#TheDress Domestic Violence PSA

At the end of February, the Twitterverse (and other media channels) exploded over an optical illusion created by “the dress.” In a 24-hour period 7.6 million tweets were sent about “the dress.”

There was great debate as to whether the dress was actually white and gold or black and blue. The image was a powerful illusion that reminded us that seeing is greatly related to personal perception. It was also a reminder that objects don’t actually contain color; we see color as a result of light being reflected off of objects.

A number of organizations tried to capitalize on “the dress” phenomenon, but most were trite at best and epic fails at worst.

One organization, however, has used the image and hype to great effect, creating an incredibly powerful and memorable Public Service Announcement (PSA).


The South African branch of the Salvation Army turned the image into an effective PSA about the reality of domestic violence. The PSA features a woman covered with bruises wearing “the dress.” The attention-grabbing headline reads: “Why is it so hard to see black and blue?” The copy then adds: “The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in 6 women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women.”

Rightfully so, the PSA is garnering much attention from the media and the public. The PSA is visual communication at its finest. It uses a powerful visual and message to effectively capitalize on viral content to bring much needed attention to domestic violence.

Update (3/8/15): A colleague shared this ThinkProgress article with me, and I want to append this post to comment on the issues raised in the article.

ThinkProgress argues that there is risk in linking a serious topic like domestic violence to a trivial “Internet moment.” The article also cites research that shows that connecting corporate branding with women’s issues can be harmful. Finally, the article argues that we need to find a way to move past “awareness” and into “action.”

I fully agree with all of these arguments. I have to admit that in my excitement about the visual aspects of the PSA, I, perhaps, didn’t consider the broader implications.

First, I have much disdain for brands that use serious social issues to sell products (Benetton, for example, is the most notorious). I am skeptical of any advertising that targets social issues (theoretically, for the greater good) when–ultimately–it is an advertisement with the sole purpose of persuading a customer to buy a product. See my previous post on the Dove Real Beauty campaign.

But this isn’t an ad with the intention of selling a product. It’s a PSA with the intention of raising awareness. As we all know, PSAs are tough. I’m not a big fan of the scare tactics used by many PSAs. And there are also some incredibly offensive and unethical PSAs.

While I fully acknowledge the legitimate concerns raised by ThinkProgress, I still maintain that, visually, the message is smart (if perhaps not powerful). First, the message isn’t just about awareness; it is about victim blaming, which is quite prevalent. The message is trying to raise awareness about a specific (and often misunderstood) aspect of domestic violence. I appreciate that the message was shared via social media, which is where the original dress discussion started. I also think that this dress message has the potential to be effective for the target audience. (Yet, let’s not forget that there are also many, many women in abusive situations who are not active on social media and who would never see this message. How do we reach those women?)

But what I really like about this PSA is that it re-frames the trivial dress discussion (which got an insane amount of attention) into a critical issue that is greatly deserving of media and public attention and action.

Sure, the Salvation Army PSA is perhaps simple. But what are organizations to do? While I agree that we need to find a way to make meaningful progress on women’s issues (as well as other pressing social issues), I think there is danger in criticizing or disregarding legitimate messages, remembering that this is a PSA and not a message for a product. I think it was a visually smart way to shift the conversation from something entirely trivial to something critically important.

And perhaps the call is now on us as academics and practitioners to find a way to harness the great influence of social media to create real and meaningful change regarding the critical issues of our times.


Image credit to the Salvation Army SA and Adweek: http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/salvation-army-turns-thedress-powerful-domestic-violence-ad-163308


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