"Gimme a V-I-C-T-I-M" and "You're soaking in it"

Readers respond to our stories about marketing to women.

Published February 1, 2001 7:35PM (EST)

Read the story by Jennifer Block

In regard to your article about the NYC Domestic Violence Campaign, we thank you for your insight about its message and, more comprehensively, the opinions about its supposed shortcomings.

As the writer and art director of this campaign, however, we must raise some questions about how Jennifer Block portrayed our campaign. Advertising is an aggravating medium, for both the reader and the composer, not only because it is viewed as inherently manipulative and is thus perceived as untrustworthy but also because it can only say so much.

If you are attempting to reach out to people, in this case abused women, through advertising, questions will always arise as to whom we're trying to target and what we're not saying.

When we began this campaign, we were told that domestic violence rates were up among teenage women, we were given a subway card to use and we were given a limited budget. We created ads that have increased calls to the city's hot line and, by doing so, have hopefully helped make the lives of some women a little better than they were. While we do regret having not addressed everyone who suffers from domestic violence, the issue is too large, and affects too many people, to tackle in one subway car. Adding men to our message confused people, while portraying these women as anything more than innocent "victims" defeated the purpose of choosing a school yearbook format in the first place, a format that emphasized how domestic violence stood in the way of these women's futures. We welcome the response to what we've done, but, more importantly, we welcome the results.

-- Ted McCagg and Stuart Garrett, Young & Rubicam Advertising

Gimme a break. I'll bet you are the sort of person who takes pleasure in finding something wrong, rude, crude, perverted or ignorant with whatever you can, including decent and well-thought-out attempts by an advertising agency to address the issue of domestic violence.

Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on addressing those who beat their loved ones. However, victims do need to be catered to, and perhaps it should occur to you that the victims may still need more attention. See, the issue of domestic violence, in my opinion, is one to which the victim is probably more capable of reacting. Most of us self-respecting males who do not beat our loved ones believe those who do are irrational and lacking in self-control and dignity. Assuming the perpetrators of domestic violence are irrational thinkers, one could easily come to the conclusion that they are unwilling or incapable of correcting their ways.

-- E.A. Coop

Block's comments were right on. As a man working to prevent sexual violence, I've often been confused and discouraged by the lack of proactive focus on perpetrators. Our desperate desire to support victims who are in need has eclipsed our effort to strike at the root of the problem: abusive men. Perhaps that is a telling sign of the lack of resources and attention this issue receives.

-- Barrett Anderson

I think the high school photo ad campaign is extremely effective at targeting men.

It's unrealistic to think that a man is going to change his violent behavior by reading "When other guys dissed girls, we said that's not right." Dressed up in street slang, this approach still has a motherly, lecturelike tone that carries no emotional weight.

This campaign that you criticize resonates very strongly with men, even though they are not featured or even spoken to directly. It is gruesome to contemplate the future that these pictures hint at. It is also a wake-up call to be an abuser and to see an ad campaign encouraging your loved one to move on.

Unfortunately we live in a world where a lot of people need a slap in the face, not a stern lecture or friendly advice. This ad campaign does exactly that, and there is nothing sexy about it.

-- Jason Crigler

According to Diane Dolan-Soto, domestic violence coordinator at the NYC Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, "This lack of visibility [in the mayor's anti-domestic violence ad campaign] further victimizes the [lesbian, gay, bi and transgender] community first by not recognizing that the relationships exist, and second by not allowing victims in those relationships to identify that what they're going through is in fact abusive and that help is available." Dolan-Soto seems to think that lack of explicit recognition equates with denial and is therefore "victimizing."

And yet, what would she have the ad designers do? Make sure that some of the women portrayed were ugly and hulking, and therefore presumably lesbians? I imagine she'd be harping on a different injustice then.

The theme of the ad campaign is that domestic violence is a common problem that reaches across social divides. There is no overarching definition of the specific relationships provided in the ads themselves; it is left to the viewer to decide and bring his or her own assumptions into play. Given this, it is interesting to wonder what makes Dolan-Soto presume that no members of her "community" are represented. Oh, wait: She knows they're not because they're not explicitly mentioned. I wonder if Polish-Americans and vegetarians feel equally victimized.

On critiquing the ad campaign, Jennifer Block wrote, "You almost feel like a spoiled child, pissed off at Santa for bringing you a superdeluxe 10-speed bike of the wrong color." In this instance, the description fits perfectly.

