During the past year, there have been two high-profile cases of public backlash against social advertising campaigns in North America: one about mental illness and one about breast cancer. The two cases are very different, but they point to some of the challenges in message-creation for government agencies, NGOs, and activists who want attention-getting rhetoric without paying a price to their public reputation.
Although they say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the New York University Child Center found out otherwise when it created an ad campaign based on ransom notes, which was initially described here on Osocio. After patient and parent support and advocacy groups complained about the stigma of criminality and powerlessness associated with the hostage-taking metaphor, the Child Center withdrew the ads and issued a public statement, which read in part.
The campaign succeeded in getting people’s attention and sparking dialogue, but much of the debate centered on the ads instead of the issues. We’ve received thousands of calls and letters from parents, mental health professionals, educators, advocates, and concerned third parties, all of whom are passionate about helping children. While many people praised the campaign and urged us to stay the course, others were troubled by it.
Though we meant well, we’ve come to realize that we unintentionally hurt and offended some people. We’ve read all the emails, both pro and con, listened to phone calls, and have spoken with many parents who are working day and night to get their children the help they need. We have decided to conclude this phase of our campaign today because the debate over the ads is taking away from the pressing day-to-day work we need to do to help children and their families. They are and remain our first concern. Our goal was to start a national dialogue. Now that we have the public’s attention, we need your help.
Using the slogan, “Nothing About Us Without Us,” disability advocates, particularly those concerned with autism, protested the way that they were depicted as voiceless in the campaign. (For those interested in this form of advocacy, one well-known YouTube video makes the case for autism as a legitimate approach to communication and cognition.) Groups launched Internet petitions against the campaign. One New York Times blog entry”>New York Times blog entry described the debate. Now that talk radio host Michael Savage has mischaracterized a typical child with autism as “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” some of the same passions have been inflamed with patients and their parents speaking out against objectifying this complicated disorder..
The other kind of publicity snafu involves salaciously sexualizing a disease, as many feminists argued in the case of the Canadian “Booby Wall,” a “virtual, interactive exhibit of breasts” that is sponsored by the Schick corporation. Tracy Clark-Flory expressed her skepticism about the venture Salon magazine”>in Salon magazine about the Booby Wall
I get it, I do. They’re trying to sex up breast cancer awareness, but there’s just nothing sexy about cancer. You could argue that the site is simply an ode to breasts, except that it’s not: Posting a photo of one’s breasts is framed on the site as a show of commitment, an act of support for women with breast cancer. I’m all for original and subversive attempts at raising awareness about the disease—but if the online availability of amateur photos of women’s breasts were the cure to breast cancer, the disease would have been wiped out some time ago. There’s a real disconnection here. It reads to me as rah-rah exhibitionist fluffy feminism without real purpose. Count me out.
Although some feminist blogs, such as the UK’s F-word, apparently weren’t offended, a similarly themed “Boobiethon” created a firestorm of controversy in the feminist blogosphere. Most dramatically, sharp-tongued cancer-survivor “Twisty Faster” posted her “rack” at “I Got Your Boobython Right Here. Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors has argued that these kind of breast cancer awareness campaigns reinscribe a destructive gender politics based on consumerism, gender typing, and the objectification of women. She thinks that even “pink” cause marketing is part of the problem and encourages her readers to “Think before you pink.” This video develops the argument here.
This month, the City of Hope, a major cancer research and treatment facility in the United States, may be taking some of the same risks to promote their “Uncover the Cure” event, which has been heavily promoted on social network sites to appeal to younger philanthropists. Although ads showing hunky young men removing their trousers may not generate feminist outrage, the larger Canadian-American campaign that encourages participants to “drop their drawers” to fight “cancers below the waist” risks offending cancer survivors who don’t see anything titillating about their diseases.
In short, it seems that social advertisers need to think about how using traditional advertising techniques that exploit the public’s interest in sexuality or shock value criminality may risk offending those who might otherwise support their cause. What’s trickier to explain is some of the more subtle issues about importing ideologies of consumerism, commodity capitalism, and ideologies about class, race, gender, and body morphology that advertising deploys even if it is put in service of a good cause. I’ve been told that I have more “European” sensibilities when it comes to visual culture and so that I’m hard to personally offend with graphic or sexually explicit images that might shock my fellow Americans, but I do think that feminists and advocates for the disabled may have a legitimate point about resisting manipulation from Madison Avenue and elsewhere in the advertising industry when it comes to presenting their minds and bodies to the world.