Innovative Jerseys Raise Awareness Around the Online Bullying Athletes Face
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Innovative Jerseys Raise Awareness Around the Online Bullying Athletes Face

May 25, 2023

During the 2022 UEFA Women's European Championship in England, every member of the English Women's National Team stayed off social media for the entirety of the tournament. Focusing on the primary task at hand of playing dominant soccer and winning the tournament was too important, and silencing all forms of social media distractions was critical to that endeavor. Too often social media is weaponized against professional athletes, who face online hate and abuse at alarming rates. Women athletes are particularly susceptible to sexist hate and misogyny online, so it's not surprising that the Lionesses decided to opt out altogether and power off completely.

To shed light on this ongoing issue, EE and BT Group originally sought out the creative prowess of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi during the men's European Championship in 2020. The thrust of this first phase of the campaign was to address the outpouring of online racism that contaminates professional football, and thus, EE Hope United was born. Composed of a coalition of some of the most prominent professional footballers playing today, EE Hope United is a super team formed to fight online abuse. When the women's Euros came around two years later, it was only logical to push the impact of EE Hope United even further.

Once again, EE and BT worked with Saatchi & Saatchi to develop a 360 campaign for the tournament to call out and squash sexist hate women footballers face online. "91% of hate sent to female footballers comes from men," Will John, Executive Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, told me. "It's men sending this hate, so we needed to reach them with a campaign that made them sit up, take notice, and change their behavior."

In addition to producing an incredibly compelling, visceral ad spot dubbed, "Not Her Problem," Saatchi & Saatchi worked with the creative technology production company The Mill to devise a generative art technology that uses data from players’ social media accounts to create jerseys.

"We built a generative software application that's essentially a piece of software that when you plug in new numbers, it gives you a new shirt design," explained Will MacNeil, The Mill's Design Director of Experience. "That was the engine of the job. Once we made that, the designs could be put onto a website, it could be used to design the printed shirts, it can be updated at any time. It was the hub of the whole thing."

The jersey designs themselves articulated the amount of online hate and hope an individual player was receiving at any given point throughout the tournament. MacNeil and his team created a visual pattern that represented hope accompanied by another that represented hate, with each disrupting one another based on the data from their software. It took immense thought and consideration to devise a visual language that translated into jerseys that were evocative, wearable, and authentic to football kit culture.

"We started with the question, ‘What does hate look like?’" said MacNeil. "We went through a pretty lengthy process of trying to figure that out. We had lots of references, a lot of organic stuff; things like weeds, kidney stones— which, when you see them microscopic, are these really sharp and fragmented things. So we were trying to assign different shapes to different types of hate. The data that we ended up pulling came down to anti-Black, anti-female, and anti-LGBTQ, so we picked a look for each one of them."

These conceptual ideas had to balance out with classic football design while also communicating the technological nature of the campaign. "We wanted it to feel quite digital, so that it was clearly drawn by data," MacNeil continued. "What we ended up doing was designing a really cool shirt with stripes and little subtle digital cubes and patterns in it, and then as the data comes in, it messes that up and disrupts it. So in three different ways, it kind of offsets those patterns so they feel kind of broken."

"Since the abuse that these players receive is online and digital— tweets, DMs— to get something that reflects that digital online nature of that hate was key in the shirt's design," John added. They landed on an electric green, dark teal, and black color palette coupled with pixel-inspired patterns to achieve this for the kits, which alludes to glitching technology while still falling within an aesthetically pleasing design.

"Remaining true and authentic to football culture was a massive goal," said Saatchi & Saatchi Executive Design Director Nathan Crawford. "The shirt design had to resonate within the community. The amount of kits and the culture that surrounds it is big and getting even bigger, so if you’re not true to that, then you’re sort of very quickly outed as being inauthentic or too commercial with it."

In addition to printing physical versions of each jersey which were given to their respective players on EE Hope United, The Mill created digital renderings online that were updated in real-time based on live social media behavior during games. "The idea was that the shirts would become living visualizations of this stuff, and we could update them whenever we got new data sets in," said MacNeil. "We were hoping that the digital shirts would become a portal that people would be intrigued by and then they’d want to dive in to actually see the numbers themselves."

To pull these numbers with the utmost accuracy, The Mill partnered with HateLab, a global hub for data and insight into hate speech and crime operated out of the University of Cardiff. "Early on, we realized we needed to have a strong academic backing for all of this; we couldn't just make it up," said MacNeil on turning to HateLab. "As soon as we started talking to them, they began recording all of the social media mentions for all of the players involved in the campaign, so they had statistics running all the way through. Then, as soon as the tournament began, they started to give us actual graphs showing us where the numbers were spiking."

"One of the most satisfying parts of this job was working with the HateLab team because they could explain so much of what was going on," continued MacNeil. "They had such a good and open-minded grasp of what hate speech was and where it came from. And they were quite scientific about it too. So for instance, we learned that 99% of the hate that's aimed at male football players, regardless of their sexuality, is homophobic. I was learning a lot about this stuff, and learning about myself as well."

While minimizing sexist hate was the main goal of this iteration of the EE Hope United campaign, Crawford and John were also intent on highlighting the awesome skill of female footballers. "What we also wanted to achieve is how we positioned women footballers," said John. "We wanted to elevate these female footballers, and show them as incredible athletes. They have enough problems on their plate, trying to win the Euros, dealing with injuries, competition in the team…sexist abuse shouldn't be one of those problems. It's a problem that comes from men, so it's up to men to deal with it, and to get men to recognize it."

The EE Hope United campaign reached over half the UK population throughout the women's Euros, with 3.8 million men getting up-skilled in countering online misogyny. "That was done through what we called ‘hope drills,’ which were forms of short, snackable social content from the players on how to tackle sexist hate, how to call it out, how to stop it, what not to do, etc," said John. EE Hope United helped reduce online misogyny by 20% by the end of the tournament, and hope outweighed hate by 125 to one, according to HateLab data.

With the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand on the horizon this July, the important impact of the EE Hope United campaign will reverberate. The Hope United team continues to actively combat online hate, while the project is also fighting to enhance an Online Safety Bill that fails to explicitly mention the safety of women and girls. This is an ongoing conversation of increasing magnitude, as women athletes garner more and more long-overdue exposure. Let's all ensure they’re receiving positive attention online so that they can focus entirely on what actually matters: playing the game.

Charlotte is a New England expat currently living in Los Angeles, CA with her cat, Joan Cusack. She is a power-clashing maximalist with an inordinate disdain for the color navy. When she's not writing about ad campaigns and colorways you can find her scouring estate sales or attempting to teach herself calligraphy.