College Paper Ad Warns Prospective Students That Rape Could Be Part of the Price of Admission

Tara Culp-Ressler
April 16, 2016

A print ad appearing in Harvard University’s student newspaper on Saturday has a controversial message for students: The trauma of trying to get school administrators to take sexual assault seriously is becoming a routine part of the collegiate experience.

The ad buy is timed to coincide with the school’s accepted students weekend, when many high school seniors who are considering attending Harvard in the fall visit the campus. Styled like an acceptance letter that lets a prospective student know they’ve been admitted, the ad makes the case that sexual assault may be one of the college memories in store for them.

“We know that you will make lifelong friends and memories here on campus,” the mock letter reads. “We’re sorry that one of these memories will include being raped by someone you thought you could trust… The claims you will make against your rapist will be ignored, much like your right to feel safe at school.”

Unaceptable Acceptance Letters

The print ad is kicking off a bigger campaign, called “Unacceptable Acceptance Letters,” that plays off of the excitement surrounding the milestone of getting accepted to college. Other campaign materials include videos depicting the moment when prospective students open their acceptance letters — in the style of real acceptance videos that teens often post on social media — featuring young people gleefully reading lines like “You’ll be his third victim” and “They’ll only suspend him for one day, then you’re on your own!”

The message comes through all too clearly. Thanks to the ongoing rates of sexual assault on college campuses, and the evidence that university officials are botching rape cases when students come forward to say they’ve been assaulted, incoming students may not be safe.

“If they accept you, don’t accept this,” the campaign’s tagline reads.

Unacceptable Acceptance Letters is a project of advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners and production company PRETTYBIRD. The latter company was involved in the production of The Hunting Ground, a documentary released last year that painted a bleak picture of the campus rape crisis. Working on that film inspired the group to focus specifically on incoming freshmen.

“The first six weeks of college is the period when freshmen have the highest likelihood of being raped. So we timed our campaign to raise awareness at the earliest point when college becomes a reality — the time when incoming freshmen receive their acceptance letters,” GS&P’s executive creative director, Margaret Johnson, said in a press statement.

As anti-rape advocacy has intensified on college campuses, there’s been increased attention on preparing incoming students for issues related to sexual assault policy. Although school administrators typically don’t want to invite bad publicity around this subject, activists haven’t backed down. Some college students have timed their protests specifically to catch the attention of prospective students. Others have even warned high schoolers not to choose particular universities based on their histories of handling rape cases.

Some members of Congress have also pushed U.S. News & World Report to update its influential college rankings to include information about schools’ sexual assault policies, saying that students who are trying to make decisions about where to attend college deserve as much information as possible about what might happen if they’re raped.