Helsingin Sanomat & TBWA Launched A Line Of Seasonal Sweaters Depicting The Year’s Ugliest News Topics

In recent years, the most talked about fashion phenomenon during the holiday season has been the “ugly Christmas sweater” trend. Now the seasonal garment has been turned into something more than a mere fashion statement.

As an attempt to keep important matters in the public eye, Helsingin Sanomat, the largest newspaper in the Nordics, has launched a series of ugly Christmas sweaters depicting the year’s ugliest news topics.

Instead of garish designs, the ugliness in the #uglytruthsweaters is more due to the subject matters presented. The series comprises of five shirts and depicts some of the past year’s ugliest news topics: climate change, plastic in our oceans, war, sexual harassment and technological manipulation. Introduced under the tagline “The truth may be ugly, but it never goes out of style”, the collection reminds people that there is no matter that journalism should turn a blind eye to.

“Truth is the cornerstone of journalism, no matter how ugly it is. We can't shy away from topics that are difficult, in your face or hard to swallow. That's why this Christmas we are wearing them on our sleeve, literally. It is our responsibility to bring these matters into the public consciousness and keep them there as long as they remain unsolved”, says Kaius Niemi, the paper’s Senior Editor-in-Chief.

The shirts will accompany a set of articles published in Helsingin Sanomat that take a look at each subject in detail. They will also be sent to a number of people who have contributed to resolving each matter.

The highly limited collection of 100% woolen shirts have been produced locally in Finland, in the small town of Lieto.

The ugly truth sweaters are not the first time Helsingin Sanomat has taken a stand for important matters. Last summer, in an act to defend freedom of the press, the paper welcomed presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to the Land of Free Press ahead of their Helsinki Summit. A series of outdoor ads spread out on the presidents’ route displayed the paper’s past headlines regarding both leaders and their relationship with the media. The stunt sparked a debate on the state of press freedom that continues still today.

As with the Land of Free Press -campaign, Helsingin Sanomat cooperated with TBWA\HELSINKI who are also responsible for the sweater designs. The agency’s Chief Creative Officer Jyrki Poutanen sees the campaign as a natural continuation to the summer campaign: “Helsingin Sanomat has an established strategy in acknowledging its role and relevance in society with these kind of statements. It is a counterpower to indifference, be it towards press freedom, climate change or war.”

Jyrki Poutanen
Chief Creative Officer \ Partner TBWA\Helsinki

Aki Toivonen
Creative Strategist TBWAHelsinki


Tell us about the different roles in the creation of this work.

Jyrki: We typically work in very close connection with many of our clients, Helsingin Sanomat (HS) in particular. Strict roles often get mixed up; everybody across the agency pitches in, going out of their comfort zone to help make final outcome 100% perfect. Ideas in general may spark within the agency team, but they’re soon after further with developed the client.

It's also great to work with experts outside our bubble. In HS case, we are able to work with and collaborate with the paper’s top journalists for every campaign we put together. For this campaign specifically, we were also able to bring highly skilled artistsa onboard who put the time in handmake these sweaters from Lieto, Finland.

This project was also very design-oriented, thus it took top notch art direction. That's why we were lucky to have our Art Director Matti (Virtanen) on this project. He himself crafted the designs for the jumpers! It’s always inspiring to bring a number of different creative skills to a campaign creation, so we enjoyed it.

Aki: I agree. It’s definitely a team effort, where everyone pitches in, and not just in the early ideation phases but also when iterating forward. It’s also a matter of skill sets: you need the specialists who bring things to their final form but also the people who have the big picture in mind, so everyone can fully concentrate on their specific responsibilities.


Give us an overview of the campaign, what is it about?

Aki: The main ingredients to this campaign are the five sweaters depicting climate change, war, plastic pollution, technological manipulation, and sexual harassment. Then there are these different elements that broaden the story: the articles regarding the topics published in HS newspaper (The Nordics largest newspaper publication), the influencer side, and the advertising assets.

The campaign is essentially a reminder of the ugly truths in our world; issues that shouldn't be forgotten, not even during the holidays. In that sense, it's also about the role journalism has in our society and finding ways to keep these issues front of mind to find solutions.


