Are you ready to be shocked? Surprised and aghast in the face of casual self-mutilation? Titillated and disgusted all at the same time? Then look no further than a new ad campaign for The Trevor Project.
Last week The Miami Ad School revealed their advertising campaign for the LGBT suicide prevention organization, and it’s a series of ads designed to pack a punch. And punch they do. Each image combines suicidal imagery—pills pouring, slit wrists, an empty noose—with commonly used gay slurs. The message is clear: Words have power, words can kill, and some words should not be bandied about lightly lest they dig deeper than intended. The most explicit image in the ad campaign is “dyke” carved into a bloody wrist.
Shockvertising, which “deliberately, rather than inadvertently, startles and offends its audience by violating norms for social values and personal ideals,” has long been an accepted tool of the ad trade. I learned that from Mad Men, but also a quick scan the many articles devoted to the topic. A 2003 study from the Journal of Advertising Research found that “shocking content in an advertisement significantly increases attention, benefits memory, and positively influences behavior.” It also proved that consumers are more likely to remember shocking advertisements than non-shocking advertisements.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that a majority of PSAs I hear use shock to make a point. I can’t listen to Spotify for more than five minutes without hearing tearful accounts of children murdered by texting drivers, or watch MTV without seeing a stoned teenager neglect their ambition/homework/adorable younger sibling in a sob manner. Anti-smoking ads find grotesque new messages every year, and don’t even get me started on PETA. It seems like everyone with a public service announcement aims to shock consumers into doing what they want—so why can’t the gays get in on that sweet guilt action? Frankly it was only a matter of time before one of us said “enough with the rainbows let’s tell these homophobes to step the fuck off.” It does get better, but that doesn’t mean we should accept or tolerate gay teenagers being mocked and belittled by their peers.
We gays are having a blissful, glorious moment in the pop culture. Never before has being gay been accepted as normal, much less trendy. However it’s important if hella depressing to remember that media portrayal and middle american reality are not one in the same.
A recent CDC study showed “LGB youth are 4 times more likely, and questioning youth are 3 times more likely, to attempt suicide as their straight peers… Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.” And it’s not just in our head- it’s a reaction to hostile environments. A study from the American Journal Of Public Health demonstrated that “LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection… Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”
Things are still rough for babygays, particularly in middle and high school when hormones roar and mob mentalities flourish. I must confess, I don’t know first hand what it’s like to be an out gay teen in America. As a teenager, I didn’t know I was a lesbian. All I knew was there was something different about me, something terrible that must never be thought of much less talked about.
So I didn’t.
I grew up in a small southern city and attended a high school where interracial dating was rare and frowned up, so gay teenagers literally did not exist. It simply wasn’t done. So I’m baffled and in awe of the courage it must take other lesbians, young lesbians far braver than I, who endure bullying and exclusion in order to live truthfully.
The message behind The Trevor Project’s new campaign isn’t just a sound one, it’s a message of vital importance. Words often hurt. Words can kill. People can be violent without ever laying a hand on their victim, simply by using words to make that person turn upon themselves.
My mother once said having children taught her that people are not innately nice; we have to teach them to be. By combining a common slur with a fatal tool, The Miami Ad School managed to visually connect words and violence.
Unlike other anti-gay bullying campaigns, these ads are not aimed at gay youth. They are aimed at the people who might torture them. Children are often cruel, and careless with that cruelty because they have yet to learn that cruelty can have terrible and tangible consequences. Better for them to learn through a shocking picture than a dead body.