Passersby in downtown Toronto’s bustling Queen Street West regularly walk past restaurants, cafés, retail stores, bars, cultural attractions and high-end fashion boutiques.
On the morning of Feb. 20, Toronto residents and tourists also had the option to walk past a storefront selling teen girls.
Covenant House Toronto, in collaboration with longtime creative partner Taxi Toronto, launched the purposefully eerie, provocative and uncomfortable “Shoppable Girls” multi-platform campaign.
The campaign not only utilized the shopfront promotion at a launch event last week, it also will advertise a convincingly fake fashion site with teenage models in trendy clothes superimposed on a pastel pink backdrop.
“We’ve gotten a conversation started on sex trafficking, which is critical in the fight against this heinous crime,” Tracie LeBlanc, Covenant House Toronto’s associate director of communications, told Adweek.
According to Toronto Police Services, sex trafficking is a billion-dollar industry in Canada. Shoppable Girls was inspired by the need to get an eye-catching and thought-provoking message across to Ontarian girls and young women to build their awareness level on the issue of sex trafficking, and educate them on topics such as luring, grooming and other tactics used by traffickers. Parents and caregivers are also a key audience for the campaign.
Julie Neubauer, program manager of anti-trafficking services at Covenant House, said one of the major misconceptions about sex trafficking is that it doesn’t happen in Canada. In fact, in 2014, the RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre reported that 93% of Canada’s trafficking victims were born in Canada (and 50% of those sex trafficking victims are indigenous).
Shoppable Girls’ site is populated by content that is derived from Covenant House’s anti-trafficking plan, which was launched in 2016 and has supported over 200 survivors.
“We’ve been long-standing partners with Taxi Toronto for 20 years, so working with them on this campaign was a natural next step for us,” LeBlanc said.
However, this is the first time the two collaborators have done anything together that specifically addresses the issue of sex trafficking. The ads ran on social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat in the hopes that they will direct attention to ShoppableGirls.com around Ontario’s Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Feb. 22.
At face value, the ads appear to be regular teen fashion ads. However, there are clues in that let you know that the ads are atypical. LeBlanc said there’s a reason why the site’s ads are so deceptive. Just like sex trafficking, which is difficult to detect if you don’t know what signs to look for, the campaign shows that victims aren’t always discernible.
“They’re designed to catch your attention and encourage you to dig deeper,” LeBlanc said.
Other than the fact that most youth are utilizing social media platforms, the ads are being displayed on Instagram and Snapchat because, according to David Correa, detective sergeant with the Toronto Police Services, they’re seeing an unfortunately high number of cases of exploitation of youth via social media platforms.
“It’s crucial that we all work together in identifying cases early as we are seeing victims as young as 13,” Correa said.
Though the majority of the campaign lives on social media, the campaign also extensively researched and geo-targeted malls, community centers and schools where young girls are, which are often frequented by traffickers.
“What we learned in research is that to sex traffickers, these young girls just look like products. And they are often lured with ‘nice things’ like clothes and purses.” Alexis Bronstorph, ecd, Taxi Toronto, told Adweek.
The exploitative tactic inspired Taxi Toronto to create what looks like a fashion brand and strategically put ads for it in places these young girls shop.
Shoppable Girls was also largely inspired by a Canada-wide prevention study that Covenant House Toronto conducted with Ipsos Public Affairs that compiled answers from 500 girls aged 12 to 16, and interviews with survivors of sex trafficking, their parents and anti-trafficking advocates. The study found that 38% of teenage girls said their parents are “very aware” of their social media activity. However, the study also found that as girls age and their social media usage increases, they tend to talk to to their parents less about their on and offline lives, thereby increasing risk factors.
To further develop campaign elements, focus groups were conducted with teen girls and moms of those girls. According to the study’s site, the campaign was perceived as “eye-opening and relatable,” partly due to the fact that the ads were on social media, which made them “interesting and compelling enough to make them want to click through to learn more.”
Covenant House and Taxi Toronto also consulted with survivors of sex trafficking to gauge reactions and gather insight. They felt the campaign was “timely” and “creative.”
Canadians are encouraged to promote the campaign by using #ShoppableGirls on social media platforms.
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