Monday, March 9, 2015

A marriage of #Dressgate and #Feminism

This past weekend, a South African branch of the Salvation Army released a new domestic violence ad on social media. The image references "the Dress" debate, or "Dressgate" -- a viral photograph meme that arose in late-February 2015.
Attending a wedding of two friends, Caitlin McNeil reposted a photograph of dress belonging to the bride's mother on her Tumblr account. The picture had originally been posted to the wedding couple's (Grace and Keir Johnston of Scotland) Facebook page.

The dress could not possibly look more blue and black to me, but apparently the vast majority of the online community sees a white dress with gold trimmings. The debate between #blueandblack and #whiteandgold quickly seemed to consume the Internet, with actors, musicians, politicians, and even government agencies weighing on the issue. Eventually, it was confirmed that the Romans Originals dress was -- in fact -- royal blue and black. The gold-and-whiters had perceived the photo as being underexposed, as opposed to overexposed.

The above South African Salvation Army ad (made in partnership with Carehaven, a home for abused women and children) poses a simple question:
Why is it so hard to see black and blue --The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.
The message is superimposed over an image is of a young woman wearing a white-and-gold version of the Dress, her body covered in dark bruises. The subtext appears to be that domestic abuse - in its various forms - has almost become so commonplace that we are blind to it.

Of course, any relationship between an optical illusion and our society's failure to sufficiently confront the issue of violence against women is, at best, extremely tenuous. It's probably nonexistent. Yet, the effectiveness of the ad -- in terms of a large brand creating viral content -- is not disputed. The ad confronts us with a serious challenge: Although we may be excused for failing to see a blue and black dress, what excuses do we have for failing to see the black and blue bruises of domestic violence, however subtle they may be?

However, I'm curious to hear what other people think of the ad. Does the image go to far? Does the reference to a silly meme turn domestic violence into a punchline? Perhaps more importantly - who is the ad aimed at? Is the ad demanding that abusers stop their "abuse against women"? Is it asking society-at-large to support (financially or otherwise) Salvation Army initiatives that help abused women and children?

My suspicion is that the ad is primarily aimed at victims (alternatively, "survivors") of domestic abuse themselves. The Salvation Army has done a lot of great work in the service of abused and/or trafficked women and children over the years, and my guess is that it regularly faces the challenge of trying to help victims who may not want or understand their need for help. Victims may be trying to protect their abusers, deluded into not seeing the abuse, or -- as the ad suggests -- they may interpret the abuse as their fault, and therefore a consequence of their "choice."

In any case, I find the message powerful, and can admire -- especially from a marketing standpoint -- the mildly clever piggy-backing on a popular Internet meme to raise awareness of a more serious issue. Over the past few weeks, the Feminist Legal Theory blog has addressed issues ranging from the misogyny of online "trolls" on social media networks to the growth of "femvertising" as a marketing tool. We've also discussed the potential utility of memes (e.g., Feminist Ryan Gosling) in raising awareness of feminist beliefs through viral content on social media. So although ads such as this Salvation Army one may have its share of critics, I generally see it as very encouraging that despite the cruel and bigoted reactions that are often elicited from similar marketing campaigns, women's advocates are not backing down.


Damon Alimouri said...

The first thing that I notice is that the ad uses a pretty white woman. What does that say? Are we only to empathize with victims of domestic violence that are attractive? Moreover, considering that the ad is from South Africa, the model's race may be problematic. Does the ad suggest something about racial hierarchy in South Africa? Would the same ad with an unattractive, overweight, black woman instead have the same import? Do we care about all women? Or do we only care about the so-called trophies, like the one over which Emmett Till was lynched?

Damon Alimouri said...

Ahva said...

I thought that this Salvation Army ad cleverly and effectively played on the viral #TheDress meme to communicate a more important message about abuse and violence against women, and I applaud its efforts. I think that putting a spin on a familiar piece of pop culture in this way serves to capture people's attention in a way that draws the people closer to the issue. I also think that the ad's pop-cultural relevance makes it more likely for people to share the underlying message with their friends. For example, I saw many friends on Facebook post this Salvation Army ad in the days following #TheDress craze, particularly as comments on posts by others about #TheDress itself. Those comments and posts relating to the ad then sparked discussion threads about the issue of domestic violence. Also, when discussing #TheDress at dinner one night, one of my friends asked, "did you see that picture of the abused girl wearing #TheDress?" My friend then found the Salvation Army's ad on her phone and showed the rest of the table, which prompted a discussion about domestic violence.

I also agree with Hart that by juxtaposing the issue of abuse with #TheDress, the ad sends a powerful message - that we are so preoccupied with determining the color of this dress, but we put our blinders on when it comes to issues that matter. In short, I think the ad is effective because it is relatable and serves as a sort of reality check.

Juliana said...

I think this ad really ties into the reading this week, particularly about rural women and domestic violence. One thing the readings discussed was the ways privacy impact victims of domestic violence in rural areas. First, privacy arising from physical isolation, and second, the private patriarchy that characterizes rural areas both increase the vulnerability of victims in that much of their abuse goes unseen. To me, this seems to be one of the main messages of the ad campaign -- making domestic violence visible on behalf of both the victim and the perpetrator.

Jessica S. said...

Not that this encompasses the entirety of my reaction to the ad, but I noticed (as Damon pointed out) an attractive white model was shown. Definitely a recurring thing in DV, rape, and homicide images/storylines. Even though ads and entertainment attempt to "raise awareness," it can backfire when sexualization, violence, and lack of contextual clarity are mixed together. If the message isn't telling us what to do upon noticing DV, it can merely cement this type of woman in the role of victim. Yes, bad for all women. We know how that goes. Brevity might be effective for this medium, but they should start linking resources. I agree with other opinions that speaking out and eye-catching ads should continue despite criticism, but at some point we need to know facts and actually understand how DV works. There is a book written for victims (Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft) that I found helpful for relating to DV victims and early detection of abusive situations. Bancroft worked with many abusers, and he discusses how friends, family, the public, and the legal system can unwittingly contribute to alienating victims by not truly understanding DV. We lack awareness about the emotional abuse that precedes DV and the tactics used by abusers and sexists on us as well as the victims and children. So yes, ads are great. We need to begin following them up with solid information from counselors/dr's who've studied both victims and abusers.

VK said...

The goal of this ad was certainly to raise funds to help people in this situation. And I am pretty sure they achieved it. From a marketing/commercial point of view, I think they did a very good job. However, I think it’s important to question the impact of this kind of ad in its cultural context, as Damon did. But it is also a good thing to make the rest of society aware of domestic violence, and for people to talk about it, as Ahva described it.

Hart Ku said...

You're definitely all raising an important issue, especially in the context of South Africa. It's telling that while "whites" only account for about nine percent of South Africa's population, European standards of beauty appear to dominate in the country. To some extent, the ad agency's decision to use a thin and white female model for the advertisement could be explained away as further satirizing the fashion industry. But I agree that on its face it seems to reflect a prioritization of the welfare of the white population over the black population. If only implicitly. I can definitely see that it could suggest that the general audience would be more sympathetic towards a battered white model than a battered middle-aged black housewife/mother, for example.

Of course, domestic abuse in a white community is no less deserving of our attention than that of a black community, but it does seem that if the purpose of the ad was to start the most effective conversation it could in domestic politics, it could have been supplemented.