-- Joshua Trevino

Many thanks to Jennifer Block for her insightful article on the mayor's subway ad campaign against domestic violence. I have been staring at those ads for months and been unable to ascertain exactly why they bothered me. She succinctly addressed that uneasy feeling in a very compassionate way. Kudos.

-- Name withheld

The author of this commentary, though well intentioned, seems to be missing the point.

In no way does encouraging women to escape (or better yet, avoid) abusive relationships perpetuate a "victim" mentality. If anything, these ads can help empower women, reminding them that they have the absolute ability to change their lives.

You can't stop abusers from abusing. It would be nice if it were that easy, if an advertisement directed at those sickos would make them wake up and say, "Gee, maybe I should stop torturing others." But life doesn't work that way, unfortunately. Abuse is a complex psychological issue, a sickness. (Of course, so too is the masochism that causes some to seek out abusive relationships. But that's another story.)

The subway ads are simply saying: You can't control anyone's actions but your own. You can get out, and get help.

Taking control of your life makes you a victor, not a victim.

-- Name withheld

While I'll admit to finding the ad campaign disturbing, I was disgusted by Block's criticism on almost every other point. As just one example, she upbraids the campaign for not "explicitly" depicting gay, bisexual or transgendered women. How about explicitly Puerto Rican or handicapped or low-income or Midwestern or Catholic women? Surely each of those represents as significant a population in New York as G/B/T women.

Block says that picking nits with the ad campaign makes her "feel like a spoiled child," as well it should: When textbooks are written about identity politics as the reason for the self-destruction of the American left at the turn of the millennium, articles like this one will be cited.

-- Matt Norwood

I concur with Jennifer Block that a public service ad campaign featuring images of men as "abusers," rather than women as "victims," might be more effective at targeting the root of the domestic violence problem. I also invite her to name one man who, for the $50 modeling fee and the risk of perpetual public stigma in an age of prejudgment and xenophobia, would agree to pose for such an ad.

-- Neil Serven

Like Jennifer Block, I find the "yearbook" ads in the subway disturbing because they suggest that domestic violence is both universal and inevitable. My husband recently accompanied our daughter's second-grade class on a field trip, where he watched boys and girls practicing their reading skills on these very ads. Do the girls absorb that they have to expect to be victims? Do the boys learn that hitting girls is OK because everybody does it? When 8-year-old boys giggle over a caption that reads "Most likely to be forced into sex," they are getting the ugly and misleading impression that sex and violence are natural partners. This is the wrong message for the next generation.

-- Carol Phethean

Jennifer Block really misses the mark on her criticism of the anti-domestic violence ads. They were intended to "sell" the hot line for domestic abuse victims, and they did that very well. Really the only valid criticism of them is the fact that they did not include men, but given the fact that abuse against men is still kept so hush, that would probably need a whole campaign of its own. Block's complaints that the ads did not target the batterers are way out of line given the fact that the point was to get the battered victims to get help. This campaign was not supposed to help batterers stop, it was supposed to help the battered get help.

As for her complaints about not including lesbians, etc., how does she know none of the girls pictured are gay? Because none of them looked butch enough for her? She can tell by looking at a picture? I often can't tell even by meeting a person. How about an arrow pointing to one of the girls that says, in big red letters, "THIS ONE IS GAY!" Oh, pleeeeze!

As for her argument that the ads burden the victims with blame, since when is it placing blame to tell someone, "We want to help you"? Gimme a break! The ads' message is "Violence happens to everyone, even those whom you would not suspect, and there is help available." That is not blame! As a matter of fact, I would argue that the implication that it happens to nice, pretty, middle- and upper-class girls is a big help in helping the victims understand that it is not their fault. If it can happen to "these girls," it can happen to anyone.

Santa should take back Block's 10-speed and replace it with a lump of coal for this article. The campaign reached its target audience and got a lot of people to call the hot line. She needs to realize this is not a bad thing. If other campaigns are needed, tell her to get off her duff, stop sipping her latte and start working on them.

-- Robyn Anderson

Jennifer Block describes a variety of ad campaigns that deal with domestic violence in cities such as New York and San Francisco. The major weakness of these campaigns is of course the fact that they ignore male victims and female perpetrators in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Block dismisses those who complain about the problem of ignoring male victims of female abuse. She also states erroneously that 95 percent of abusers are male -- a notion contradicted by the most reputable domestic violence research that's been done over the past 30 years. Her article is a mostly positive spin on the feminist effort to present domestic violence as something that men do to women. She is right when she says that domestic violence should be redefined as something more than a women's issue. Domestic violence is a human problem. Ignoring half the victims and half the perpetrators won't solve the problem.