Tell us about the details of the creative brief, what did your client initially ask for?

Aki: One could say we have an open brief for these kinds of purpose-driven statements. HS has outlined in their marketing strategy what kind of a role the brand should have in society, so when opportunities arise to act on that premise, there’s a common understanding to jump on them.

The original idea of making the sweaters was actually born when we were planning a more tactical Christmas campaign, and we even brought the idea in for that, but immediately we and the client knew that it could be used for something better.

Jyrki: It takes time to build trust. We've worked with Helsingin Sanomat for 2.5 years now and it feels that ever since last summer, after the all-around successful and co-operative The Land of Free Press campaign, we've definitely stepped up a gear in our agency-client collaboration. There's a certain 'shared courage' now present in our creative workshops that makes it possible to ideate and execute truly meaningful stuff.


Which insight led to the creation of this piece of work? 

Aki: The thinking process actually started from topicality; as we were planning the tactical campaign we were focusing a lot on how to communicate news being relevant and topical even during Christmas. That’s when we came up with the idea of having news on the sweaters. From there, we were led to the key insight for the actual campaign, i.e. telling the ugly truth in an ugly sweater.

Jyrki: This all ties down to the strategy discussed earlier: how is Helsingin Sanomat a part of changing the world for the better? The brand is acting on these issues, while of course maintaining the independent status that is expected of any newspaper. It takes balancing, but that is something we believe in and what we aim to build all the marketing communications on; taking a stand to the extent of not taking sides.


Can you share with us any alternative ideas (if any) for this campaign? Why was this idea chosen? 

Aki: Once the idea was out, there were no alternatives for this particular campaign. The tactical campaign that started this all was executed with a similar spirit yet a slightly different focus. We used the same news topics in that campaign, too.


What was the greatest challenge that you and your team faced during development?

Aki: Actually, we were surprised how smoothly everything went. We wanted to have the sweaters done locally in Finland instead of having them shipped from China or some other faraway country, and we preferably wanted to have genuine wool sweaters instead of cheaper fabrics. When we began looking how we could actually make this happen, we thought we’d have to compromise a lot, but actually we were able to find great partners for making the shirts happen. A big thank you to Tuoriniemi Dream who were great in helping produce the sweaters!

Matti: For me, as a designer the biggest challenge was how to portray huge topics within certain restrictions, such as the limited number of pixels and colors on the same line. I think it’s great that every pixel counts. It forces you to make decisions with consideration, instead of just putting stuff there without thinking twice. It requires thought, clarity and intention.


What did you enjoy most about seeing this campaign through? Did you learn anything new from the experience?

Matti: I think the key learnings came from the actual process of how the sweaters were made. We visited the Tuoriniemi Dream factory and the people there guided us through the whole process, it was really interesting. It’s also always enjoyable seeing your creative illustrations transfer from the screen of your laptop to then become actual objects right before your eyes.

Aki: I guess there’s always a certain joy in seeing something this concrete being brought to life. One minute it’s just an idea in a meeting room and the next you’re actually holding it in your hand or even trying it on. That doesn’t happen every day in the advertising business. 

There’s always something new one picks up from doing new things, but I think we’re still too close to the campaign to have a sense of the most fundamental learnings. Now it's more about the little things one could've done differently, the bigger learnings always come a bit later. It takes time to understand how the campaign went, the direction we will push further next time. 


Where do you see this campaign going in the future?

Aki: Well, the first step is that we’re going to have a small batch of sweaters for sale in Finland. If that goes well, who knows where we’ll end up! It’s early stages, though what we do know is that Helsingin Sanomat will continue to highlight the world’s most important cultural issues in interesting and creative ways.

Jyrki: What he said. Of course we’re also keeping our fingers crossed that we’ll see those relentless whistle blowers and change makers receiving these sweaters and wear them with pride; in public and across social. Who knows, maybe next Christmas we’ll decorate the town with “ugly” Christmas lights. All in all, we of course have to keep our eye on the bigger picture: realizing the role of the paper as a counterpower to indifference, be it towards press freedom, climate change, or war.