It sat there largely unnoticed for months: an advertisement (unintentionally) acting as an eerie metaphor for the abhorrent act of violence it represents. In other words, most of us didn’t even realize it existed right under our noses. Ironically, it wasn’t until this combustible marketing ploy by Fluid Salon was exposed by an East Coast blogger that Edmontonians took notice of (and took issue with) what had been planted in our own backyard.
Within 24 hours, salon owner Sarah Cameron and her creative consultant Tiffany Jackson faced a firestorm of public criticism for an ad campaign described as “disgusting,” “deplorable” and “classless.” Supporters of Cameron and her salon, in turn, called those criticizing the photos “douchey and ignorant,” “haters” and “utterly brain dead.”
I won’t soon forget the moment I first saw the imagery and the sick feeling I immediately felt at the core of my being. I was blown away at the apparent insensitivity and ignorance displayed on a number of fronts. My first inclination was to post the photo to my facebook page, declaring “this might be the worst ad campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.” I also encouraged my friends and colleagues to boycott Fluid Salon (and continue to do so).
After several hours, Cameron and Jackson officially responded to the controversy they’d cultivated. That’s when the (photo) shoot really hit the fan.
“We keep tailoring everything because everyone is getting so sensitive,” Cameron told the Edmonton Sun’s Jasmine Franklin. The entrepreneur stayed consistent in her unabashed defence for the inflammatory photo, telling a CityNews cameraman, “Maybe people should stop hiding behind their computers and actually go do something.”
Several hours later, the twosome piped up again. This press release – FluidPressResponseFinal - emailed to several broadcasters (including myself) read, “Media’s energy and time may be better spent boycotting dangerous areas, gangs, guns, other street weapons, or a sick justice system, which unfortunately is still sadly lacking when it comes to punishing abusers or any kind.”
The release continued, “If survivors of abuse interpret this ad to make light of any abusive situation, we sincerely apologize, that was never our intent as there are people that worked on this campaign who are survivors of abuse. To the rest of you who this has so deeply affected, we truly hope you do something to help stop domestic violence. Truly honor the survivors that you are standing up for. Unfortunately boycotting a hair salon will not accomplish this.”
Snideness aside, Fluid Salon’s argument is flawed. In reality, boycotting a business that displays gross errors in judgement does accomplish something. In a free market, consumers hold the ultimate power. The cash in your pocket speaks a language any entrepreneur can understand. When those dollars start to dry up, business owners take note…whether they want to or not.
Creative consultant Tiffany Jackson (co-creator of the Look good in all you do campaign) went even further, publishing this note on facebook. In it, she writes, “Yea that’s right I’m talking to you Ryan Jespersen from Breakfast Television and other select reporters and journalists who in my opinion use a platform that they were blessed with to gain ratings and make more money…if you really wanted to do something about stopping domestic abuse it wouldn’t start with rounding up the pitchfork carrying masses and getting them fired up to boycott a hair salon. In fact it’s probably the last place you would start.”
Gain ratings? Make more money? Apparently my public stance hit home. The problem for Jackson, again, is that she’s way off base. Nearly twenty years ago, I watched my first junior high school crush, a beautiful young soul and dear friend with the brightest eyes and most enchanting smile, lowered into the ground in a casket. At just 14 years old, she stopped showing up at our school amidst rumours she had fallen victim to a drug addiction. Involvement in the sex trade wasn’t far behind. By her 16th birthday, Jennifer had been declared missing. Months later, her broken body was discovered on a rural construction site. Her murder remains unsolved.
That, Tiffany Jackson, is when I started to want to do something about stopping domestic violence. It’s what prompted my past involvement with Vancouver’s Youth Extreme outreach group, geared toward young residents of the city’s downtown Eastside. (Ever talked to a young teen about taking punches from dad so mom can have a break?)
It’s part of the reason why my wife Kari and I have hosted the semi-annual #yeghelp fundraisers in Edmonton, raising thousands of dollars for the La Salle Women’s Shelter (via the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation). (Ever spoken with a woman forced to flee her home, terrified children in tow, with nothing more than the resounding realization that she’ll die if she stays?)
It’s partially why my BT co-host Bridget Ryan and myself were proud public supporters of the recent White Out Domestic Violence campaign organized by City Centre Mall. (Ever heard a front-line worker lament that the majority of us still don’t realize the extent to which domestic violence poisons our general population?)
