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Behind The White House's Celebrity-Filled Campaign To Stop Sexual Assault On College Campuses

"It's On Us" is a sweeping campaign backed by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and many celebrities, whose goal is nothing less than a cultural shift toward treating women with more respect.

Sometimes being aware of a problem isn't enough.

Contrary to NFL news of late, rates of domestic violence in the U.S. have fallen 64% over the 20 years since the Violence Against Women Act was authorized in 1994. The only exception to these statistics, however, is women aged 16-24. The rate of violence and sexual assault against them hasn't budged at all during this period, which is more than a problem; it's an epidemic. The White House has just rolled out a bold new campaign, though, to inspire not only awareness, but sweeping changes in the cultural attitude toward sexual assault on college campuses.

On September 19, President Obama and Vice President Biden hosted a press conference at the White House to officially launch It's On Us. The new initiative aims for engagement, rather than awareness, specifically with young men who may have historically turned a blind eye to the problem at hand. Created by agency Mekanism, the campaign has brought on board celebrities like Kerry Washignton, Connie Britton, and Common, as well as campus leaders, survivors, and athletes. It's On Us also has a heavy social media emphasis to spread the message that sexual assault of any kind is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

"The White House and [campus advocacy group] Generation Progress didn't want just another awareness campaign," says Mekanism CEO Jason Harris. "They tasked us with creating a campaign to fundamentally shift the way we think about sexual assault."

Harris's team landed on "It's On Us" after rejecting ideas such as "Get in the Way" and "Call It What It Is" because it was simple and memorable and it promotes the idea of shared responsibility. One of the ways this campaign is different than others is the emphasis on reaching men, promoting the idea of healthy masculinity, and hammering home the definition of consent. The ads, which were shot by production house The Mill, feature strong male role models like Jon Hamm, Questlove, and Joel McHale to speak to a youthful audience. The initial ad for It's On Us was the most popular YouTube clip over the weekend following the press conference.

"We see this campaign as a multi-year effort," Harris says. "We already have more spots and digital work queued up and ready to go. And the idea is to hand it over to the audience and let them create their own content. So colleges are already starting to make their own videos. So there’ll be more college videos, more celebrity videos, content from everyday folks and large events on college campuses throughout the school year."

In addition to the ads, a major factor in the campaign is that it provides tools for leaders on college campuses, and anybody else for that matter, to get more people involved, like an It’s On Us logo that users can customize to show support. But the main component of the campaign website, built by designers 14Four, is a pledge that visitors can take, committing to take a stand in any way possible, rather than be a bystander to the largely hidden epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. After signing the pledge, users can get a badge on Facebook or Twitter that incorporates the It’s On Us logo with their own profile photo. Within the first 24 hours of the site going live, 32,000 people took the pledge.

"It's all about creating a mental shift for people," Harris says. " Without taking some action, it doesn’t feel like your problem; it feels like a problem that happens to other people. When you sign up for a pledge it makes it feel like it’s your problem as well and you made an agreement to intervene."

During the press conference, Lynn Rosenthal, the White House advisor on violence against women told her own story about direct intervention. One evening, she was at an outdoor café in New York City when she saw a man more or less dragging an unconscious woman toward a cab. Another man soon joined in, and the looks the two were exchanging worried Rosenthal. Not knowing what else to do, she ran out of the café and hopped into the cab, and although it was horribly awkward, she made sure the incapacitated women was taken home. Of course, this is an issue that's far bigger than an individual level, hence It's On Us.

"Campus sexual assault isn't something we as a nation can turn our back on and say, 'That's not our problem,'" President Obama said during the press conference.

In one of his concluding remarks, Obama even broadened it out to a global issue. "If you look internationally, countries that oppress their women are countries that do badly. Countries that empower their women are countries that thrive."

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