The brands have spoken, and they want you to know that domestic violence and sexual assault are bad. In fact, the brands not only think they’re bad, but have a theory as to why they persist: the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault don’t have a strong enough brand. So, to help get America talking about these issues, the brands created a brand, and partnered with other brands to promote this brand. And this is how No More—a more or less imaginary brand made by brands to help domestic violence and sexual assault with their brand problem—came to be.
It’s no wonder Roger Goodell and NFL owners ran to No More with open arms when their $10 billion sports enterprise was faced with a serious public relations crisis, the culmination of years of paying little thought to players accused of domestic violence. No More was the perfect fit for a brand with a problem. So it came to pass that the NFL, as part of its anti-domestic violence initiative, partnered with a branding campaign co-founded by one of its crisis-management consultants and, this past weekend, ran an advertisement for it before the biggest audience in American television history.
Before going further, let’s acknowledge a difficult part of this discussion: domestic violence and sexual assault are horrific and almost unbelievably widespread, and any help in the fight against them is welcome. What No More sets out to do is good. Still, this is the beginning of a story we’ve all seen before with Pinktober, LIVESTRONG, and even the incredibly important but eventually coopted AIDS ribbon. What begins as a push for change becomes an invisible force telling us that we must buy specific items and wear certain logos so we can feel better about ourselves, and if we go along, we do so not because we care but because we don’t want to feel left out. What good this does for people in need of help isn’t always clear, but it’s great for the brands, because all they have to do is slap logos on a few products and/or advertisements and throw a few pennies to charity to make themselves seem socially conscious. These logos are an embodiment of magical thinking, promising that you can do good without having to actually do anything. They’re shams, basically. Now, we’ve got another one.
How No More began
No More, the latest entry in the great American tapestry of brands saying they care, started in 2009—or at least talk about starting it began in 2009. Virginia Witt, director of No More (the small group doesn’t have any full-time professional staff), said that’s when domestic-violence and sexual assault groups decided to “radically change how these issues are seen and addressed, and in doing so brought together dozens of leaders from the prevention field, along with experts in marketing, communications and branding.” The problem, they decided, was that these issues had a brand problem. The solution? Make a logo for them. From Witt (emphasis mine):
The idea was to give domestic violence and sexual assault something these issues had never had: a unifying brand. The idea to bring these two movements together came from the interconnectedness of the issues. Intimate partner violence, as defined by the CDC, includes both, and very often they are experienced together. And so after a year of planning, hours of donated volunteer time and consultation from leading creative experts, research and focus testing the NO MORE brand was developed in 2010 and 2011.
The logo was created pro bono by Sterling Brands, who’ve done brand work for Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Disney, Bayer, Google, Visa, Time Warner, and Pepsico. Sterling Brands’ website says it does three things really well: brand strategy, brand design, and brand innovation. They certainly sound qualified to create a brand, and they did. It was unveiled in 2012, but because this was something created by and for brands, who by definition love public relations, there was also an official public launch in March 2013. So, from start to finish, it took about five years (and the doubtless valuable work of a number of marketing professionals) for the brands to give domestic violence and sexual assault a brand so that we could support the fight against them better.
When I sent Witt a list of questions about what exactly No More is and what exactly it is they do, her response mentioned the AIDS ribbon and the fight to raise awareness of the virus three times. The AIDS ribbon, she told me, was their model. So it may be worth revisiting the first big moment for the AIDS ribbon, which was not given an official public launch after years of research and focusing testing, but crashed the Tonys after being created in a few weeks by a group of artists who gathered in a shared gallery space in New York City because they just had to do something. From The New York Times:
EVERYTHING was, at first, handmade. Painters, curators, museum administrators, they stood at work tables in a costume studio crafting their memorials. Some cut the narrow red grosgrain from spools; others folded the strips of fabric and stitched gold safety pins to the backs. They talked all the while, caught up with each other as at a quilting bee, tedious and comforting. And amazingly efficient. After four and a half hours of elegy and dish, that first bee last May produced 3,000 ribbons, enough for the satin lapels and glittering bodices at the Tonys a week later.
