Before they made headlines for splitting up, Courteney Cox and David Arquette were getting attention for their latest joint project, a viral video aimed at calling attention to domestic violence. In the ad, Arquette dons a bunny suit to engage in simulated, fairly graphic “furry” sex with what he thinks is his bunny-suited wife, only to have Cox, also in a bunny suit, walk in the door several positions later. The “girl bunny” in bed with Arquette takes off the head and turns out to be Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from 30 Rock). The three all have a good laugh about the misunderstanding. “That’s just wrong,” reads the message onscreen, which is apparently the perfect excuse to transition to a serious, non-fur-suited Arquette discussing the ills of domestic violence: that every 15 seconds a woman is beaten, and that “no one is talking about it.” “We’ll stop at nothing to break the silence about domestic violence,” Arquette intones.
The ad was designed to raise awareness of domestic violence and of Sojourn, the women’s shelter run by the Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica, Calif., which sponsored the ads. (The ads also solicit donations to OPCC.) Since the viral video’s debut at the beginning of the month, organizers say the campaign has been a success. “The video has gotten quite a lot of attention, people are talking about OPCC more, our Facebook traffic has gone up quite a bit,” says Brianna Rosenfeld, a spokeswoman for the OPCC campaign.
But does increased Web traffic mean that the ad is an effective weapon against domestic violence? Does raising awareness of an issue or telling people that abuse is bad really help to solve the problem? Almost no one disagrees with the notion that domestic abuse is “just wrong.” Politicians on both sides of the aisle campaign against domestic violence, and polls show that few people would argue that it’s OK to solve family arguments with violence and threats. The problem is that the majority of people involved in abusive relationships don’t identify themselves as either villains or victims, and that people’s attitudes toward domestic violence don’t always match their actions.
Since most abusers don’t see themselves as such, it’s largely futile to create an ad to try to convince them that abuse is wrong, and anecdotal evidence bears this out. “We asked [abusers], ‘If we could craft a public-service announcement, what would it look like and what would have made sense to you?’ ” says Scott Miller, a team leader at the Duluth Model, a domestic-abuse intervention project. “Most guys said, ‘I don’t think anything would have. I didn’t see myself in that light. I didn’t need help. I had it figured out. I knew what would work—she just didn’t understand with how to comply with what would work.’ ”
This sense of entitlement is a hallmark of abusive relationships, Miller says, and it also makes it difficult to break through to the abuser. “One of the main characteristics of entitlement is that you’re blind to it,” says Miller, who notes that most of the men in his program come only after being required to do so by the justice system.
Most domestic-violence ads, then, can only hope to have a more indirect effect. “They may be successful in helping remind policymakers to prioritize domestic violence, and they may help change attitudes in a community to be less accepting of violence,” says Emily Rothman, associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. But if the goal is changing attitudes, more targeted messages than the Arquette ad may have more success. While essentially everyone agrees that it’s “just wrong” to hit a spouse, the real-life application of that message doesn’t always translate. For instance, says Miller, convictions on domestic-abuse charges are incredibly low, and juries often believe a woman is lying and react counterintuitively, convicting when an alleged victim retracts her story and acquitting when she testifies.
To that end, a good PSA should craft a specific message beyond “abuse is wrong,” says Juliet Austin, a former domestic-abuse researcher who now runs a psychology marketing firm. “Even good guys or nice guys [can be abusers], that’s one theme,” she says, “or that abuse doesn’t have to be physical.” She notes that the best ads both carefully target the audience of the ad and have an actionable message. An added difficulty in creating an effective anti-abuse PSA is that “there haven’t been that many well-designed, rigorous evaluations” of the ads’ effectiveness,” says Rothman. (One such study is currently underway, she adds.) The best researchers can do, she says, is learn from studies on successful campaigns against behaviors like smoking or safer sex, though it’s worth noting that most smokers willingly identify themselves as such.
In the end, Miller says, ending domestic abuse means more than just raising awareness. “It’s a global problem of men’s entitlement over women,” he argues, one that is reinforced by myriad cultural norms. Changing that, he says, will take more than a few well-intentioned commercials.