Living in a world where the average human brain is loaded with about 34GB of data daily, it’s hardly surprising that most of us feel somewhat saturated. Especially when it comes to screen time. I mean, have you ever read a heart-wrenching story online only to find the faint flutter of empathy you felt a moment ago vanishing as you close the tab?
It’s okay – you’re not the only one. Empathy doesn’t seem to come naturally when it’s mediated by a screen.
Being confronted by ugly realities or uncomfortable emotions unexpectedly in public spaces is a whole different kettle of fish, however.
Over the past few years, urban spaces around the globe have become living canvases for a range of thought-provoking and conversation-starting social awareness campaigns. Here are seven that stood out to us:
Freeway water warning signs, Cape Town
In the grip of a severe ongoing drought, the City of Cape Town has used various of methods of inspiring its citizens to reduce their water usage – from upping the ante on restrictions to naming and shaming those who do not comply. However, it was only once they started broadcasting updates about dam levels and the number of days left till all the water runs out on the electronic signboards lining the freeways, that the shocking reality about the crisis hit home for many commuters. Possible reasons for the success of this campaign could be that the information catches commuters at particularly vulnerable times of day as they head in to work in the morning or back home in the afternoon and also provides an automatic talking point among fellow commuters (in the same vehicle, obviously), colleagues or around the dinner table. While the novelty may have worn off by now, there’s no doubt these visual reminders had a great impact on the way thousands of Capetonians had been engaging with and thinking about the drought.
Gigantic breast, London
In celebration of UK Mother’s Day, London-based creative agency, quite appropriately named Mother, placed a gigantic inflatable breast on top of an ordinary brick building in the east city. While, initially, it may have come across as something rather salacious, a bit of googling (because that’s obviously what every curious individual would immediately do!) would have revealed that the massive mammary actually provided eye-popping commentary on the state of public breastfeeding. The agency explained the motives behind the installation on their website: “It’s hard to believe that in 2017 UK mothers still feel watched and judged when feeding in public, by bottle or breast. This was our Mother’s Day project. A celebration of every woman’s right to decide how and where they feed their children without feeling guilty or embarrassed about their parenting choices.”
An uncomfortable message about sexual harassment on public transport, Mexico City
Sticking to indecent exposure, Mexico City recently installed some rather uncomfortable seats on a number of their Metro trains. Marked as reserved for male passengers, each of these seats features a muscular chest for a backrest and a protruding penis at the base. A campaign video shows commuters’ reactions – most shaking their heads in disgust, giggling or snapping a sneaky shot as they notice the modifications before sitting down elsewhere, while a few less fortunate unknowingly settle in, before jumping up in horror a few seconds later. While it could easily be mistaken for some sick prank, a sobering plaque on the floor in front of the seat reads (roughly translated): ” It is annoying to travel here, but it does not compare with the sexual violence that women suffer on their commute”, referencing recent survey results where 9 out of 10 Mexican women had admitted to feeling unsafe on public transport. The seats are part of an ongoing campaign by Mexico City and the United Nations to combat sexual harassment in the city.
Amnesty International bus stops, Zurich
A couple of years ago, Amnesty International Switzerland launched a hugely effective outdoor campaign in Zurich, where billboards with shocking scenes of human rights violations from other parts of the world were erected throughout the city, blending in seamlessly with the urban surrounds. Each billboard carried the tagline: “It’s not happening here but it’s happening now”, in English, French or German and forced the viewer to – for one moment – call their own comfort into question.
Hungry kids in shopping trolleys, all over South Africa
Nothing like the pleading eyes of a hungry child staring up at you to make you rethink those impulse buys while grocery shopping. However, this was not the main objective of Feed SA’s brilliant shopping trolley campaign. Instead, they wanted to show people that helping fill empty bellies is basically as easy as purchasing products for your own household. Apart from the striking images that were placed inside the bottom of shopping trolleys, a small sign on the handle of the cart directed people to the Feed SA website where donations can be done in just a few clicks. Ad agency, TBWA, reported that the campaign was extremely well-received and led to a huge jump in traffic and donations.
Only for children, Madrid
In an effort to provide a safe way for abused children to reach out for help, ANAR, a Spanish organisation offering aid to children and adolescents who are victims of violence, created an outdoor advertisement that displays a different message for adults and children at the same time. Working with a lenticular top layer, the image in the ad changes, depending on which angle you look from. So, when an adult stands in front of the sign, all they see is a portrait shot of a sad child with the caption: “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering.” To a child (or anyone shorter than 1.5m) the image changes, showing the same portrait shot, but this time with bruises and the caption reads: “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we will help you.”
Bin stickers shedding light on homelessness, Melbourne
Back in 2008, the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, a Melbourne-based Catholic charity, launched a hard-hitting outdoor awareness campaign in a bid to highlight the plight of the city’s homeless. The campaign saw the top of the CBD’s rubbish bins overlaid with stickers resembling a place-setting – knife, fork and folded napkins – accompanied by a caption, “For the homeless, every day is a struggle.”