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Why making #TheDress into a partner violence PSA was a bad idea

Why making #TheDress into a partner violence PSA was a bad idea
Salvation Army Vilence Against Women PSA featuring battered woman in

Why making TheDress Salvation Army PSA into a partner violence PSA was a bad idea

When a consumer brand like Oreo takes advantage of a realtime marketing meme or moment, we celebrate the agility of the marketing team. So it’s understandable that social marketers want to get in on the action.

It’s not always a good idea.

The Salvation Army of South Africa Tweeted this PSA about violence against women (#VAW) today, piggy-backing on the attention of last week’s “it” meme, the dress that different people saw in different colours.

Even though #TheDress is so last week, it is still enough of a viral phenomenon that the ad will get attention. But is attention really what the issue needs?

The Salvation Army, and their agency, certainly intended well. But the issue of partner (and stranger) violence against women is very serious, and very deeply embedded in societal attitudes towards women, especially by men. We can all agree that it’s bad. (I hope!) But what is the role of social marketing in reducing, preventing, or someday ending gendered violence against women?

Awareness is one component. But it takes more than awareness that women are being brutalized to make change. It requires a better understanding of how we all contribute to an environment that allows it to happen so commonly.

I don’t dislike this ad for trying to get people to talk about the problem. I dislike it because I feel that the cleverness of the creative distracts from the seriousness of the issue. As an ad creative myself, I know that ads like this tend to do more for the agency and the brand than they do for the issue. But because the issue is such an important one, industry and mainstream media will speak in hushed tones about how “powerful” this PSA is.

But what is the power, really? The shock factor of a beautiful model battered and bruised? We’ve seen that before, and the unsetting juxtaposition of sexy and hurt is quite problematic. Isn’t one of the biggest problems that men still see women as sex objects? There are even disturbed people who would find such things erotic 🙁

The real reason we’re talking about this ad, let’s admit, is because it seems like a savvy appropriation of a social meme for a good cause.

Well, violence against women is no Oreo. But now that they have your attention, I suggest you get over #TheDress already, and donate to CareHaven — or a women’s shelter near you.

The cause doesn’t just need your attention, or even your shares. It needs your committed support to help survivors and stop the violence.

Source: i100


I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more


  1. Nedra Weinreich 2 years ago

    I agree. This ad was clever but didn’t sit right with me. You explained why well. The other issue is that the problem is generally not that women are showing up with bruises all over and that other people are ignoring that fact. The results of domestic violence are often not visible, just as not all people who are depressed go around clutching their heads and looking sad. Images of beaten-up women reinforce the mistaken assumption that you can tell if someone’s being abused just by looking at them.

  2. Allison 2 years ago

    I respectfully disagree with your assessment of this campaign. You’ve taken a very Canadian/North American perspective on the issue of partner violence. The vast majority of people that you and I come into contact with on a regular basis know that domestic violence is wrong. We know it, yet the problem persists in our own country.

    Now take a step back and look at partner violence globally. Every day there is a new, brutal case making the news. On the whole this kind of violence persists. We’ve all heard stories about violence against women or people who identify as LGBTQ+ (by partners or strangers). People (including you and I) shy away from talking about violence against others in our day-to-day discussions. It’s an awkward discussion for anyone to have. “Where did that bruise come from?” “Are you and [your partner] getting along these days?” We don’t ask people these questions when they need to be asked because we don’t want to get involved or be nosy.

    This is a great campaign. Sure the dress was “so last week”, but can’t we have it both ways? Can’t someone be clever and still be making a difference in someone’s mind? Do you really want a social justice organization to only do cutesy viral piggybacking like Oreo? The Salvation Army isn’t selling cookies, they’re “selling” a vision where women aren’t beaten. Let’s not compare apples to oranges.

    The stats on this campaign state 1 in 6 women suffer abuse. That’s enough for a campaign to end violence, don’t you think? Piggy back off of anything that will give the cause attention. Keep the momentum going to make the issue part of the discussion when the opportunities present itself.

    Is it the perfect way to campaign around an effort? Probably not. Viral is fleeting. Smart marketers don’t always chase viral. There is a time and a place and I think the Salvation Army of South Africa did a good job at leveraging a meme that worked.

  3. Dan 2 years ago

    Completely agree. This didn’t sit right with me at all. Felt that they were crowbarring their own message onto this viral story – and as a result, compromising and trivialising their own message. And as a charity working to support victims of domestic violence, that’s something you absolutely cannot do.

    I too get the impression that it’s a creative agency trying to show off first and foremost and the client comes second. I don’t know if this sounds silly, but its like theyre doing it for the wrong reasons?

    But I guess it can be viewed like greenwashing. Greenwashing is better than nothing, even if its disingenuous

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