A Tale of Two PSAs

[Trigger Warning for discussion of domestic abuse/violence]


Advertisements and PSAs play on “gut reactions” and hope to convert shock into action. Last week, a  branch of the Salvation Army tried to use #thedress of viral Internet fame (some people saw it as blue and black, some as white and gold, fun was had, science was learned and if tweets were print, we would be in the midst of a global ink crisis) to spur an awareness campaign to stop violence against women.

And in this case, I could not get past my gut reaction of disgust. This link to an article critical of the PSA contains the actual image, which may be triggering or upsetting, so proceed with caution and self-care. An image of a bruised women wearing the “white and gold” version of #thedress accompanies the text “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?”

It comes across as flippant, as forcing the very complex and sensitive issue of abuse to conform to a meme soundbite so it can get “traction.” Meanwhile on a recent Facebook share of the image, this observer noted that most of the comments were about the dress (or the PSA itself), not the issue of violence against women.

Full disclosure: I’m looking at this PSA in the context of actively participating in a media production space where a key value is thoughtful critique of how techniques are being used to transmit messages, and I had just finished working on a literature review about ethics in advertising. Just because an organization is a non-profit or working for a good cause does not mean the ends always justify the means, or the aesthetic and elements of their design accurately reflects their intent. Now would be a good time to insert all the grains of salt about the Salvation Army’s history, generally.

Around the same time, another PSA drew semi widespread attention.

From Adweek: “London agency WCRS teamed up with Women’s Aid and Ocean Outdoor to create some remarkable digital billboards about domestic violence. They use facial recognition to recognize when people are paying attention to the image of a bruised woman. As more people look at the ad, her bruises and cuts heal faster, communicating the benefit of not turning a blind eye to the problem.”

This response is still jarring (and potentially re-traumatizing to survivors who walk past the billboard), but instead of the subject positioned, model-style, in meme swag, the billboard features simply the victim’s face, which is does not remain in the static position of a pity object, but which can heal and change. While I understand ways it could still be problematic (the bruised face still on display, after all), I appreciate the use of technology and the narrative of progress.

An even better example was this 2013 Anar Foundation anti-child abuse ad that used a serrated surface and Lenticular lens to display a help hotline number only children could see. It’s in the same universe as the “quick escape” feature on the NOMORE.org website. People who are actually experiencing violence and having their activity monitored can press the escape key, a new tab will open and the page will redirect to Google.

While awareness and prevention are important (see Don’t Be That Guy), I think socially conscious marketers can best use technology not to make a message meme-worthy, but to reach ignored groups that are already too “aware” of issues like domestic violence. Maybe the best innovations lie somewhere in between.


4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two PSAs

  1. That’s super interesting and I love how passionate you are. I read the article about #TheDress PSA and thought it offered some great critique.

    I actually just wanted to note how different my reaction was from yours. I felt the PSA was well done. For me, it was a statement on how we know domestic violence exists but either it is commonly ignored or we engage in victim blaming. Even as someone who works in the nonprofit human services field and is well educated on these issues and inundated with poor marketing efforts, I took notice and paid attention.

    I do agree that many ads can be done in poor taste while trying to jump on the popular bandwagon. But the point is sometimes just to make people take notice and think a little differently on a topic. I don’t personally feel it was cheapened by how it was done. I would give kudos to the communications department. My problem with the ad stems from my problem with most marketing- a beautiful young white able-bodied woman in a submissive position selling your message and branding. In some ways I admit it works for the issue they are representing though.

    I think this is an important ethical conversation to be having and I love the way you think and talk about it.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and responding. I understand where you’re coming from – both in your appreciation and critique.

      With the “full disclosure” bit, I meant to get across that I am in a very critical, academic space right now (especially in terms of advertising) so my reading might not actually match the real world reception of the PSA. If it’s getting people to think differently, that is a welcome result.

      You make a great point about the use of the beautiful, able-bodied white woman in a submissive pose. Maybe that sparked my visceral reaction as much as the use of a meme. If you take out the context, the posing seems identical to a fashion or makeup ad. Maybe changing that would have made all the difference in my reception.

      It is indeed an important conversation, and so interesting to talk about all the different ways images like this can be processed.

      1. I greatly appreciate how critical you are being. It is vitally necessary!!! This is how communications departments end up making mistakes- they are not asking the right questions to begin with.

        I was thinking a little more about it and the other part of why I disagree with some of the criticism has to do with how we contextualize and frame the social conversation around serious issues. Sometimes there’s an expectation that it can only happen in newspapers, magazines, academia, etc. That’s a form of elitism I don’t approve of. Things in pop culture and mass media can be just as important and relevant to the conversation. And I find that controlling HOW things are spoken about is often done by people in power.

        I don’t feel any issue is above being meme-d, joked about, etc. It’s really a matter of always keeping in mind the point you want to get across. For instance, I wouldn’t make a rape joke about how the survivor “asked” for it because I don’t believe in victim blaming. But I would make a joke about the terrible anxiety women experience over the threat of sexual violence because the shared experience of doing/thinking/feeling ridiculous yet realistic things can be both hilarious and poignant a la Jessica Williams on The Daily Show.

      2. It’s true that dialogue on serious issues doesn’t have to always be fully “serious,” or gated by the elites. Brilliant points; you’ve given me much more to think about, which is a very good thing. 🙂

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