Consistency had not been a priority. Jeremy Irons’s came out looking like basset-hound ears; Willa Kim’s was the size of a pinkie. But they were enough alike to make a statement; the question was, what statement? Viewers of the telecast were never told that the pert red inverted V’s were meant to symbolize awareness of AIDS; and so, in their debut, the ribbons actually came to symbolize ignorance of the awareness of AIDS. It was not the last of the ironies.
Who is behind all this?
No More describes itself as a “non-profit project” of Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. (Asked to clarify what that means, Witt said, “NO MORE is non-profit project in the sense that it is a project of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit organization.”) Everything that comprises No More, though—their logo’s trademark, their webpage, their funding—comes back to corporations. When I asked who is paying for No More, Witt told me it’s supported by the corporations listed on their homepage—Viacom, Prudential, Allstate, Verizon, and so on. Their trademark and web domains are owned by Kate Spade, a company known less for charity than for $358 purses that exude a certain WASPy charm. And it was co-founded by Jane Randel, a former senior vice-president with Kate Spade who specializes in “reputation and crisis management,” “corporate rebranding,” and “cause marketing campaigns.”
Jane Randel is now an NFL consultant, brought on during the public relations crisis caused by the league’s poor handling of several prominent players accused of domestic violence; she signed the post-Super Bowl email sent out to those who signed the group’s online pledge to say, “No more.” It’s a telling set of relationships. No More is a brand created as an extension of other brands, and has come to prominence at a time when its co-founder, a specialist in using marketing tactics to change the reputation of brands and make them seem socially conscious, found herself with a client in need of precisely these services. It’s all the more telling given that No More doesn’t seem to actually do anything, aside from existing as a brand.
What do they do?
The most confusing thing about No More, which describes itself as “an awareness symbol and movement,” may not be that it doesn’t seem to do anything, but that it doesn’t even purport to do much in particular.
“Our role,” the group says, “is to raise awareness ... and attract more resources and support for our partner groups.”
How much awareness they’ve raised is unknown and unknowable, but attracting resources and support for domestic-violence organizations is a concrete goal that should lead to measurable results, good or bad. This, though, was the response I got when I asked Virgina Witt to estimate how much money No More helps direct to domestic-violence nonprofits:
We don’t have an exact total of how much money and support has been generated for the field because of NO MORE. But as more celebrities, brands and advocates get behind it, and the profile of NO MORE continues to go up, we are confident that it will continue to be seen as asset to them. The symbol was created with the support of two dozen domestic violence and sexual assault prevention organizations who are using NO MORE in all kinds of ways. Some have developed their own NO MORE products – lapel pins, clothing, and jewelry – that they sell to make money that supports their work. Others have used NO MORE as the branding for consumer engagement events to raise awareness and support in their communities. Every person coming to NO MORE’s website is directed to our partner organizations, as we don’t accept individual donations. And dozens of nonprofit groups have co-branded the NO MORE PSAs produced by Joyful Heart Foundation.
Read generously, this is just marketing jargon (“brands ... an asset ... consumer engagement”) wrapped around an admission that no one has any idea whether or not No More actually does anything tangible for groups fighting domestic violence and sexual assault. Taken at face value, as it probably should be, it suggests that the measure of success for No More isn’t whether it actually directs new funding to, say, hotlines, shelters, and lawyers, but whether those who are already fighting domestic violence use No More branding in their own fundraising operations.
I took the No More pledge on their website. Since then, the only thing I’ve received from them is an email from Randel asking me to please share their advertisement on Facebook.
The core of No More’s existence as a brand is its logo, that teal circle that represents years of work by the brands’ best and brightest. Witt told me that this logo is “a gift to the domestic violence and sexual assault prevention field, that they could use alongside their own logos, to demonstrate their belonging to a national movement.” What this movement actually consists of other than people and brands using the logo is unclear; what is clear is that this gift comes with some very detailed instructions. A 36-page set of “visual identity guidelines” opens with this explainer on how the logo works.
Here’s the list of things not to do with the logo:
- Don’t change the orientation
- Don’t change the colors
- Don’t place the signature on a busy background
- Don’t crop the signature in any way
- Don’t create your own tagline lockups
- Don’t add effects to the signature
- Don’t embellish the signature
- Don’t stretch, squeeze or distort the signature
- Don’t use the signature on similarly-colored backgrounds
- Don’t embed the signature within a block of text
- Don’t add an outline to the badge signature
- Don’t bevel or emboss the signature
There are also very specific directions for the “Vanishing Point icon,” which is what No More calls that teal circle. “Respect our signature as you would any brand, product or corporate logo,” the instructions warn. “Recognition is built only with correct and consistent use.”
