A visual analysis assignment Niagara University graduate student Karrie Gebhardt completed as part of her master’s degree program in interdisciplinary studies led to a capstone project with the potential to decrease damage inadvertently caused by domestic violence awareness campaigns.

When Gebhardt, manager of public relations and community affairs at Mount St. Mary's Hospital, critically reviewed the Salvation Army’s “The Dress” ad campaign, she said she felt uncomfortable with the visual, which portrayed a bruised woman, and the lack of information about resources provided in the ad.

“I began to wonder if there was any evidence out there of damage done by such ads that portray domestic violence so graphically,” she said.

Gebhardt, who has worked for organizations that provide domestic violence services, decided to investigate this concern as her capstone project. After conducting a literature review that confirmed her theory that intimate partner violence awareness campaigns can cause unintentional harm, she evaluated several campaigns to determine what harm, if any, was done to domestic violence survivors and the public. She also explored the available guidance around preventing such harm and discovered there was no concise, simplified tool to assist organizations in the creation and launch of intimate partner violence campaigns.

“I think what surprised me most was the amount of guidance that is actually out there to assist in creating such campaigns, but that we still have DV awareness campaigns missing the mark,” she said. “In addition, I was surprised by the amount of harm that can actually be done by campaigns, even though that isn’t the intent of the organizations when launching them.”

Based on her research, Gebhardt thought a tool could be helpful, so she created one.

“After discovering the negative consequences of many campaigns and uncovering the lack of concise, practical guidance to assist in combatting these unintended consequences, I created a tool that can be used as a real-world framework for organizations when making decisions to launch domestic violence awareness campaigns. The tool can determine the potential for harm of intimate partner violence campaigns,” she said.

Gebhardt selected nine indicators, represented by statements including “The message and/or visual is relatable to survivors of domestic violence,” “The message provides resources for survivors and/or the public,” and “The message promotes empowerment and self-efficacy,” as the basis for her pre-launch evaluation tool. Using the tool, organizations could critique their campaigns by assigning points, from one to four, indicating whether they agree or disagree with the statements as they relate to the campaign’s words and visuals. The higher the score, the less likely the campaign will cause unintentional harm. There is also space for additional comments to be used as discussion points to assist in interpreting the results.

“Karrie’s research for her thesis, ‘Decreasing the Damage: A tool to determine the potential for harm of intimate partner violence awareness campaigns,’ was quite impressive, and a very important, timely topic to explore,” said Dr. Mustafa Gökçek, history professor and director of the MA-IS program. “The original guidance she developed can help organizations and PR programs ensure their media material doesn’t cause any harm for the victims.”

Gebhardt hopes that this tool can be used in the future by nonprofit organizations and marketing agencies, and recommends that field testing and training materials be completed first. But in the meantime, she hopes that her work can prompt more critical review of campaigns before they are published.

“My heart was really in this work,” she said. “I just hope that it can even start a conversation around being more mindful about what we put out there to raise awareness and help those in need.”






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