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Why UN Women is promoting a photo of a man beating his wife

This new campaign ditches an engaging story in favor of sudden impact, illustrating the power in what you can’t see.

Why UN Women is promoting a photo of a man beating his wife
[Photo: UN Women]
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A photo of a man beating his wife. A photo of female genital mutilation. A photo of a man raping his wife.

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All three images would be illegal to post in public, yet all three acts are actually still legal in many countries around the world. According to the UN, more than 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year, while less than 40% report it or seek help.

This new campaign for UN Women’s annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign kicked off on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until Human Rights Day, on December 10.

[Photo: UN Women]
Created by agency MullenLowe New York, the power here is how the message is right up in your face, all caps, forcing you to pay attention by combining shock value with our rubbernecking instinct. Art director Emeline Earman says that they purposely avoided common PSA tactics such as using stock photography or illustrations. “We were inspired by the media, and how it is forced to blur out certain images online and on TV, and on Instagram you’ll get that ‘sensitive content’ warning,” says Earman. “So it all built up to where we thought about how imagining it can be worse than actually seeing it.”

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Public service campaigns have to pull double duty in that they need to break through both our media-saturated attention, as well as any cause fatigue we may be feeling, particularly around issues that never seem to go away or get any better. Some organizations have found creatively innovative ways to raise awareness and snap us to attention. In 2015, Women’s Aid in the UK made an interactive billboard that depicted bruised and battered women, whose injuries began to heal as more people looked at the billboard. Last year, Refuge used the childhood game of hide-and-seek to show the tragedy of domestic violence. And in 2016, the National Centre for Domestic Violence partnered with artist Ellie Goulding to write an original composition and promote the PSA like a music video.

The fight to stem violence against women is ongoing and requires constant vigilance, never so much than amid the surge in domestic abuse seen around the world during the pandemic. Earman and her creative partner, copywriter MK Holladay, were seeing these news stories and wanted to create something to reflect how it made them feel.

“So many PSAs are these long, beautiful stories, but we wanted to really break through and get people’s attention immediately,” says Earman. “That’s how this more direct approach came about. You get all the information up front, and it’s pretty shocking when you read it.”

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Once the work was done, the agency began looking for a potential partner, with UN Women at the top of its list, and it quickly became a part of its annual campaign.

[Photo: UN Women]
It’s not the first time pixelated images have been used to elicit a similar reaction. Back in 2008, an anti-vivisection campaign used similar imagery and sentiment with tiny-type tag lines such as, “A rabbit having drain cleaner injected into its eyes. We’re not allowed to show it. They’re still allowed to do it.” When asked, Holladay and Earman said they hadn’t seen the older ads, but noted that pixelated images are a common part of media culture.

“Finding that interesting way to convey it’s illegal to show, but it’s legal to do, that’s when we were like, Okay, this is not Sarah McLachlan,” says Holladay, referring to the tear-jerking 2007 ASPCA animal cruelty PSA. “The pixels are like a big red button. You just want to press it. Here, you just can’t help wanting to know what’s there, so you’re going to imagine it.”

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If you’re forced to picture that reality of violence against women, then hopefully you’re equally moved to support the ongoing efforts to stop it.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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