News and analysis
March 09, 2015

Salvation Army’s Domestic-Abuse Campaign Playing on ‘the Dress’ Goes Viral

The Salvation Army pounced on the buzz storm of publicity surrounding the color of "the dress" — some saw black and blue, others saw white and gold — to focus attention on a much more serious issue.
An Internet debate about "the dress" has gone viral again, this time with serious undertones.

A Salvation Army campaign to fight domestic violence has played on the brouhaha about the color of a dress and in doing so has racked up at least 30 million Twitter impressions and loads of media coverage, said Carin Holmes, public-relations secretary for the Salvation Army in South Africa.

Domestic violence "is something that hits home all over the world," Ms. Holmes said by telephone from Johannesburg. "I think it is something that happens in more places and households than what we would like to think."

The campaign taps into public discourse about the color of a lacy woman’s dress, first featured in a blog post on the website BuzzFeed on February 26 and subsequently viewed tens of millions of times. To some, the dress looks white and gold. To others, it looks blue and black. The debate went viral on social-media sites including Twitter and Facebook and triggered scores of interviews with scientists and others about differences in perception.

In the Salvation Army campaign, one image depicts a young woman lying on her side. She is wearing a white and gold dress and has dark colored bruises on her legs, a gash on her upper lip, and a black eye.

"Why is it so hard to see black and blue?" it reads. "The only illusion is if you think it was her choice. One in six women are victims of abuse. Stop abuse against women."

Another image shows a woman, with injuries on her ear and lip, applying makeup.

"Why is it so hard to see black and blue?" the Salvation Army wrote in its tweet. "Because they cover it with white and gold."

Ms. Holmes said the South African advertising agency Ireland/Davenport called her with the idea for the campaign at 3 p.m. on Thursday. The deadline to get the ad into the Cape Times was 4 p.m. As soon as she saw the images, she knew it was going to be a hit.

"I didn’t think it was risky at all," Ms. Holmes said. "Domestic violence is very real in South Africa. It is a topic we address on a regular basis. When I saw the add, I just realized it was brilliant and was quite happy to put the shield on it."

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Ms. Holmes said. The campaign has been covered by 200 news organizations internationally. She and her colleagues have also received feedback from domestic-violence victims who have expressed support and in some cases asked to be directed to related services.

Ron Busroe, national spokesman for Salvation Army USA, said the campaign turned a trivial conversation into something meaningful. And in the United States, it has drawn attention to the organization’s services for domestic-violence victims. The Salvation Army is the second-largest provider of such services in the country, with 18 domestic-violence shelters. That part of its mission that is little known, he said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.