“We Knew There Would Be Eyeballs On This”: How A TikTok Trend Is Helping Save Refugees

“We Knew There Would Be Eyeballs On This”: How A TikTok Trend Is Helping Save Refugees

“The truth is generally many refugees don’t want to go to sea. They’re doing it to escape conflict and persecution. It’s a last ditch resort to escape problems in their homelands. This led to the idea of The Reluctant Shanty, and from there we were able to create the first sea shanty based on real world refugee survivor stories,” explains BMF creative director Doug Hamilton.

The Reluctant Shanty is a chillingly evocative piece of communication. Its genius lies in the blend of insights used by Hamilton and his team, and its effectiveness comes from the choice and execution across a channel you usually wouldn’t associate with more serious content – TikTok.

But as Hamilton explains: “The difference with TikTok is we knew there would be eyeballs on this campaign. The creativity across the platform means there is a lot of interesting and engaging stuff on there.”


On World Refugee Day, we’re sharing with you The Reluctant Shanty. The new shanty is based on the experiences of refugees who have embarked on a dangerous journey by sea in search of safety, and survived to tell their story. Join us in raising awareness of these reluctant sailors. Learn more: https://reluctantshanty.com/ #reluctantshanty #worldrefugeeday #australiaforunhcr

♬ The Reluctant Shanty – Mandela, Rita, and Heifa

“The aim of the campaign was to highlight the plight of refugees. Last year 3,000 refugees died or disappeared while attempting to cross the Mediterranean or Atlantic Ocean. And these stats are expected to double year on year,” he adds.

For most people the ongoing boat refugee crisis is not an issue which is top of mind, while for governments it is a thorny issue which has become highly politicised. So the Australian arm of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) decided World Refugee Day was the perfect time to put the ongoing human tragedy front and centre, with their partners at BMF.

“Sea crossings tend to take place in uncomfortable patches of ocean in international waters which makes it hard for a single government to take charge to fix. So our goal was to draw attention to the problem and raise some donations along the way,” Hamilton says.

Understanding how to ride the shanty trend

At the centre of the campaign is the simple idea of using the surprising trend that had emerged around sea shanties to tell the stories of real life boat refugees. It was only natural for the creative team to turn to the platform which had fuelled the trend – TikTok.

But while some of the team were shanty fans themselves they realised the best approach would be to lean into the experts already established on the platform.

Hamilton explains: “A big part of the campaign was recruiting Nathan Evans, who is a sea shanty popstar in his own right. We wanted him to be able to operate on his home turf, and be able to reach and inspire his millions of followers and others around the world.”

They interviewed five refugees and turned their true survivor stories of a harrowing experience into a heroic song of human resilience.

“We partnered with Evans to co-write the song, and from there he came up with a set of lyrics which felt sobering enough to fit the genre, but celebrated the strength and the courage of refugees at the same time,” says Hamilton.


This World Refugee Day, I’ve teamed up with @Australia for UNHCR to launch the TheReluctantShanty. A sea shanty based on the experiences of refugees, who’ve embarked on dangerous journeys by sea to escape persecution and conflict. Please duet it to help raise awareness of these reluctant sailors, and support UNHCR’s work helping displaced people across the globe. #Australiaforunhcr #TheReluctantShanty #ReluctantShanty #nathanevanss

♬ The Reluctant Shanty – Mandela, Rita, and Heifa

From there, the team at BMF leaned on production agency Finch to film the three videos that would accompany the songs.

“We had three real refugees singing to camera while they were placed inside a blacked out swimming pool made to look like the ocean. We wanted to bring forward the grit of refugees but also the frailty and peril of the situation,” Hamilton says.

The finished product was uploaded to TikTok, where creators were encouraged to ripple the message through duets, reactions and shares. Users were encouraged to read the true stories across a microsite and donate to support the cause of raising awareness.

Balancing entertainment and empathy

TikTok has firmly established itself as an entertainment platform for people of all ages, with a huge diversity of content. But the range of content means videos have to be engaging and catch the viewer quickly.

Hamilton explains: “My biggest concern during the process was how we could balance making a song which was catchy and memorable, yet didn’t gloss over the true experience which inspired it.

“We wanted something which hit you in the feels, but also made you hum along. Because as we know, even sad songs can become hits.”

Whilst Nathan Evans’ reach and influence was a great draw towards TikTok for the campaign’s creators, they also realised the audience were generally more receptive to social good campaign messages.

“TikTok has a massive global audience, and the users tend to be slightly more ‘woke’ and active when it comes to wanting to make the world a better place. This combined made TikTok as a platform feel really right for us,” he says.

Yet Hamilton and his team were entirely new to TikTok, and despite the success of the Reluctant Shanty had never used the platform before. For Hamilton, partnering with TikTok’s Creative Lab is what allowed them to experiment with confidence.

“The piece we created ended up being much more like a polished TVC. But we still wanted to create a more intimate performance to the camera, which is what TikTok often is, but elevated. The polished style yet similar format made it stand out on the platform,” he says.

Being a song the campaign also lent itself to one of TikTok’s other most popular trends – duets. This encouraged users to record themselves singing along with the shanty and ensured it was shared to thousands more feeds in the days after it was released.


#duet with @nathanevanss Every year, countless people become reluctant sailors, fleeing conflict and persecution to embark on a dangerous journey by sea in search of safety. Help us share awarness by duetting or sharing this video. #reluctantshanty #worldrefugeeweek #sharethevideo

♬ The Reluctant Shanty – Mandela, Rita, and Heifa

The Reluctant Shanty became one of UNHCR’s most successful social campaigns with over 13.4 million views in one week, and increased average donations to UNHCR by 80 per cent.

It has also inspired Hamilton to keep on creating for the platform as a way of making a real impact: “There is an incredible wealth of interesting trends across TikTok that creative agencies can pivot off to help the world through the power of these creators and trends.

“We’re lucky now we have this strong relationship with TikTok’s Creative Lab. And I’m excited to create more campaigns to flex the power and creativity of TikTok for good.”

TikTok’s must-attend #ForYou Summit is happening on October 12 in Sydney. For your chance to win a pair of VIP tickets to the invite-only event click here 

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