-- Chris Heard

Jennifer Block writes, "Our culture tends to react with sympathy toward the man who was robbed, but blames the woman who was raped. We ask the victim of domestic violence, 'Why don't you leave?' but we rarely ask, 'Why won't he stop?'"

This may have been true 30 years ago, when Ms. magazine was founded, but it's nonsense today. I can't help hearing echoes of Al Sharpton et al., claiming that racism is worse today than it was in 1955. To a professional victims advocate, victimization can never recede (lest the advocate lose her mission and her job).

It's particularly ridiculous when an advocate complains that her group is being victimized by being labeled as victims -- what else would you call someone being beaten up regularly? -- and that a message is too p.c. because it doesn't contain enough minority and alternative-lifestyle victims.

The campaign's goal has to be to reduce battering, not to make a p.c. point. The only valid criticism is this: Does the campaign actually reduce abuse? Not: Does this campaign effectively remind right-thinking people that they should be mad at male abusers?

America needs to stop thinking of women as perpetual victims. But we also need to recognize when women really are victims. If battered women recognize themselves in the posters and take action, then it doesn't matter whose ox is being gored.

-- Chris Back

I have mixed feelings about Block's article on ads about domestic violence as someone who was working with victims of domestic violence before most states had marital rape laws, before there was the Violence Against Women Act, before police routinely arrested batterers, before there were community messages about domestic violence on subways or anywhere else and, yes, before any journalists thought to write about domestic violence as a widespread problem, much less a national epidemic and one of the greatest risks to women's health.

The greatest obstacle I faced in my work was to convince victims that they were in fact being abused. The cycle of violence and helplessness leads to a reduced sense of self-worth, and a horribly ironic sense of self-blame for many. By keeping the ad focused on women (who are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence), New York's subway ads force women to look at themselves and their own relationships, as well as those of their friends and family, for symptoms of abuse.

Why not focus on the batterers? I am an attorney, not a psychologist, but I do know that batterers are often repeat batterers. Over the years, I have had innumerable women come in to file restraining orders against a man who already had orders in place from other women. Thus far there has been no evidence of successful "treatment" programs for batterers, and prison has not been known to decrease violent tendencies among anyone -- it only keeps victims safe for the period of incarceration. If batterers don't learn from intensive live-in programs, they certainly aren't going to learn from a public service message.

Finally, I have to confess to being amused at the criticism of the ads as having predominantly WASP women. For years domestic violence workers and educators fought against the myth that domestic violence was something that only happened in poor, minority communities. It took something as hyped as the O.J. trial for the public to finally realize that domestic violence was just as much of a problem in the suburbs as in the ghetto. If that ad were inclusive of all races and ethnic groups, and reflected the city's beautiful diversity, then I'd only have one thing to say:

We've come a long way, baby.

-- Jena Tarleton

I read your article regarding an advertising campaign against domestic abuse. I grew up in a dysfunctional and abusive household. My mother has had every bone in her face broken at least once. She didn't leave her second husband until my aunt threatened to take all four of us kids away. Subsequently, every relationship my mother has been in has been abusive, full of alcohol, drugs and other things. I would like to see rehab programs for victims of domestic abuse. It's not just getting them out, it's about teaching them how to spot abusers and how to trust themselves and educating them about the cycles of abuse. My sister and I have vowed that our family history of abuse and violence will stop with us. We will always be safe, even if that means we have to be without husbands.

-- Chantel Williams

Read the story by Jennifer L. Pozner

Since when do we critique an entire industry based on a (bad) movie? Does Jean Kilbourne spend any time in actual advertising agencies observing how they work, or is "What Women Want" as far as she goes? How about we start talking about the Bush administration based on this week's "The West Wing"?

As a woman who works within advertising to understand and tailor messages to women, I would say that the ads that Kilbourne refers to are simply bad ads -- they are men guessing what it is that women think and want, or women relying upon hackneyed assumptions and formulas. When there is this type of ad, the ad doesn't work. Women see it, roll their eyes and move on. They think, "That's for someone else."

