of edits and I remember having discussions with people about removing scenes that were too funny.
AB: Yes, we wanted people to watch the film twice, actually. At the first viewing you need to cringe and watch in disbelief how Erik is failing, but he’s quite determined and convincing about his idea. And then we planted all these comedic seeds which make the film quite funny in retrospect.
We wanted people to actually go and do their research, find out this is a stunt and come back watch the film and laugh. We did lots of edits and I remember having discussions with people about removing scenes that were too funny.
How successful has the film been in achieving Swedish Food Federation Chairman Lars Appelqvist’s goal of pushing sustainable production?
MA: I think it’s way too early to say. Young people are talking about the film and the subject. We’re amid a film festival season that is new to us ad-people.
The film just won Best Short Film at the Los Angeles documentary film festival, adding to the list of six other film festival wins so far. Also, we're in negotiations about streaming rights without going into detail! So what do you say we leave that question for the dessert?
During the campaign, visits to the Swedish Food Federation website increased by 2,400 per cent.
AB: What we can say is that during the campaign, the number of Google searches for Swedish food increased by 360 per cent and visits to the Swedish Food Federation website increased by 2,400 per cent.
And even with several wins and shortlists in various film festivals, the main target group was still young Swedes - age 19-24. This group is around 550,000 people in Sweden and with Eat A Swede we reached 400,000 young adult Swedes.