‘Domestic abuse is getting smarter’: behind Refuge’s sinister 50th anniversary film

Domestic abuse charity Refuge decided to focus its 50th-anniversary campaign on the insidious ways technology is being used by abusers after it saw such cases double over a year.

Refuge raises awareness of the coercive ways domestic abusers use technology to control their victims
Refuge raises awareness of the coercive ways domestic abusers use technology to control their victims

“There was a Refuge case study about an abusing partner that was away but controlling the heating and the lights in the house,” Kimberly Gill, creative director and partner at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, recalls, highlighting the torturous new form of domestic abuse. “He made it hot so she couldn’t sleep. Switched the lights on and off repeatedly during the night.”

Our world now features technological capabilities once only imagined by futurists like Arthur C Clarke. Smart homes are a hopeful vision of domesticity, a better way of living, but some now worry they can also be a dystopian nightmare. Something closer to the world that Aldous Huxley warned against. 

Between April 2020 and May 2021, Refuge saw a 97% rise in complex tech abuse cases. Two in five women say a partner or family member knows the password to their personal devices – 28% of these women say that they did not give the password out willingly. As technology gets more sophisticated, domestic abuse is getting smarter. 

Refuge sees its 50th year as "very much a birthday not to be celebrated", its communications and external relations director Lisa King, says. "Two women are killed by their partner a week. It’s getting worse with the volume of calls and contacts that our helpline receives.”

Gill explains that the brief took some time to figure out. “Refuge at 50, there is so much you could say about campaigning, how it's changed legislation and all the services it provides for survivors,” she says. But she admits the team didn't think that was going to motivate people and that they also wanted to avoid saying domestic abuse has got worse. 

“That’s how we got to a more focused message," she adds. "What does domestic abuse look like in 2021? It looks very different to when Refuge opened its doors in 1971. So we got to that strategic approach – that we’ve come a long way in 50 years but, sadly, so has domestic abuse. It felt like a message people wouldn’t have heard before.”

The heart of the campaign is a film that at first glance appears to be promoting a new smartphone. Instead, it highlights the insidious ways technology is being used by abusers to monitor and control their partners. And, importantly, how this makes the charity’s job more complex than ever. 

Real-time mapping, we are told, can “keep you up to date with traffic in your area… and her movements”, while smart home features can be used to adjust the heating and lights “even when you’re not at home, so you can control her from wherever you are”. 

And to make it sound uncomfortable and sinister, BBH heightened the voiceover, distorting and manipulating it. 

The film is complemented by out of home, which Gill explains is because “the streets are full of product launches. We wanted to lure people in, with this new product that turns out to be something very different.” 

BBH and Refuge admit they were aware that by making the ads so close to the real deal, they ran the risk of blending in too well with the likes of Apple and Google.

“Particularly with the film – it takes only eight seconds for the voiceover to say something darker,” Gill recalls. “We were quite deliberate to make it over the top, changing the voice because we just couldn’t risk people going, 'oh it's another phone ad'. It had to be very deliberate. From then, we escalated the effect on his voice.”

She explains that at first they had the voiceover actor reading in a sinister way, but that actually sounded jokey and theatrical. “We had to get to something that had a chilling nature to it,” Gill says, highlighting how the phone has scratches and the fingerprints work to demonstrate that this is not a new phone you can buy. 

Over the summer, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, the topic of women's safety from male violence was heard loudly in the public forum. This led to the chilling front cover of The Northern Echo, which pictured the 80 women who had been killed at the hands of men since Everard's horrific death. 

“It’s getting more public and political attention than the issue has ever seen,” King says. “Certainly in my 18 years working at Refuge and all the various campaigns I’ve done over that time. But it's still not funded enough by the government. There aren’t enough services. The police response is woeful, the CPS response is woeful. There’s a long way to go.”