I’ve had other experiences that have influenced me along the way. Years ago, I sat with a close friend as she filed for a restraining order from a verbally abusive boyfriend. Working as a news reporter in Red Deer, I covered an emotional fatality inquiry after Josef Fekete, a husband and father with a long police history of domestic violence, shot his wife and 4-year-old son before turning his shotgun on himself.
I didn’t need a cheap, insensitive and poorly-executed hair salon ad campaign to put the reality of domestic violence on my radar.
I can handle criticism. It’s all part of having a public voice. What I can’t handle (and refuse to ignore) is the way Sarah Cameron and Tiffany Jackson have handled this public relations nightmare.
We’ve been told we’re not smart artistically-aware enough to “get” what the ad is supposed to say. We’ve been told we’re evaluating the photo out of context (you can view other images from the series here and here). We’ve been coyly reminded we don’t know the woman’s black eye came from anything other than rock climbing or some other form of physical activity. We’ve been made aware at least one of the contributors to this ad campaign is a survivor of domestic violence. We’ve been told the campaign was designed to prod the public toward greater awareness from the start.
This is where everything unravels. Several excellent arguments (like this and this and this and this and this) have been made against the concept itself. Public relations professionals, publishers and outreach workers have expressed absolute disbelief at Fluid’s corporate response. Allow me to tackle a couple key points:
Had this ad truly been designed to spur sober thought and discussion from the beginning, why was a behind-the-scenes photo from the original shoot posted on Fluid’s official facebook page with the caption, “Hottest battered woman I’ve ever laid eyes upon”? Why did the male model featured in the campaign respond to compliments on “how well (he) played creep” by writing, “Ha, what can I say? Some thing (sic) just come naturally” (prompting a “hahaha” from Fluid owner Sarah Cameron)? Why wasn’t this ad campaign tied to the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters (or another worthy partner) from the beginning with some sort of discernible call to action? Sure, Cameron vowed this morning to donate revenue from any customer who references the ad to domestic violence awareness. Why wasn’t this the plan from the moment the photos were first posted in February?
I won’t even dignify the ludicrous initial suggestion we “don’t know where her black eye came from.” Aside from being a complete insult to our collective intelligence, such a diversion from the obvious contradicts the deep and meaningful intent the campaign’s creators claim to have been working with. Either Fluid Salon meant to take on a hot button topic like domestic violence (and prostitution, for that matter, based on another photo in the series) or they’ve got the most painfully-naive creative team in Canada. Even a rookie PR staffer would understand the importance of a) being able to explain a controversial promotional endeavour or b) recognizing when your corporation has crossed the line and issuing an immediate, unconditional apology and retraction.
“It seems as though the subject matter and photo series itself is accepted by people if it wasn’t an ad,” wrote Cameron in her own facebook post just hours after issuing the above press release. Bingo. That’s because, as McRobbie Optamedia ad man Jon Manning tweeted quite accurately Tuesday afternoon, “It’s not art. It’s art for the sake of commerce. Advertisers are held to different standards than artists.” In a follow-up phone call, Manning elaborated, “As advertisers, our power is evidenced through our ability to influence others. To me, that’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. There’s a great sense of responsibility that comes with that.” That’s why companies don’t touch on slavery, abortion or terrorism in ad campaigns. Artists, meanwhile, are free (and encouraged) to explore these and other contentious topics. Advertising is designed to increase customer base and revenue. Art, in its purest form, is a tool to increase awareness, discussion and the like.
When I tackle a controversial issue on Breakfast Television, the strength of my conviction only justifies me sticking to my guns to a certain extent. If 95% of public opinion is passionately planted on the other side of the argument, I’ve got some serious soul searching to do. If I perceive that I’m perpetuating pain for victims of a social ill, basic humanity suggests I swallow my pride and take a few steps back.
Had the Fluid Salon team responded to this international attention differently, we’d have a whole different story on our hands. Something as simple as, “Our intentions were pure but our campaign was misguided and/or unclear. We apologize to anyone we may have offended and have withdrawn the ads in question” would have sufficed. Instead, a disturbing, divisive chasm now exists in our city between those sticking up for victims of violence and those sticking up for a small business owner and/or friend. No matter who you align yourself with, I’m sure that’s miles away from what Sarah Cameron and Tiffany Jackson originally envisioned with Look good in all you do.
This will be my final public statement on this topic. Cameron and Jackson were offered a segment on Breakfast Television and declined. We can only hope they come to their senses and do the right thing…looking good along the way.