They mean it when they say respect the signature. It’s been trademarked.
(The AIDS ribbon was not copyrighted or trademarked and didn’t have any real visual identity guidelines, except for this: “cut the red ribbon in 6 inch length, then fold at the top into an inverted ‘V’ shape. Use a safety pin to attach to clothing.”)
Near the end of No More’s visual identity guidelines is a section on co-branding. It gives several examples of what it’s looking for:
Surprise! The NFL’s big partnership involves ending domestic violence through the power of nail polish, headphones, and ugly shoes. And it makes sense—who doesn’t want to fight domestic violence and sexual assault by painting their nails? Imagine your girlfriend saying, “I love that color,” and you being able to respond with, “Yeah, it’s my anti-domestic violence polish.” It’s what we’ve been missing all this time.
The AIDS ribbon got caught up in branding itself, though that wasn’t the original goal. It led Daniel Harris to write the essay “The Kitschification of AIDS,” which ran first in Harper’s and later in his book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture:
AIDS may be the first disease to have its own gift shop. Housed in the Workshop Building of the AIDS Memorial Quilt—the acres of fabric that commemorate the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims—Under One Roof is at the epicenter of the burgeoning industry of AIDS kitsch. Catering to an upscale clientele beaming with good intentions, the store, on Market Street in San Francisco’s Castro District, peddles memento mori as shamelessly as tourist traps peddle souvenirs: “Cuddle Wit” teddy bears that sport tasteful red ribbons; Keith Haring tote bags; and T-shirts stenciled with the words “We’re Cookin’ Up Love for People With AIDS.” The boutique also sells a unique line of AIDS-related sympathy cards, including one picturing a seductive man leaning inconsolably against a tombstone angel ...
Although Under One Roof donates its profits to a variety of AIDS-relief organizations, commercial businesses have not hesitated to wrap their products in the shroud of AIDS to promote their own merchandise. Benetton, in the early 1990s, placed in glossy magazines an ad that featured a skeletal male figure, obviously dying of AIDS. Stretched out in a hospital bed, beneath a print of Jesus Christ, he is attended by a sobbing father, who clutches him like a rag doll, and a grief-stricken another, who sits crumpled in despair. In the ad’s left-hand corner several words sit quietly in mourning, like unbidden guests maintaining respectful silence in the company of the family’s anguish;they read, “United Colors of Benetton ... For the nearest Benetton store location call 1-800-535-4491.”
Should I brace myself for Tealtober?
Probably, unless they pick a different month.
The brands have chosen domestic violence and sexual assault as the vessel for their concerns, and they will make sure we all care, on their terms. And the most ingenious part is that whenever a brand has a domestic violence or sexual assault public relations disaster on its hands, all it will now have to do is cozy up to No More, throw them some money or help out with an advertisement, and its problem will be solved. Now, the brands don’t even have to get into the messy business of figuring out which nonprofit to cut a check. They can support No More and say they’re supporting everyone while really playing the long game of supporting their own needs first and foremost.
But before you run and hide from the latest on-trend cause célèbre, take a moment to think about the logic of what No More is doing. You know why they are doing this? Because it works. Because it makes money. Because we love pretending to care, especially when a brand makes it easier for us to do by removing all the pain, horror, darkness, and self-reflection and turning concern for others into products—preferably ones that can be worn. Do those teenage boys wearing “I Heart Boobies” really care about breast cancer? Probably not, but at least they’re thinking about it, right? And even if they don’t think about it, they generated money (a nickel on the dollar, maybe, but better than nothing) for a good cause!
This is how low our standards are. Gesture toward a good cause and you’re practically unassailable. No More gave Goodell and the NFL a cheap and perfect way out of a public relations disaster and we shouldn’t be surprised. We do the exact same thing every day when we throw on our Toms, our pink baseball hats, and our latest rubber bracelet of choice, shopping our way into another day with pure hearts and clean consciences.
Know something we should? Drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org. Illustration by Jim Cooke