Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

Indian PSA holds up a mirror to street harassers

An Indian anti-street harassment PSA video, “Dekh Le” (created by Whistling Woods International, a film school in Mumbai, India) has gotten a lot of press recently for holding up a mirror to street harassers:

This video was released on December 16, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the horrific gang rape that was reported around the world. It shows men staring at women in various public spaces, while in the background, a Hindi song plays, saying “Look how you look when you’re looking at me.

This video is great because it opens up conversation about street harassment, particularly staring/leering, which is regularly minimized as something to which women and girls “overreact.” I love that the creators chose to target leering behavior on the anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. It sends a strong message that rape culture is reflected in all of the behaviors that make women uncomfortable in public spaces. It also gets at the connection between street harassment and rape. Does most leering escalate to rape? Not at all. Are women and girls conditioned (with good reason) to fear that escalation? Absolutely. Sometimes a creepy look does escalate to an unwelcome comment, to groping, to following, or even to sexual assault. It can be incredibly difficult to predict in the moment how a situation will play out, which is why an action as seemingly minimal as a leer can send off alarm bells in a person’s mind. And even if it doesn’t escalate, having to endure rude objectifying staring and unwelcome comments in public several times a day is a psychological strain on its own and can result in people altering or restricting their use of public space. All by itself, leering is an invasive, oppressive behavior.

In the video, men’s stares are shown reflected back at them in mirrors that the women wear (a reflective helmet, a necklace, sunglasses, and a mirror on a handbag). The men see their ogling faces and immediately turn away, clearly ashamed of their behavior. I had a strong reaction to this moment, thinking “get real! that would never happen!”. To be fair, there have been reports of women who have talked to their harassers in the moment, explaining how the harassment makes them feel, and have had the harassers apologize and acknowledge the harassing nature of their behavior – so a positive response is not outside the realm of possibility. On the whole, though, I’m guessing the more likely response would be more along the lines of defensiveness: “I’m not like that” or “some women are clearly looking for attention” or “what, can’t people even look at other people anymore?”. This PSA is showing us an unlikely reaction to force us to think about why some people feel free to leer with no sense of shame, and why our culture allows that behavior to continue.

Leering is very different from “looking” or “noticing.” It stems from a deep-seated sense of entitlement to gaze at women as objects. This way of thinking is reflected and reinforced by the idea of the “male gaze” which refers to the dominant perspective in films, ad campaigns, and even comic books catering to a straight male observer; in other words, a heterosexual man is usually doing the looking, and a woman is usually being looked at, often as an object serving “merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure.”

The international anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!, has been chipping away at the culture that enables street harassers for almost ten years now. In 2005, the year the organization started, a woman riding the subway took a picture of a man sitting across from her, masturbating. When the police refused to help, she posted the picture to flickr. It went viral, making its way to the cover of the Daily News, and sparking a citywide conversation about street harassment. Smartphone cameras are clearly an effective “mirror” to hold up, showing not only what specific incidents of street harassment look like, but how we as a culture look when we permit these behaviors to continue. The Hollaback! app allows for uploading both pictures and harassment stories to its blogs, now in 71 cities and 24 countries. [Side note: Buzzfeed reports that “in several regions of the world, some men feel entitled to leer at women in public places,” insinuating that this problem only happens in certain countries and cultures. This is blatant, incorrect otherizing of the problem. Street harassment happens all over the world, including the United States].

Some of the scenarios in the PSA strike me as being a bit subtle, which makes me wonder about how they will be interpreted. The guy on the bus, in particular, looks like he’s trying to make eye-contact and attempting a friendly smile. Even though the woman he’s smiling at gives him clear signals that she is not interested and does not appreciate it (thereby establishing that this is harassment), I worry that some viewers will interpret her response as an overreaction, because his facial expression looks more hopeful than salacious. On the other hand, this scenario could open up some great conversations about how, yep, persistent staring is still harassment, even if the leer-er is making a friendly face.

I love that this video uses mirrors instead of literally trying to turn the tables by showing women ogling men (which would be a total flop, since the power dynamic does not go both ways). It would be great if this ad went a step further and included a concrete call to action (maybe something about bystander intervention), but I think this is a great start.

As far as I know, this video is an online-only PSA which is meant to spread virally – and it’s doing a good job with over 1.3 million views! Hopefully some of these views are coming via mainstream websites, so it’s not just those of us interested in feminism/street harassment/advertising who are getting the message. Nothing gets me down like preaching to the choir. Have you seen any other great PSAs that focus on leering, or street harassment in general? Drop me a line!


Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

Street Harassment in Egypt & Mirror Neurons

The UN Women‘s Egypt country office just released a new PSA that invites men and boys to see what a day’s worth of street harassment looks like from a woman’s perspective. The slogan is “Put yourself in her shoes, instead of finding ways to blame her.”

This video is part of the “Safe Cities: Free from Violence against Women and Girls” project, which recognizes that sexual harassment in public spaces (street harassment) is a serious problem.

[It] reduces women’s and girls’ freedom of movement. It reduces their ability to participate in school, work and in public life. It limits their access to essential services, and enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being… sexual harassment in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it.” Source.

The first thing that struck me about this PSA is the fact that it completely breaks from the idea that street harassment is a compliment. Nowhere in this video do you get the sense that the women enjoy it. Instead, the unwanted and harassing nature of the behavior comes across loud and clear. It’s also important to note that the four women in the video are all dressed differently, ranging from secular to religious dress, and yet they are all harassed.

The video starts with a woman in a cab, visibly uncomfortable at the way the driver is ogling her in the rearview mirror. She pulls her jacket around her, trying to cover herself up as much as possible to avoid his invasive gaze. The video then shifts to the viewpoint of another woman walking down a neighborhood street in broad daylight, harassed by a group of teenaged boys who block her path. Then we see through the perspective of a third woman getting on a crowded public transportation van. Within seconds, a man slides his hand onto her leg. She screams at the man, slaps him, and the other passengers start to react to her behavior (they do not appear supportive). The door of the van opens, and we see that she is the one expected to exit for making a fuss – not her harasser. In the last scene, we see through the perspective of a woman being menaced by a group of grown men on the street at night. This is by far the most threatening scene, because the men are grabbing her arms and we see her struggling to escape. We then see the women arriving home, and a voice-over says:

“When you start your day, are you concerned about your safety? Do you worry about what ride to take? And where to walk? Every day she faces humiliation. Anger. She lives in fear and she experiences violence. 90% of women respondents are subjected to sexual harassment in public spaces. Put yourself in her shoes instead of finding ways to blame her. Help to create Safe Cities Free from Sexual Violence against Women and Girls.”

Did you notice that nowhere in the video does it say “stop harassing women”? Instead, it takes an even more direct approach, and asks the viewer to see the experience through a woman’s eyes. The ad shows, and then tells, what a harassment victim experiences: humiliation, anger, fear, and violence. Its goal is to show that women do not enjoy or invite harassment, and that bystanders should be supportive instead of blaming. Countering the attitude that women bring harassment upon themselves is crucial. Even though research done in multiple countries (including the US) proves that women’s dress and behavior is not linked to harassment, the popular belief persists that women invite harassment through the way they dress, the way they walk, etc. In Egypt, there have even been government publications reinforcing this belief.

The overall strategy used in this ad is called “empathy marketing” and it’s grounded in the idea that facts and statistics do not convince people; stories and a sense of connection do. There’s also some serious neuroscience going on here. The way the brain processes images is very different from how it processes words. Showing, as opposed to telling, activates special brain cells called “mirror neurons” that create feelings of empathy. Mirror neurons are the reason we cry at sad movies and get excited about watching sports; they are brain cells that cause us to actually feel the feelings we see in others’ faces and the actions we see in others’ bodies. When you see a the star of a movie collapse into tears and you start to get misty, this isn’t simply because you feel bad for them (sympathy) but because the part of your brain responsible for sadness has activated in response (empathy). You are literally feeling the same sadness. Because we have mirror neurons, we can connect with another person and actually share their experience by watching their face and actions. [To learn more about mirror neurons, check out this fascinating video by NOVA.] It is incredibly powerful. Looking at this PSA again, it’s obvious that every aspect of it calls on our mirror neurons to do their job: first, we go through the harassment experiences literally looking at the world through another person’s eyes. Then, we see the facial expressions of several women matching a list of emotions that are elicited by harassment: humiliation, anger, fear. On a cellular level, we are stimulated to feel what they feel. Nice work, UN Women!

I wish I could find some information on whether this video is running on TV in Egypt, or if there are other ways that it is being distributed. So often, amazing PSAs are launched with no mention of plans for distribution, and it really frustrates me. I’m guessing that with UN Women behind this effort, the offline presence will be significant. If you know anything about how people are seeing campaign on the ground, drop me a line!

Have you met Guy Nottadadi?

Have you met Guy Nottadadi?

No? I’m not surprised. Please allow me to introduce you.

