Anti-Domestic Violence Groups Leverage Controversy During Super Bowl

Amongst the comedic advertisements promoting avocados and smartphone games during Super Bowl XLIX, one dramatic anti-domestic violence PSA stood out.

The spot begins with the camera drifting through a seemingly average house. The viewer notices minor disturbances, including a disheveled rug and various items tossed about. Over the footage, a real 911 call plays in which a woman orders pizza from the emergency operator. Initially confused, the operator soon realizes that the caller cannot speak openly and is actually coding her distress by feigning a food order. He asks if there is someone in the room with her.

The caller responds: “Yes.”

Sponsored by No More – an anti-domestic violence consortium including businesses, foundations, and nonprofit advocacy groups – the advertisement is chilling yet powerful, using dialogue from an actual emergency call that attracted widespread attention last year when it was posted on Reddit.

The PSA’s launch during the Super Bowl is not surprising; following a number of domestic abuse incidents involving players, the league is still scrambling to save face – and its credibility.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell provoked the ire of women’s advocates around the nation through his fumbled response to Ray Rice’s violent assault on his fiancé (now wife) last year. When the Baltimore Ravens running back struck his partner unconscious, he initially received a light reprimand. It was only following the TMZ release of the security footage that depicted Rice’s assault that the league acted more forcefully.

Several other incidents dovetailed with Rice’s: the Florida Panther’s Greg Hardy is appealing a conviction he received for attacking his former girlfriend; the San Francisco 49ers terminated a contract with Ray McDonald following a sexual assault probe; and Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson recently reached a plea deal to avoid jail time on child abuse charges.

Grappling with the fallout from these controversies, the NFL teamed up with No More. The league aired the advocacy group’s Super Bowl ad pro bono and also covered its production costs. Additionally, the NFL has spent millions of dollars broadcasting its own ads that feature pro-football players speaking out against domestic violence under the No More banner.

Another advocacy group took a more direct, less conciliatory approach during the build-up to the Super Bowl. Ultraviolet – a nonprofit women’s advocacy group – released a jarring and provocative ad on ESPN, featuring a fully equipped football player violently tackling a woman. The ad ends with the combative hashtag #GoodellMustGo.

PSAs, of course, offer discussion but do not necessarily result in action. Activists and commentators – including Hillary Crosley Coker at Jezebel – argue that face-saving PR campaigns do not provide for real, frontline work in the fight against domestic violence. This point is valid. Raising awareness is important, but at the end of the day nonprofits and philanthropists need to step forward and underwrite invaluable support services for abuse victims.

Nonetheless, No More and Ultraviolet wisely leveraged the NFL’s poor handling of its domestic violence controversies. Ultraviolet’s confrontational approach – directly criticizing the league and its commissioner – was likely one of the factors that pushed the NFL to co-opt No More’s campaign as a sort of pressure-release in the face of public scrutiny.

Recognizing the league’s distress and capitalizing on the missteps of its executives, these organizations compelled the highest-grossing sports organization in the United States to free up a substantial amount of resources to at least provide token support for the anti-domestic violence cause. The end result was a cost-effective publicity blitz that propelled a tremendously important issue into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

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