A few days after a woman struggled, Houdini style, to free herself from the back seat of her car, which had been driven by her ex-husband off the end of a jetty in Mordialloc, I happened to be running a group for survivors of domestic violence. All eight of us were impressed and glad to hear of her escape. None of us, however, were particularly shocked at what he’d done. After all, the atrocities the women in the room had experienced were, while not so spectacular in detail, often as cruel and terrifying.
One year previous, in June 2006, John Howard had launched an advertising blitz, the purpose of which was to stem domestic violence in Australia and encourage women to report its incidence and get help. There are similar efforts in response to other problems in our community such as depression, gambling and mental illness. Partly these campaigns hope to raise awareness and lower stigma, which, in broad strokes, I think they achieve. But my personal experience has been that this is where the good work of those campaigns usually stops.
As the Rudd Government launches the next stage of its $17 million campaign urging young people to decide against drug use, shouldn’t we ask ourselves whether these campaigns are worthy of what they cost? Sometimes I feel they’re more about the government being perceived to do something about a problem rather than actually doing something. Those 1800 numbers look so attractively problem-solving but, as was the case for the domestic violence number, they often fall short of expectation.
WorkSafe ads appear to be in a similar category. I’ve had clients I’ve counselled who’ve been more traumatised by the procedures of WorkSafe after having suffered a work accident than from the accident itself. It seems to me that unless campaigns are backed by a good response, they have the effect of disillusioning people already having difficulties. And unless well nuanced, they can completely fail to get to the audience they’re intended for, while having the effect of making the rest of us feel that things are being attended to. Or, conversely, that they’re completely out of control.
Overstating or understating the situation can be equal to making the message fly over someone’s head, and, in the worse case, cause them to dispute or disbelieve it altogether. Or am I wrong? Should we applaud all efforts, no matter how stripped back and naive, to get issues into the mainstream public domain?