It was only a matter of time. The ambiguously colored dress that took the Internet by storm has made its full circle of online saturation — moving from a massive viral story, to an opportunity for corporate brands to get in on the action and cement the joke as officially over, to an edgy PSA imploring people to look past the meme and toward bigger issues — reminding us all how difficult it is for even the most well-meaning brands to appropriately interact with cultural trends.
The South African branch of the Salvation Army — an international Christian-affiliated charity that operates in more than 100 countries — is sharing an advertisement for a domestic violence shelter that features what’s come to be known simply as The Dress. Hailed as “powerful” and “brilliant” in AdWeek, the PSA features a bruised woman wearing the white and gold version of the now infamous clothing item:
The caption reads, “The only illusion is if you think it was her choice.”
In an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News, the South African advertising agency behind the image explained that they moved quickly to execute the idea after the internet became overwhelmed with chatter about The Dress. “Overall people have been commenting how they hate the fact that an insignificant thing like this could take priority on the internet over more pressing topics such as abuse,” the company said.
After the ad was complete, the company approached the Salvation Army to ask if the charity wanted to add its name to the PSA. It now features a logo for a shelter run by the Salvation Army that assists victim of domestic abuse and their children. The agency told BuzzFeed that the shelter was “overjoyed to help us get their message out there.”
It’s a nice and well-intentioned message, if a little simplified for the 21st century (surely, at this point, we are past the fundamental concept that domestic abuse occurs). It’s been widely praised as the “right tone” for companies to strike. But it also brings up some complicated issues related to branding, social media, and the pitfalls of participating in cultural conversations on the Internet.
It makes sense that companies would want to capitalize on the major Internet moments of our time. They want to be culturally relevant, and they also want to take advantage of all the eyeballs that are commanded by viral sensations like The Dress. But brands that jump to insert their messages into the latest trending topic on Twitter are not exactly widely well-received.
The concept of a hapless #brand blithely tweeting jokes with a corporate goal in mind has become so widely mocked that it’s inspired several pointed parody accounts. There are frequent roundups of the most cringeworthy social media messages that brands share in the midst of major national tragedies, like adding promotional hashtags to posts about mass shootings. And companies are often mocked for pre-scheduling tweets in a way that doesn’t account for the actual news cycle, which can make their attempted promotion come across as crass.
And if corporations stumbling into Internet memes ends up cheapening the message, then their slightly-too-topical PSAs about domestic violence — an issue that’s already been subject to its fair share of flashy awareness campaigns over the past year — ring even more hollow. Particularly after some of the more nuanced conversations that have arisen about the best ways to prevent and punish domestic abuse, and the complicated ways that the issue interacts with the legal system, it may not be an area where it makes sense to have surface-level discussions facilitated by #brands.
In fact, linking women’s issues with corporate branding can actually be harmful; one recent study found that the persistent marketing around breast cancer has led women to take the issue less seriously.
We know that domestic violence happens. There have been plenty of awareness campaigns along these lines (which, according to social science, aren’t incredibly effective at motivating people to change their behavior). Now, we’re now grappling with how to move forward on the issue in a meaningful way — something that’s hard for ads to capture, even if their heart is in the right place.
In that context, perhaps connecting The Dress to issues of gender-based violence doesn’t elevate the conversation to a more significant or pressing place. It brings a complex issue down to a level of soundbytes and days-old memes.