She remembers the exact date – May 2 – because it was the night of a full moon, a moon round like the “o” in the word “no.”
Julia Ardón, one of the leaders of No Comunicación, the loose group of about 20 communications professionals working on the “no” campaign, sat at home thinking about that word.
“I thought, ‘Damn, it’s so ugly to say no,’” she said.
The news had just come out that the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) would be put to a referendum in Costa Rica, and the campaign against CAFTA was stuck with that word – no.
Perhaps, Ardón thought, the “o” could be replaced with something positive, that full moon for example. Or the Earth. Or a pregnant woman. Or…
She put her pencil to paper and drew a heart.
A few modifications later, the anti-CAFTA movement had a symbol to rally around in the form of a fat “no” with a blue “n” and a puffy red-white-and-blue heart for an “o.”
The “no” with the heart popped up on bumper stickers, T-shirts, pins and blogs, anything that could hold an image.
It also popped up somewhere completely unexpected: at the pro-CAFTA campaign headquarters.
In a bizarre twist that has anti-CAFTA activists shaking their heads in disbelief, their heart has been appropriated, and is being used in campaign material by the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA.
“What they wanted was to upset us, in addition to creating semantic confusion with the public,” said Mauricio Ordóñez, one of the designers of the heart. He called the pro-CAFTA use of the heart design “vulgar plagiarism.”
The Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA doesn’t see it that way.
“In the area of political communications, while there is no prohibition of using a particular font, particular colors, particular ideas, all that is legal,” said Otto Guevara, a former Libertarian Movement Party presidential candidate and spokesman for the Alliance.
The Novela Begins
It was a few weeks after Ardón’s epiphany that the heart took its final form.
A graphic designer named Luis Chacón had improved upon it by adding the colors of the Costa Rican flag in a long stripe. Then the team of 20 or so volunteers working on anti-CAFTA publicity came up with the phrase “My heart says no. And yours?” to go with the symbol.
But Ordóñez, who was also volunteering with the team, still thought something was missing. Sitting in a campaign meeting, he pulled a receipt from his pocket and on the back sketched what would be the final design: a plump, blue heart with red and white stripes wrapped diagonally around the middle.
“When he brought it to (the next meeting), we all loved it,” Ardón said. The campaign put the design out on the Internet along with the slogan, and activists around the country began using it in their designs.
“We thought, ‘This should be registered,’” Ardón said.
But it never was.
One reason for never copyrighting the iconic heart, said anti-CAFTA representatives, was the cost – about $500. Another was the four to six months the process takes.
“We thought it wouldn’t be worth it to find the money because it would be legally ours only after the referendum, which at that point was in September,” Ardón said.
But come mid-June, the anti-CAFTA campaign got a shock when the heart appeared on a banner at National Liberation Party (PLN) headquarters: “My (heart) says yes,” the banner said, with the iconic heart in place of the word.
Soon the banners were hanging all over pro-CAFTA businesses and institutions. Bumper stickers and T-shirts were appearing as well.
And there was nothing the anti-CAFTA campaign could do about it.
A press release from the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA said the banners are just a response to the question posed by the “no” publicity.
“They asked us what our heart says,” the statement quoted Alliance head Alfredo Volio as saying. “We’re courteous, and we responded: My heart says yes.”
Ardón and others say there’s something more to the campaign. On blogs and in interviews, they accuse a publicist named Giovanni Bulgarelli of attending anti-CAFTA publicity meetings to feel out their strategy before finally taking a contract to work for the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA.
Bulgarelli had previously worked doing anti-CAFTA publicity, and his company, Bulgarelli y Pravissani, designed several popular ads for the Ottón Solís presidential campaign in 2005.
Bulgarelli vehemently denies the accusations of spying, noting dryly that he only seriously met with anti-CAFTA leaders like Eugenio Trejos and Ottón Solís, and in the end decided to work for the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA for professional reasons.
Since then, he said he has received several threats, including one in a restaurant where waiters had to intervene.
“The way this campaign is going seems absurd to me,” he said.
He did confirm, however, that using the heart designed by the anti-CAFTA campaign was his idea.
It was in mid-June that the Citizens’ Alliance for Yes on CAFTA hired Bulgarelli y Pravissani to do the publicity because they liked the company’s proposal, Alliance spokesman Otto Guevara said.
At first the campaign was just the posters and bumper stickers featuring the heart. Then on Mother’s Day, a month after the Alliance first started using the heart, it took a twist.
Full-page ads featuring the heart appeared in all the country’s major newspapers inviting Costa Ricans to watch a campaign spot on TV that night.
The two-minute spot, which is available on youtube.com, features a man and a woman dressed in giant heart costumes frolicking in a field and sharing a picnic.
“In Costa Rica, with little time left before the referendum, a ‘no’ heart fell in love with a ‘yes’ heart,” a narrator says. “Although you might not believe it.”
It was the start of a quirky telenovela with 30-second episodes about a love affair between the two hearts that has gradually gotten more focused on CAFTA arguments. The ad campaign is scheduled to end this week.
Ordoñez said he finds the ads confusing and “post-modern,” and Ardón said she thinks the purpose is to “make a ruckus.”
“The idea is to ridicule the ‘no’ side” and make the “yes” side look good, she said.
Bulgarelli, however, said he’s happy with the ads because they have done their purpose by “neutraliz(ing) the ‘no,’” which he said didn’t do much with their heart to begin with.
“One thing is to have a symbol, another is to give it content.What I think they have is a pretty symbol,” he said. “But it doesn’t have content.”