Jumping on the cumulative hype of last year’s Ingo Stockholm “The Swedish Number,” Unicef Sweden have created a sobering spin-off. Taking the light-hearted campaign that gave Sweden its own phone number to encourage tourism, “The Syrian Number” highlights an entirely different type of travel.

In the original campaign created for VisitSweden to offer an authentic taste of everyday life in the Scandinavian country, people could phone the number and be connected to any resident eager to share their culture. The idea was “to show the real Sweden—a unique country worth visiting with the right of public access, sustainable tourism, and a rich cultural heritage,” said Magnus Ling, CEO of the Swedish Tourist Association.

This new campaign, however, created by MDC Partners agency Forsman & Bodenfors for Unicef, instead asks Swedes to call children in war-torn Syria. In a stark contrast to the messages of positivity and pride, callers are diverted to answering machines where a scared child’s voice explains why they cannot come to the phone. 

And the effect is devastating.

“Hello—I’m sorry but we won’t be able to answer your call,” says one recording. “We are leaving our house because we have to get away from the bad people. It’s scary because I don’t know what will happen. I hope we can go to Canada where we will be safe, but it’s very very far away. Maybe I will see you there.”

“This is Talal,” says another. “I won’t be home for a while because me and my family are leaving tonight. We are driving to Jordan. It’s scary because there are military people everywhere and they have guns. But we can’t stay in Syria anymore. I have to pack my clothes now. I have to go. Bye.”

“You have reached the Naha family,” says a third. “We won’t be home for a while and maybe we won’t be back at all. A missile landed beside our house. Now my parents say we have to go before we get hurt. We are leaving after sunset, and hopefully we can make it to Jordan, where we will be safe. I hope you are safe, too.”

Six years into the conflict, it’s easy to find ourselves desensitised to the plight of Syrian refugees. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced from everything and everyone they ever knew, and yet the brutal civil war rages on.

So, any action that can keep the public’s heads firmly turned into the conflict’s direction is of vital importance. By targeting Swedes specifically, the campaign is self-referential and asks them to think, what if it was my country, what if this was happening to me? This, combined with the country’s historically welcoming attitude to refugees and sensitivity to the struggles of asylum seekers, can only be overwhelming positive.

A clever cry for help that uses previously popular and well-known creative work as an anchor for its success, The Syrian Number is a powerful reminder of just how lucky we all are, and why it’s time to step up and take notice.


Campaign: The Syrian Number

Brand: UNICEF

Agency: Forsman & Bodenfors