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.