Guy Nottadadi is the star of‘s Guy’s Guide to Birth Control. This series of short videos frankly addresses the fact that guys aren’t expected to know much about birth control, and sets out to turn that expectation on its head. is a birth control support network for women ages 18–29, run by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which launched a major marketing campaign with The Ad Council in November 2011. The fact that they have spent significant time and resources to teach guys about birth control makes me so happy! This is hands-down the most entertaining Ad Council campaign I have ever seen, and it’s worlds away from other recent efforts which rely on scare-tactics and shaming (like the pregnant boys ads in Chicago and the “real cost of teen pregnancy” ads in New York). Bedsider is a very sex-positive campaign, but I still wish actual ads (not just the resources on the website) went beyond their focus on unplanned pregnancy prevention to discuss healthy, safe sex in general. The videos do a great job of working in the importance of open communication, and the overall positive, fun, matter-of-fact tone would translate perfectly to an expanded campaign. I know, I’m dreaming!

Can you believe that most of the videos posted on YouTube for this series have less than 10,000 views? It’s sad to think that I would never have found the Guy’s Guide if I weren’t looking (though to be fair, I’m not the target audience). This campaign is just too well-done and amazing to be hidden away! If I ran the world, the Guy’s Guide videos would be popping up as ads everywhere. If anyone has seen them on other websites or out in the world, please let me know. I saw a couple of Bedsider print ads near the University of Pennsylvania campus a while ago, but that’s all I’ve seen of this campaign offline.

For your binge-watching pleasure:

If you like these, you should check out some of the other great videos on, like this one:

Lastly, here are a couple of’s newest TV ads (featured in this recent post by Osocio). They really embrace the awkward:

Have you seen any other great campaigns designed specifically for male audiences? I would love to hear about them! Drop me a line.

Signs of Violence

Signs of Violence

My last post was about the Vancouver YWCA’s annual violence-prevention campaigns. Their 2013 campaign was about media literacy and the sexualization of women and girls, but the year before, they took a different approach that I wanted to highlight separately.

Here is an image from last year’s campaign:

Source: St. Bernadine

I had a strong reaction to this campaign. It aims to prevent violence by showing potential bystanders that often-minimized controlling behaviors (telling someone what to wear, harassing text messages, destroying personal things, etc) can be signs of violence. The images in the ads make an immediate connection between these controlling behaviors and life-threatening physical violence, like this one juxtaposing harassing texts with strangulation:


Source: St. Bernadine

My initial reaction to the above ad was “aren’t harassing text messages violent enough in themselves?” and then I started thinking about how easy it can be to rationalize away controlling behaviors, especially if they aren’t leading to dramatic physical violence. Do these ads backfire a little bit in that their extreme nature could make this rationalization easier (“it’s not that big of a deal, he’s just particular/jealous/has a temper but he’s never laid a hand on me”)? However, the ads are not aimed at people experiencing controlling behaviors – they are aimed at family/friends/coworkers, who may be much less likely to make excuses for the behavior. Do we need something this shocking to grab our attention and encourage us, as bystanders, to take a closer look?

The harshness of the messages felt overwhelming to me, and the intense radio ads (one of which is text message sounds that transform into life support beeping, that then flatlines) remind me a little of “Don’t have sex. Because you will get pregnant. And die” scare-tactic lesson in Mean Girls. I would love to know more about how the general public reacted to hearing them. I found myself wishing the ads had built on the intense attention-grabbing by giving a concrete action for what a friend/family member can do, besides go to the YWCA’s website for more information. According to the outcome data, the website did see a significant increase in traffic (which is fantastic because it means people are getting help), but my mind always goes to the people who see/hear the ads and will never visit the website. What if just a little bit more education could be snuck in there somehow? I don’t have any brilliant idea for how specifically that could be done for this campaign, but it’s something worth exploring. For the HollabackPHILLY Spring 2014 ad campaign, we want to incorporate a bystander intervention focus that goes beyond “do something!” to “what if you did this specific thing?” to start modeling some possible responses. It’s really tough, though! There are lightyears of distance between sitting around saying “why don’t you do x, y, z” and actually trying to figure out whether an approach actually would help your mission, and if so how to go about implementing it. I give props to the Vancouver YWCA for all of the time, energy, and thought they put into their annual campaigns, and can’t wait to see what they do in 2014!

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Every October, YWCAs across Canada mark a “Week Without Violence” during which they hold a series of community events and campaigns focused on violence prevention. The Vancouver Metro YWCA, one of the largest in the country, creates its own public awareness campaign. This year, it decided to focus on the sexualization of girls, saying “Seeing girls and women as sex objects makes people more tolerant of sexual violence and the exploitation of girls and women.

