Many theorists argue that mass media generally, and advertising in particular, encourages male violence against women. Jean Kilbourne's third Killing us Softly film for instances argues that advertising:
- Normalizes violence against women
- Links masculinity with violence
- Presents violence as erotic and appealing
Yet for some reason the evidence on the influence of advertising is contested. Why would this be so? Surely the point of advertising is to change public attitudes in the first instance and behaviour in the second. Advertisers must believe that advertising works. And companies such as Coke or Nike must also believe advertising is effective otherwise they wouldn't be spending so much money on it. So where does the doubt about the influence of advertising on people's attitudes and behaviour come from? And for what agenda?
If we accept that advertising does indeed influence attitudes and ultimately behaviour, does it then follow that advertising can be used to change attitudes and behaviour about violence against women? Is it possible to use an advert to encourage a person not to do something?
From what I can see, there are three potential ways in which advertising could be a useful tool in efforts to eliminate violence against women.
1. Changing public attitudes about violence against women
Advertising can be used to help shift public consciousness about the acceptability of violence against women. Just as this anti-smoking campagin and Adbuster's anti-tobacco industry campaigns have used advertising to create stigma around the act of smoking, so too can ad campaigns stigmatize acts of violence against women and create a culture of distaste or intolerance for them.
2. Changing violent men's attitudes about their abusive behaviour
Ads can also be used to move beyond stigmatizing particular behaviours per se to directly challenging individual's attitudes and beliefs about their own behaviour. For example this series of ads from Indonesia specifically targets abusive men about their attitudes. While men who abuse women may be too connected to their patterns of behaviour to acknowledge that they themselves are perpetrators using the first method of advertising, challenging their attitudes directly in this way can start them on the process of recognizing the ways in which their own behaviour is problematic.
3. Changing people's behaviour about violence against women
Advertising's greatest successes would be if it could (a) convince the public to do more to eliminate violence against women (including lobbying politicians to deliver for women) and (b) stop men from abusing women.
Australia has already attempted the second goal. In 2004 it launched a national campaign that aimed to challenge assumptions around violence using magazine, toilet, cinema, and TV advertisements, including the one below.
I have not been able to find an evaluation of the campaign's success.
On Monday UNIFEM took a step towards addressing the first goal by launching a new internet campaign with the help of Goodwill Ambassador and Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman. The campaign includes a short movie advertisement that aims to increase public debate. As the campaign continues until International Women's Day in 2008, there is still plenty of time to assess once and for all the power of the ad to effect attitudinal and behavioural change on violence against women.
Update: the UNIFEM campaign is collecting signatures and already has over 5000. Add yours today!
Photo by ahhhhmen, shared under a Creative Commons license
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