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Polaris Project, in partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor launched a massive outdoor advertising campaign this week to bring attention to the problem of human trafficking. This campaign coincides with the Super Bowl, which has been referred to as the “largest weekend in U.S. prostitution.” It has not been empirically proven whether sex trafficking actually increases significantly during large events  like the Super Bowl, but because the connection has been made, this is the perfect time of year for advocates to seize the momentum and get people thinking about the issue. (President Obama has also declared January “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” so clearly, it’s go time for media efforts).

The Polaris Project campaign, called “Traffic Report”, launched on January 28th and will run for two weeks throughout the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area. Twenty-six strategically-placed digital billboards will appear in what is referred to as “Super Bowl Alley”, the stretch from Herald Square to Times Square in Manhattan. In addition, 23 additional digital billboards have been placed along the I-95 corridor in New Jersey and Westchester County, New York. There are also apparently videos playing in major bus and train stations, though I haven’t been able to find any of them online. This is truly an enormous advertising campaign, which would have cost Polaris Project hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and distribute without Clear Channel Outdoor’s generous help. It is estimated that the combined impact of the billboards will result in over 10 million unique impressions.

Despite the fact that this campaign is strategically running during the Super Bowl, its goal, according to Polaris Project, is to raise awareness about the full scope and scale of domestic human trafficking as a problem we should be addressing 365 days a year, not just during major events. According to the CEO:

“Despite the enormity of the problem, most people don’t even realize that human trafficking is happening in their own back yards, and those being exploited are largely unaware that help is available. This form of modern slavery occurs at large sporting events, in suburban brothels, and in farms and factories across America. We want people to understand that sex and labor trafficking is a huge problem across the country that demands our attention and resources — 365 days a year.”

While I fully support raising awareness about domestic human trafficking, this campaign’s approach leaves me with a lot of questions. Here are some billboard images from the Polaris Project website:

The first thing thing I noticed about both of these examples is that their primary message is given via statistics. From a common sense perspective, it seems like saying that “21 million victims of human trafficking are trapped worldwide” would really make people care about the issue. What kind of heartless person could see that number and not immediately take action? Well, me. And probably you, too. Unfortunately, most of us are great at ignoring statistics. We just see too many of them on a daily basis, and they don’t elicit an emotional response. Awareness without an emotional connection rarely fuels action.

Another note about that particular ad is that it departs from the stated purpose of focusing on domestic human trafficking. This makes me think about the scope of the campaign overall. Given that the media buzz around the Super Bowl has a very specific focus on domestic sex trafficking, it seems strange that the ads are fighting that conversation instead of trying to take advantage of it. Sex trafficking is a $32 billion a year industry, second only to drug trafficking, and it victimizes between 300,000 to 400,000 children every year in the U.S. While human trafficking as a whole is a major issue, a strategically-timed and placed focus on domestic sex trafficking alone would still have a significant impact.

Lastly, the only call to action in these ads is to learn more by visiting a website. According to Keeli Sorenson with Polaris Project, the billboards have been placed strategically in “places we know that victims end up. They will see billboards, they will know someone is out there to help them.” Most past campaigns focused on reaching out to victims have included the hotline number, so it seems a little strange that this campaign includes a website instead (but maybe since they are digital billboards, they flash the hotline number at some point?). There is nothing about these ads that seems particularly focused on connecting with victims as an audience, so I’m not sure how their location alone is much of a strong point.

I’m really glad this ad campaign is running, but given the enormous exposure it is getting, I think it is missing some major opportunities. A lot of the articles that mention the problem of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl talk about successes that have come from efforts to encourage bystander intervention by training hotel and transportation workers to recognize signs of human trafficking. Research shows that when a problem is framed as a community responsibility and people are given the tools to help, they are much more likely to step in. The Bell Bajao (“Ring the Bell”) campaign is a perfect example of this – through a series of TV commercials, men and boys are shown examples of how to safely intervene when they heard domestic violence happening, thus exerting social pressure making it clear that such behavior is unacceptable. The idea of encouraging bystander intervention adds power to awareness. Not only do people know about the problem, but they know that the power to solve it lies in their hands – it holds us all responsible.

I imagine that the video ads running on Amtrak do go more deeply into the issue and train people to recognize the signs of sex trafficking. But couldn’t the billboards do this too? The campaign is aiming for a broad focus on human trafficking as a problem that the general public should care about every day of the year. Unfortunately, a broad message easily loses the power and impact that a more targeted, emotionally-evocative message can create. Billboards are extremely expensive, and it is disappointing to me that a campaign with access to a whopping 49 of them doesn’t have a more strategic message.

As a final note, most of the press covering this campaign and other anti-trafficking efforts around the Super Bowl are focusing on sex trafficking as if it were an uncontrollable weather phenomenon. Most of them do mention cracking down on pimps, but so far I haven’t seen a single one that talks about changing social norms around demand. Have we given up on this? If anyone has seen a recent campaign that focuses on demand (or bystander intervention around demand), drop me a line!

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