Uncomfortable? You should be.

Source: YWCA Metro Vancouver

I love how this ad says “develop a critical eye and speak out against sexualized images” because what it is really saying is “media literacy is important.” If you’re new to the idea of media literacy, check out FAAN Mail (Fostering Alternatives and Action Now!). FAAN is a media literacy and activist organization formed by women of color, based in Philadelphia. It has great resources on media literacy, which is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media. Being media literate means that instead of taking media at face value, we instead pause and ask ourselves a few questions:

Who created this message?
Who is the target audience?
What is the message?
What is left out of the message?
Who is harmed and who benefits?

The YWCA ad above directs people to its website, where they can find a guide to media literacy for girls. This is a great idea, and I think it’s the first PSA I’ve ever seen that explicitly encourages media literacy development. If you know of more, please send them my way!

As far as the framing of this ad goes, it chooses not to change the frame and instead asks the viewer to take a critical look at his or her own reaction to it by saying “Uncomfortable? You should be. Develop a critical eye.” I admit that I felt a little bit shocked myself when reading that, because it made me realize that I actually hadn’t been that creeped out by the image at first glance. Whoa. And THAT is why media literacy is important. Without it, we start absorbing these images with less and less resistance.

If this ad had simply used the current frame (“little girls = sex objects”) and switched the “Uncomfortable…” line to read something like “Little girls are not sex objects” it would have completely failed at getting people to think critically about the frame of “little girls = sex objects.” This is because when someone says “Don’t think of an elephant” (which is actually the title of a great book on framing) suddenly, it becomes a struggle to think about anything else. If I show you a little girl dressed in a sexy, adult way and tell you “little girls are not sex objects”, you may think to yourself “I agree! That’s terrible!” but your brain is stuck thinking about little girls as glamorized mini adults. To get your brain unstuck, I have to completely change the frame by showing you another way to think about that little girl (maybe with an image of her riding a bike or doing homework). The YWCA ad, however, chooses not to reframe because it wants us to stop and look at the image with a critical eye. It is teaching us a skill; the ad itself is an exercise in media literacy.

One important thing to note is that the ad language does not refer exclusively to girls. It says “seeing girls and women portrayed as sex objects…”. So why does it choose to use a picture of a sexualized young girl? Because ad space is already flooded with pictures of sexualized, objectified adult women (check out The Gender Ads Project if you have any doubts). We’re already so desensitized to those images that they might make us angry, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as an image of a sexualized young girl.

I found out about the Vancouver YWCA’s yearly campaigns through an awesome Pinterest follower who posted an image from the YWCA’s 2012 campaign on my group board. Stay tuned for a separate post on that campaign – which is very different from this one – later today. 

The Positivo Campaign and Social Norms

The Philly organization GALAEI recently launched a PSA campaign, Positivo, that really hits the nail on the head in terms of effective messaging and framing strategies. GALAEI, which is a queer Latino social justice organization, initially planned to create a campaign to reduce stigma around homosexuality and HIV in the Latino community in Philadelphia. After doing an on-the-ground survey, they discovered that the stereotype that the Latino community is homophobic and fearful of people living with HIV is simply not true.

They then switched gears and created a campaign that reflects this affirming, supportive reality back to the community. The ads feature Latinos from North Philadelphia, and focus on acceptance, pride, family, respect, beauty, and community.

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The campaign name, “Positivo” brings up the word “positive” as in “HIV positive” but shows something very different from typical message. These ads are not alienating or scary. They don’t focus on risk or illness. The below message, which is clearly focused on testing, doesn’t even use the word “test.” What is the call to action?

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Trick question! There isn’t one. Instead of telling you to do something, this ad shows you what everyone else is already doing (getting tested) and why they’re doing it (because they are an important part of a supportive and accepting community). This incredibly powerful ad technique is commonly known as “herd mentality.” Surprise surprise, we are strongly influenced by our perception of others’ behaviors. In academic circles, this is called the social norms approach, and it is most well known for its effectiveness in reducing binge-drinking and alcohol-related harm among college students (who tend to erroneously think that their peers are drinking way more than they are, and try to keep up). It has also been used on tobacco use reduction, DUI prevention, seat-belt use, and tax compliance, and now anti-violence and positive sexuality campaigns are starting to try it out. Have you seen any great campaigns recently that use the social norms approach?

Here are more of GALAEI’s amazing ads:

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To see some other directions that HIV prevention/awareness ads have taken, Osocio has a great list at the end of this post.