PSAs Are Speaking More Openly About Sexual Violence and Consent Than Ever

With everything from celebrities to dancing genitals

Five years ago, a PSA addressing sexual assault showed a girl's legs on the bathroom floor, her underwear down to her ankles. The tagline: "She didn't want to do it, but she couldn't say no."

While such messages were common, experts say they weren't resonating with a population that claims sexual assault is a major crisis. A Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 84 percent of women and 83 percent of men said reducing domestic violence and sexual assault were their single biggest priority.

As the topic of sexual violence, including on college campuses, has emerged from a shadow of shame and blaming the victim—even getting addressed at last month's Academy Awards ceremony—campaigns employing a more direct approach have followed suit.

"What works well in these ads is when they really highlight collective responsibility, and that, in terms of the social change goals of our field, is something that has a lot of value," said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

In 2014, the White House and San Francisco agency Mekanism teamed on the much-talked-about campaign "It's on Us," which used stars like Kerry Washington and Zoe Saldana to stress that sexual violence is everyone's problem.

Making the push social media-friendly ensured it would make an impact among millennials, noted Mekanism CEO Jason Harris. The agency launched a site where visitors could customize the tagline "It's on us" for badges and created a TV spot in a way that colleges could make their own PSAs. Some 3,000 colleges and individuals have done so.

The "It's on Us" campaign got a boost at the Oscars when Lady Gaga performed "Til It Happens to You," an anthem of the movement. The performance—introduced by Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke out about the issue—increased pledges from the typical 4,000 per week to 37,401, Billboard reported.

Addressing sexual assault in a matter-of-fact way has proven effective in other efforts, including Project Consent's campaign featuring animated, dancing genitals. (When one body part says no, the offending body part backs off.) "We wanted to talk about consent frankly, and we felt like it was unnecessary to use symbolic replacements in these discussions," said Sara Li, founder of Project Consent. "Consent shouldn't be difficult to talk about."

Such messages may prove effective with a younger demographic that has had a "basic sexuality education background but haven't had any education in how consent is communicated," said Palumbo.

Still, others rely on metaphor, with measurable impact.

The site College Humor used a hungry bear as part of the "It's on Us" campaign to illustrate that one in five women are the victims of sexual assault on campuses. "Tea and Consent," produced by Blue Seat Studios, opted for simple stick figures and likened consent to a cup of tea. The three-minute video has earned nearly 2 million views on YouTube, and sexual assault-prevention educators have even incorporated it into their work.

Whether metaphorical or blunt, said Palumbo, the mission is the same: "to start conversations and dialogues that create change."

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.