Post-#MeToo, brands and advertising agencies have apparently gotten the message that it is financially lucrative, good PR, and ethically responsible to speak up on behalf of sexual assault survivors. One byproduct of that is an ad campaign from Ogilvy Sao Paulo, featuring a “smart dress” that tracks how often women get groped.
Produced by the ad agency in partnership with beverage company Schweppes back in May, the project is a smart dress embedded with sensors that register pressure from touch. Three women wore the dress (which is actually very cute!) to a nightclub in Brazil and were followed by a camera. When the women were subjected to unwanted touching, data from the dress was transferred to a control center via wifi and the area of the dress where they had been touched lit up.
All told, the women spent a little less than four hours at the club and were groped a total of 157 times.
This number is staggering, which is precisely the point: The goal is to show just how widespread sexual assault is. To drive that point home, the video shows a bunch of men making dismissive comments about sexual assault prior to entering the club. For example, they implied that women were inviting harassment simply by being at a club on a Saturday night, and that they’re “just complaining about everything.”
Afterward, the video shows men watching the footage in horror. (The faces are blurred, so it’s unclear if these are the same men interviewed at the beginning, but the editing suggests that they are.)
This is not the first time wearable technology has been proposed as a solution to sexual assault. Last year, an MIT graduate student created a Bluetooth-enabled sticker that would alert the wearer’s emergency contacts if an assailant took off their clothes by force, unless they specified the encounter was consensual within 30 seconds.
And earlier this year, a design firm developed a bracelet that tracked blood alcohol levels and alerted prospective sexual partners if the wearer was too inebriated to provide informed consent.
For the most part, such gadgets have been met with skepticism, largely from sexual assault survivors’ advocates who believe the issue is far too insidious and culturally entrenched for Silicon Valley to attempt to disrupt.
But the smart dress wasn’t developed for consumer use. (We reached out to Ogilvy San Paolo to confirm this, and will update if we hear back.) Nor does it purport to offer a pragmatic and simple solution to a less-than-simple problem.
(There’s also an added level of irony here that entrepreneurs have proposed anti-sexual assault wearables, given that survivors have long been accused of inviting assault based on what they were wearing.)
Rather, the goal of the project is to illustrate sexual harassment in concrete terms, such as numbers or graphics — a method that was used to similar effect by a Teen Vogue editor who reported being groped 22 times in 10 hours at the music festival Coachella.
The Ogilvy project was shot in Brazil, where street harassment is arguably an even bigger issue than it is in America: The video opens with a stat from a 2016 survey saying that 86 percent of Brazilian women have experienced harassment. And according to HuffPo Brazil, a woman on Sao Paolo’s transportation system is sexually harassed every 20 hours.
Still, it’s more than a little bit sexist to imply that men are so inherently right-brain-driven that they need to see hard data on sexual assault to register it as legitimate. And the suggestion that this data is enough to turn the most hard-boiled misogynist into a women’s rights advocate is more than a little bit silly.
The thing is, though, men do have hard data to suggest that sexual harassment is an issue; all they need to do is pay a quick visit to Google.
The actual prevalence of sexual assault is often up for debate, for various reasons: For example, many survivors do not report their assaults or decline to file charges. But the data we have suggests that anywhere between one in five and one in six US women has been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
These are not hard numbers to find, nor is it difficult to figure out why as many as 5 to 20 percent of these assaults go unreported. It does not take particularly complex reasoning skills to draw a direct line between the treatment someone like Christine Blasey Ford received after accusing then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, and why a scared teenage girl would choose to keep her assault a secret.
But ultimately, the problem with this smart dress stunt is that men shouldn’t need to see hard data — or even see women’s harassment unfold on camera, which poses its own set of ethical issues — to wrap their minds around the full extent of the problem.
Just this year, there have been countless women who have come forward with their own allegations of harassment and assault — against Kavanaugh, against news anchor Tom Brokaw, even against the president of the United States — only for their stories to be ignored, and for the accused men to emerge unscathed from brief media maelstroms.
The onus should not be on women to prove to men that sexual assault is inherent in their daily lives. The onus needs to be on men to listen to women’s stories and believe them. And no clever ad for soft drinks is going to do anything to change that.