Or just plain advertising?

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?

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at sjfinn.com.

More by SJ Finn ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Oh I have no doubt that the desire to be seen to be addressing the problem is often rated as equally important as actually addressing the problem. Especially if it’s a difficult social problem, like drugs or violence or cyber-bullying. Even if you don’t think you can fix it, you have to look like you’re trying to fix it, it seems.

  2. Thanks Adam, I think you’re right to make the distinction between difficult social problems and other more straightforward issues such as, perhaps, smoking tobacco. It feels a little like a panacea; that we feel our society is doing better than it might be really doing. Things appear to be working well on the surface, but don’t take too close a look!

  3. As someone who works on health promotion campaigns, I’m almost 50:50 on this one. Part of me agrees that all the effort seems to go into the public side – get the ad out, find the spokesperson, promote the hotline – and far too little effort goes into what happens next.

    What happens WHEN people call the hotline? Do they have to wait for an hour with the phone to their ear until someone is ready to deal with their crisis? Do they get passed to someone else? Is the person on the other end prepareed to deal with them? Campaigns need to focus on the whole experience of the end user, not just on getting them to pick up the phone.

    That said … it sometimes seems to me that the most vehement assaults aren’t directed at the people who do nothing; they’re saved for the ones who try SOMETHING.

    So a campaign on family violence gets slammed for not addressing the root causes; an ad on problem drinking gets canned because people think it’s a smokescreen; a campaign on sexual health gets criticised for focussing too much on gay men … and, eventually, the people who work on these campaigns just give up and stop trying.

    There’s got to be a way for us to applaud intiative while still encouraging further and better efforts … isn’t there?

  4. That’s a great comment. You’ve really iterated the difficulty with this kind of work. And in most cases, I think, it is responsible for bringing the general public along with changing mores in a positive way – although any movement is usually jagged by nature.

    My query is with the gap between the spin we generate and, as you’ve said also, what is happening on the ground behind the campaign. Have we closed the gap between campaigning and advertising to such an extent the two are now a little blurry, made from the same formula almost. At it’s worst it may make the general public complacent (or, in some cases, righteous) and the people who need help, as in the case of domestic violence victims or WorkSafe clients, more disillusioned.

    It’s not the campaigners fault, in fact it might be more of a problem of them being too good at their jobs, if you know what I mean. But, as someone who occasionally dips their toe in both arenas, I think we need to make sure governments are doing what they purport on those glossy well-written promotions.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.