A very different reaction to two public awareness campaigns
It’s May 2015 and the Australian federal government has released its annual budget. It proposes substantial allocations to two separate public awareness campaigns. One relates to drug use, specifically crystal methamphetamine – or ‘ice’ ($9 million). The other relates to domestic violence ($7 million).
Plenty of people have lined up to criticise the first campaign on the basis, for example, that it’s unoriginal, focusses too much on scare mongering, is unlikely to be cost-effective, and might even be counter-productive.
On that last point, one article included the statement that “When an ad is on television for a particular illicit drug, we know afterwards young people think it must be really, really common and so therefore it can increase their perception of how normal it is.”
In contrast the only public criticism that the domestic violence campaign has been subject to, is that not enough money has been provided. It is probably no coincidence that the feminist lobby is heavily invested in the DV campaign, but not the other.
So just how many parallels, if any, are there between the two campaigns?
The drug campaign was also discussed in an article entitled ‘Awareness campaigns need to target the real victims of ice” (13 May 2015), which noted that:
“International evidence suggests such “awareness” campaigns are not the most appropriate way to address harmful methamphetamine use. In fact, fear-based approaches can increase stigma which possibly drives people away from, rather than towards, treatment.”
The article proceeds:
“Australian media outlets and politicians claim we’re facing a nationwide “ice epidemic” … the most up-to-date research estimates that the proportion of Australians who have used any type of methamphetamine (ice, “speed” powder) in the previous year has remained relatively stable for at least the last decade.
Nevertheless, the government and media’s continued use of hyperbolic language – in addition to a tendency to ignore and sometimes dismiss public health experts’ advice on ice – has the potential to incite unnecessary fear and misinform the public about this supposed “menace”.”
So there’s our first parallels, for neither campaign will be targeted and in both cases Australian media outlets and politicians are making exaggerated claims about an emerging epidemic.
The article then goes on to question whether the personal and public threat posed by drug use (as compared to the extent of drug use) has also been exaggerated.
The article states: “We need to accurately define the issue, including the nature and extent of methamphetamine use and related harms in rural and regional areas, to allow the development and implementation of cost-effective, evidence-based and timely responses.”
A further parallel is that the debate about domestic violence likewise does not accurately define the issue, focussing as it does wholly on uni-directional violence by men against women. I would also argue that the policy response is not evidence-based but rather driven by the ideology of those most heavily invested in the issue.
The article then goes on to talk about the success of health-related public awareness campaigns, noting that some “are costly, ineffective and possibly even counterproductive”.
In one example cited “The findings of one study suggest that the Montana Meth Project might actually increase acceptability and decrease perceptions of risk relating to using methamphetamine.” Elsewhere it noted that “fear-based approaches can lead to stigma and poor health outcomes, such as from reduced treatment-seeking.”
The article concludes with a discussion of the value of an alternative or supplementary strategy, that of “harm minimisation”. It notes:
“Because people will choose to engage in drug use (both licit and illicit) regardless of the policies and programs in place, we need to encourage them to do so as safely as possible. We also must continue to inform the public about options for managing drug-related consequences and appropriate and available means for professional support, such as telephone and internet counselling”.
The concept of ‘harm minimisation’ also applies to domestic violence when we consider the prevalence of bi-directional violence, as shown in the diagram below, and the fact that domestic violence may persist from one generation to the next. Perhaps we need to resign ourselves, that in some situations it may be more effective to focus more on the provision of short-term shelter accommodation, the removal of children into care, etc.
Assuming there are parallels between awareness campaigns for drug use and domestic violence, then why have the same criticisms not been raised in relation to the latter?
Indeed, why has no criticism at all been directed at those spending large amounts of taxpayer funds on domestic violence awareness campaigns? Doubly so, given that there have been many previous awareness campaigns undertaken, and that these all appear to have achieved little in terms of effecting a remedy for the problem.
Is this lack of criticism because those in positions of influence truly believe in the value of such campaigns, or is it simply a reflection of wishful thinking and/or the very real fear of feminist backlash against dissenting voices?
Do public awareness campaigns even work?
Organisations love awareness campaigns because for minimal work they provide maximum profile (i.e. ‘look at us doing something about the problem!’). Just engage a marketing consultant, agree on a logo, and begin advertising.
The jury is out, however, on their effectiveness – in part because many public awareness are not subject to proper evaluation. This is probably, in part, because of the factor noted above – they are often created at short notice for reasons of political expediency.
