Trigger warning: this post discusses domestic violence/abuse
Interactive billboards seem to be the New Favourite Thing of advertisers. Hot on the heels of the billboard that judges your gender (badly) and the billboard that shows you boobs if you hold your phone up to it, National Centre for Domestic Violence has decided to take a slice of the pie.
The ad takes place on billboards at Euston Station. On one billboard, there is a moving image of a man shouting aggressively at a woman. Next to them is a caption, reading “USE YOUR PHONE TO DRAG HIM AWAY” and a URL. If you enter the URL into your smartphone, you are faced with a little yellow arrow next to the man, and using your finger you can drag him away, and he’ll still be bellowing, helplessly dragged across the rest of Euston’s billboards followed by some text about injunctions. You can see a video here.
Now, I can see the good intentions to this campaign. Really, I can. But unfortunately, this campaign is problematic as fuck. The biggest problem with it is the same problem inherent in all of these “shock” campaigns: triggers. The experience depicted in this billboard is one which is frighteningly common, and at a busy train station, it is likely that at least some women will have experienced this. While some might feel empowered by the interactive nature of the billboard and drag the fucker off, it is likely that many will respond negatively. Ad campaigns of this nature are flat-out irresponsible for this reason alone.
On top of this, there’s a whole heap of other problematic content. Firstly, the campaign portrays a very “typical” example of violence with a male aggressor, shouting overtly and aggressively. Sadly, abuse often doesn’t look like this. The perpetrator can be of any gender, as can the survivor, and, most crucially, it often doesn’t involve overt shouting. There is a host of tactics used by abusers, and many of them are stealthy and subtle, causing the survivor to doubt hirself. A lack of acknowledgement that this happens maintains the culture of silence, keeping survivors in that perpetual state of doubt. This campaign could work just as well with images from the film Gaslight, and would then branch out beyond the “traditional” view of abuse.
It is notable in this campaign that while the aggressor is animated in his aggression, the woman remains still, only blinking slightly to demonstrate that she isn’t just a photograph. This continues throughout the display. She does not move when a passerby interacts with the billboard, she doesn’t react as the aggressor is conveyor-belted away. She’s just there. To me, this seems like a distasteful lack of agency bestowed upon the survivor: things just happen to her. While abuse often takes away a sense of agency, I would have expected some notion of activity to be demonstrated in the “response”. It would have been gratifying to see, at the very least, her posture shift from “frightened” to “strong”.
This ties in, though, with the solutions NCDV are providing in their campaign: recommending securing an injunction. Now, this can be very important in abuse cases, as it is legally-enforced space between survivor and aggressor, but it is hardly a panacea. An injunction can be broken: it is not a magical forcefield, and a determined aggressor will not be deterred. Given that even in this ad campaign the aggressor is still shouting as he is “dragged away”, this suggests that the injunction is not the route to a happy ending. Furthermore, given the conservative nature of the legal system, injunctions may not be passed, particularly for less “recognisable” forms of abuse. Finally, if only dragging an aggressor away were so simple!
Ultimately, NCDV tried, and they tried hard, but trying isn’t enough. Campaigns of this nature need to be better. Being eye-catching alone is nowhere near enough.