Daily Archives: March 18, 2015

No More Black and Blue: Domestic Violence PSAs Should Do Better

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An optical illusion shared over 40 million times was bound to be used for a viral marketing campaign: I just didn’t expect it to be a domestic violence PSA. On March 6 the Salvation Army of South Africa put out an ad of a battered woman wearing #thedress (shown in white and gold) next to the tagline, “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?”

The ad was described as “powerful” everywhere (note: images of graphic violence at links) from the Daily Mail to Adweek to the Washington Post. The ad is powerful in that it inspires a strong emotional reaction in the viewer: namely because seeing a bruised, bloodied woman is jarring. But the ad’s “power” ultimately comes at the expense of domestic violence victims. These ads are effective at inspiring emotion in viewers, but they exploit victims to do so.

The emotional reaction the ad creates is generated by voyeuristic desires: it’s tragedy porn, as anti-violence activist Lauren Chief Elk describes it.

This ad is not “powerful”, it’s sensational. And grotesque. And glamorizing the issues here.

— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) March 6, 2015

Tragedy porn is what inspires that it’s-so-awful-yet-I-can’t-look-away feeling. Slum tourism, for instance, was created to cash in on tragedy porn. Slum tourism allows the rich to “see how the other half lives” for their edification and profit through direct exploitation of that “other half.” Oppressed communities are transformed into gritty scenery or learning experiences for consumption by the privileged.

I sense a similar dynamic when looking at domestic violence PSAs that feature battered women’s bodies. BuzzFeed has even put together a convenient listicle of such imagery, in 12 “Most Brutal Domestic Violence Awareness Ads” (note: violence at link). These ads, like slum tourism, invite the viewer to watch the daily horrors of being a victim of domestic violence. We stare at the cuts and bruises on these women and feel horrified, yet we can’t look away. But we pat ourselves on the back for being horrified.

Tragedy porn exploits victims by turning them into icons for consumption, which memes and advertising thrive on. Internet memes and advertisements — now often one and the same — gain power through replication and recognition. The Salvation Army ad functions by getting you to stare (recognize) and then retweet (replicate).

The layered use of replication and recognition in the Salvation Army ad is dizzying: it features 1) tragedy porn and 2) the meme du jour in 3) an advertisement, itself a hallmark of a consumerist capitalist economy. But what does it mean to put an image of a domestic violence victim posed like a fashion model in an advertisement? What does it mean to distribute such images via BuzzFeed listicle? As Lauren Chief Elk writes:

Also I’m going to need “the effectiveness” of shock value with domestic violence explained to me.

— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) March 6, 2015

Or any other type of graphic violence for that matter when people are using this in ads or campaigns.

— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) March 6, 2015

What exactly is “really effective” about any of this? What does it do in terms of preventing violence (as that is the goal insinuated here).

— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) March 6, 2015

“It’s really ‘effective’ to see graphic violence” – effective at WHAT?

— Lauren Chief Elk (@ChiefElk) March 6, 2015

Distributing images of abused women in any context should at least give us pause in the age of revenge porn, Steubenville, Rehtaeh Parsons, and Janay Rice, among others. These cases are predicated on violence, invasion of privacy, and abuse of power, and hinge on the commodification of women’s suffering. When so many images of abused women are captured voyeuristically, replicated without consent, and flippantly consumed, designating such imagery as the “face” of domestic violence PSAs does more to harm than help. When we put battered women on billboards and demand people look at them, we are doing little more than perpetuating this violence even if the intentions are good. Victims deserve better than to be reduced to objects for others’ consumption.