It is known however that some types of awareness campaigns are more likely to be successful than others:
“Some police agencies participate in domestic violence awareness campaigns and school programming, such as classroom instruction to teens about dating violence and ways to handle conflict. Domestic violence prevention messages may target the general population or specific populations. For example, campaigns may be designed to encourage victim reporting, deter potential offenders, or raise the consciousness of potential witnesses of abuse (neighbours, friends, relatives).† However, the effect of these prevention strategies is unknown.
For instance, few of the programs developed to reduce teen dating violence have been evaluated, and of those that have, there have been mixed results. Although some report an increase in knowledge in the targeted population and greater familiarity with available resources to help victims, this does not necessarily translate into a reduction in the incidence level of dating violence.
† The Lancashire (United Kingdom) Police Constabulary placed messages about domestic violence on police vehicles, beer glass coasters in bars, utility bills, and lampposts, and used radio advertising to increase awareness of domestic violence.
As a rule, prevention is more likely to work if highly targeted. General campaigns are not typically effective. Highly targeted campaigns that focus on a specific target group or geographic area can have some impact. Offender-oriented campaigns, which are designed to raise potential offenders’ perceptions that there will be meaningful consequences to battering, are more likely to be effective than campaigns that appeal to potential offenders’ morals.” (Source)
What if Mandatory “Sexual Respect” Classes are Counterproductive? (21 September 2016)
What good is ‘Raising Awareness’? (21 April 2015) USA
Are social marketing campaigns effective in preventing child abuse and neglect? (October 2010) Australia
And what if the campaign message is inaccurate and/or biased?
Another reason why a campaign might be counter-productive is when the information it disseminates is inaccurate and/or biased. This is a real danger with a topic like domestic violence, the debate concerning which is tightly-controlled by one group who maintain a very particular and inflexible ideological stance on the matter.
It is highly likely that the campaign that eventually emerges will focus solely, or almost solely, on men’s violence towards women. Issues like bi-directional violence, domestic violence in same-sex couples (especially women), and female on male violence will be ignored or minimised. The focus on gender and control will mean that other factors like social disadvantage and substance abuse will be played down. Political correctness will also rule out consideration of race, ethnicity or religion as potentially relevant factors.
What messages will this send? What biases and stereotyping will this reinforce?
The UK Home Office ‘Disrespect Nobody’ campaign included this TV advert which failed to acknowledge female perpetration of abusive behaviours.
Other sources that may be of interest:
‘Ice Wars’ message is overblown and unhelpful (14 February 2017)
Our Watch charity invited to assess its own schools gender equity program (4 February 2017) Just have one feminist organisation (a recipient of substantial public funds) evaluate the effectiveness of a program of similar allied organisation. What could go wrong with that?
Miranda Devine: Stop telling boys to act like girls, by Miranda Devine (24 April 2016) Australia
Get ready for some good old male-bashing (22 April 2016)
What about the mean girls? by Jasmin Newman (21 April 2016) Australia
Australia’s costly new national ‘violence against women’ awareness campaign and some articles that followed its launch:
Prevention of violence against women – finally, an idea whose time has come, by Mary Barry (20 April 2016)
Domestic violence ad campaign to focus on ‘influencers’ in bid to change attitudes (20 April 2016)
‘Where the new $30 million domestic violence campaign is missing the mark‘. This campaign ignores male victims and female perpetrators, and is based on the flawed assumption that the main cause of DV is attitudes towards women.
Branded for life? Sending the wrong message to young perpetrators of family violence (24 February 2016) Australia. Campaign devised by feminist group ‘Our Watch’ and article published in pro-feminist site The Conversation. Campaign only features male perpetrators, this issue ignored in article.
Fear-based health information makes new mothers anxious (23 July 2015) Australia. Now consider DV campaigns that demonise all men despite them having no control over the small minority of men who abuse. The community seemingly sees no problem with making men feel “anxious” in that situation, even despite the fact that four times as many men commit suicide as do women.
National $30 million campaign to tackle domestic violence (5 March 2015)
$16m for dom violence but $1.2b for terrorism (14 May 2015)
Social Marketing for Preventing Violence Against Women: Making every action matter (June 2013) This paper is written from a pro-feminist pro-awareness campaign perspective, but provides a useful list of many previous awareness campaigns. It fails to provide serious/objective evaluations of individual campaigns or of awareness campaigns generally. Indeed, it’s telling that the only campaign against which it directs criticism is the ‘One in Three‘ campaign that draws attention to male victims of domestic violence. ‘One in Three‘ is an ongoing target for feminist criticism.