Being the publicity director for The Vagina Monologues and its offshoot the V-DAY movement during the Hong Kong 2007 campaign brought its share of rewards and positive experiences, though not without marketing and public relations hurdles and challenges. The V-DAY Hong Kong 2007 campaign revealed that any publicity director who takes on marketing and public relations responsibilities for this kind of project needs to be fully aware that s/he is walking on eggs and must manage publicity and public outreach efforts with considerable tact and diplomacy, adapting carefully to the audience and its perceptions.
The movement’s mission is to raise awareness of violence against girls and women, as well as to inspire them to develop more self-confidence and self-respect. The play that gave birth to the movement was first presented in 1996 and started as a solo artistic project. The V-DAY movement was later born as a result of the positive impact the play had on girls’ and women’s lives, and the pressing need for an organized group devoted to helping them. This movement, entirely managed by women, now aspires to be the world’s leading female movement for peace and freedom, thanks to impressive media attention the play has received over the years and the thousands of volunteers who have invested time and energy into the cause. Ever since 1996, V-DAY campaigns have sprung up all around the world, under the umbrella of the global movement, organizing thousands of consciousness-raising events, public performances, as well as education, networking and fundraising activities, along with the presentation of its star production The Vagina Monologues.
Although progressive audiences have warmly welcomed the play and the movement, in more conservative parts of the world V-DAY suffers a popular perception that the movement derives from radical feminism, motivated to spread inflammatory and controversial messages via the promotion of scandalous female eroticism. It’s therefore no surprise that local Vagina Monologues/V-DAY promotion teams occasionally face strong local opposition and must engage in significant damage control measures before, during and after their promotion campaigns—and only when the play is not completely banned outright. Surely, the descriptive title of the play creates uneasiness because in most cultures the word ‘vagina’ is frequently censored; some people have experienced an almost instant repulsion for the play and its content because of the emphasis on the V word. Others have even identified the play and the movement with a group of enraged misandrists motivated by rampant feminism out to seek justice because of their frustrations towards men. These reactions can be disconcerting but must be expected when introducing a project that so bluntly challenges the taboos of a society.
I quickly learned how communications strategies and tactics for the V-DAY campaign should strongly focus on accentuating the humanitarian aspect of the campaign, while diluting the impression that it originates from an uncompromising and spiky feminist movement. Indeed, feminism runs through it, but a caring and inclusive form that needs introduction to the public. Also, while promoting the play, I realized that every word had to be carefully measured not to appear to be voluntarily seeking controversy. Some publicity gurus may say that controversy is great for publicity because of the attention it draws. But, let’s not forget that it is also a double-edged sword that can easily antagonize a portion of the public. In this case, every promotion effort should concentrate on rallying the public to the cause.
I found that future promotional teams will increase their chances of overall success if they include a strategy handling the queasiness over the word ‘vagina.’ The more conservative the audience, the more important it is to be proactive. I suggest reshaping perceptions through press conferences, public discussion sessions about the local taboos surrounding the word ‘vagina,’ published articles and other educational spin-off events around the movement and its use of the controversial word next to its overall purpose. To increase credibility, I find also useful to mention famous past contributors such as Oprah Winfrey, Glen Close, and local celebrities, should there be any, and talk about the most significant achievements of the movement.
The movement mainly targets women and young girls. However, a promotion campaign making the movement come across as gender discriminative may result in ostracising the male audience and compromise the success of its greater purpose. One should keep in mind that the movement needs this other half of society to bring about changes in the way women and young girls are treated, but the nature of the movement is intimidating for men. I therefore strongly recommend developing promotion strategies that include ways to make the movement attractive for men, as well. Extending a warmer invitation to the male audience can reduce the feeling that V-DAY is misandrist. By doing this, you reach out to a larger group of people, to men who can sympathise, but also to women who are supportive of women’s causes and projects that are not gender exclusive.
In the end, I realized that the greatest challenge for a V-DAY publicity director is leading a campaign in ways that are acceptable and attractive to both the male and female audiences, while being considerate of their cultural sensitivities and respectful of the integrity of the movement and its play. This can result in increased public and media support for the cause which is the best measure of the movement’s success.