Branding for date rape drug detector needs polishing

by Becky Brinkerhoff / Beacon Correspondent • September 10, 2014

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A group of college students have “Undercover Colors”, a nail polish that changes color when exposed to chemicals found in common date rape drugs.
A group of college students have “Undercover Colors”, a nail polish that changes color when exposed to chemicals found in common date rape drugs.

Four male undergraduate students at North Carolina State University have controversially dipped their fingers into the sexual assault prevention industry. Inspired by stories from their female friends, the group invented a nail polish that changes color once it comes into contact with the chemicals found in common date rape drugs.

The makers of the polish, called Undercover Colors, and the product itself has been the subject of an immense amount of backlash from anti-rape activists. On my own Facebook feed, I’ve read statuses wondering why anti-rape activists can’t just be grateful that a group of guys would spend their time trying to engineer a solution to rape. 

The fact that the students won first place and $11,250 at NC State’s LuLu eGames, a competition that claims to empower “students from all disciplines to collaborate to develop solutions to real world challenges,” isn’t a problem. Nor is it problematic that the inventors went on to raise $100,000, or that the polish is taglined as the “First Fashion Company Empowering Women to Prevent Sexual Assault.” 

The problem that’s inspired this massive amount of negative feedback isn’t the product, it’s the marketing. It’s how the polish is being labeled: prevention. The notion that a polish could “empower” women to “prevent” sexual assault turns it into yet another way that the victims could have avoided their assault. 

As a community that has participated in social justice efforts to rework the narrative of sexual assault, we at Emerson should be familiar with the foundation of modern anti-assault advocacy: that the only person who can prevent rape it the rapist. If the NC State students had done their homework, they could have come up with a more progressive way to brand their product and, perhaps, continued with less controversy. 

The existence of female-centric self-defense classes and pink cans of pepper spray prove that continuing with less—or even without—controversy is possible for these types of risk-reduction efforts. These defense products aren’t marketed as prevention; they are promoted as ways to make one feel more in control. Putting “prevention” in the tagline is false advertising. 

A quick Google search of the phrases “rape” and “nail polish” elicits the result “Anti-Rape Nail Polish”. In reality, of course, no such thing exists. What does exist is a nail polish that changes colors when it comes into contact with date rape drugs—which is the product these North Carolina students have created. That’s what it is, and that’s all it is: nail polish.

Anything that reduces sexual assault, even just one instance, is a good thing. If one assault is halted in part due to this invention, it’s worth it. But it’s important to see these risk-reduction tools for what they are, which the makers of the polish clouded with their prevention-focused advertising. According to a 2007 study from the National Institute for Justice, only about 2.4 percent of female undergrads that had been sexually assaulted were suspected to have been slipped a drug. That leaves a vast amount of assaults this product can’t help. This product might change a life, which is not to be discounted, but it won’t change the world.

As Alexandra Brodsky, a founder and co-director of Know Your IX, a national campaign to end sexual violence, once explained, “One of the reasons we get so excited about these really simple fixes is because it makes us feel like the problem itself is really simple.” There are no simple solutions for the problem of sexual assault. The only prevention for sexual assault is one that deals with the assaulter, which is far more complicated than putting your finger in a drink. As for the polish, you can put it with your pink pepper spray as a safeguard, but not a solution.