The notion that advertising has unlimited power to legislate thought and behavior is totally absurd; the fact is that the vast majority of ads do not work the way they are intended. The American consumer is often outright hostile to advertising, because of decades of intrusive, manipulative, unentertaining advertising.

The only way to really get people's attention (women or not) is to treat their time and attention with respect and deliver a relevant message. In that sense, advertising is the voice of commerce, but it is not one with unlimited, insidious powers of persuasion. People filter, judge, reject and make choices.

Wouldn't it be great to write off all of our insecurities, compulsions and greedy motives to the "devil" of advertising? Instead, we are forced to face that many of these illiberal desires actually come from ourselves -- a concept Puritan America is loath to accept. Critics like Kilbourne perpetuate the idea that women are blank slates upon which "the media" writes its message.

-- Ashley Alsup

Jean Kilbourne makes an interesting statement in her interview: "I want my daughter to be a rebel, to defy stereotypes of 'femininity,' but I don't want her to put herself in danger."

Kilbourne needs to understand that rebellion is inherently dangerous. That's why so few people rebel against the "norm," and why the rest of us tend to admire the rebels. Just as Kilbourne maintains that not all violence against women in the media is physical, so it is that not all dangers to rebels are physical. There are adverse, often dire, consequences to rebellion, the least of which are alienation and a lifetime of cynicism.

If Kilbourne believes she has defied stereotypes of femininity without ever paying a cost for that, without ever putting herself in any psychological danger, then she hasn't really rebelled at all. It's one thing to preach nonconformity for others; it is quite another to be a soldier in the front ranks of the rebellion.

In fact, what Kilbourne probably wants is for her daughter to be a nonconformist, which is relatively safe yet makes no impact on societal beliefs and stereotypes. What are needed are true rebels willing to fight against (not just make snide remarks about) things like ad creep and the commercializing of human values. The rebels will take casualties, to be sure, but if they succeed, the result will be worth the cost.

-- Jeff Rice

I believe there's less of a gender conspiracy in advertising than there is a conspiracy to undermine well-being in all its forms.

The eternal promise of advertising is "Buy product X and become a happy, attractive, confident, successful person." However, if that were true, it wouldn't contribute to repeat business and cross-selling. The sole aim of advertising is to keep us all in a state of self-doubt and insecurity, which is a far more insidious plot than mere gender discrimination.

-- Kathleen A. Donohue

As a young woman who proudly declares herself a feminist, I am once again tired of the hyper-political correctness that purports to speak for me and my "oppressed" self. Forgive me for my sins, but I enjoy going to spas for beauty treatments, buying new lipstick and running 10 miles in a kick-ass Nike running shoe. And I even enjoy many advertisements as what they are in many cases -- popular art. As certain art makes people uncomfortable, so do certain advertisements. Boohoo.

Ads to the contrary, the products made by these companies add to that intangible "quality of life" that makes this existence on earth palatable and sweet. I suppose I could just gain about 20 extra pounds and wear no-brand, long-sleeved sweat shirts with nary a trace of makeup and my hair cleansed with acceptable nonadvertised, unscented generic shampoo -- would that make me an "empowered" woman? My version of empowerment is doing what makes me feel good without causing anyone else harm, but I suppose that sort of libertarian thinking is passé nowadays. I make choices based on my own desires -- I've never had a bikini wax in my life but have managed to sleep with men who, I guess, either hid their horror at my hirsute nether regions or were just incredibly "sensitive and enlightened" for not demanding that I live up to a cleanshaven female "ideal." I hate manicures and purposely keep my nails supershort. On the other hand, I love buying luxurious body creams and splurge on hair color treatments. I must have a dual-personality disorder -- I just can't decide if I'm empowered or victimized!

As long as women have brains to understand that much advertising carries ridiculous subliminal messages about what men believe women should look like, act like, be, etc., then women will continue to go about our business behaving in ways that give us, and not men, pleasure and self-respect. And how many of the ads Kilbourne cites were designed by women? I'm sure that she would applaud the idea of women rising in the executive ranks at ad firms -- or are "empowered" women not allowed to do these sorts of jobs?

One last point: In the world's most oppressive cultures, notably the Islamic extremism of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is an absence of Western-like ads and women are forbidden to show themselves in any sort of manner that might provoke men sexually. So we have women who are makeup-free and covered head to toe, with only an opening for their eyes, who cannot go to school or work, or even eat ice cream in public. And we are worried about advertisements in this country?

-- Name withheld

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------