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Complaints over image of rape victim prompt Liquor Control Board to kill online ad

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said today it has removed a graphic image from an online advertising campaign that warns women they could become victims of rape if they drink too much alcohol after receiving "thousands" of complaints.

A picture showing a woman's bare legs lying on a tiled bathroom floor, her underwear pulled down to her ankles, drew criticism on online blogs that the ad blamed the victim. One of the messages that accompanies the image of the woman says, "She didn't want to do it, but she couldn't say no."

Hours after an inquiry from a Tribune-Review reporter and in the face of the complaints, the LCB removed the image from its ControlTonight.com campaign, which urges drinkers between the ages of 21 and 29 to reduce their alcohol consumption or face consequences ranging from arrest to date rape.

"It's the woman getting blamed for the crimes being committed against her," said Julie Mastrine, 20, a Penn State University junior who wrote a blog post about the ad after seeing it on Facebook. "It's dangerous because law enforcement won't take rape cases seriously and rapists will use it as an excuse."

"In no way did the board or anyone who created this campaign ever intend for this ad to make it appear that we were making the victim to blame for anything, and we feel that the ad is very clear in communicating that it is not her fault, that it is the fault of the rapist," LCB spokeswoman Stacey Witalec said in an interview Wednesday afternoon before the ad was removed. "But there are ways to make sure you're taking good care of yourself to make sure this doesn't happen. If we can just prevent one chance of this happening, we feel the campaign has been a success."

Witalec said the LCB has received "thousands of complaints" this week. She said many of the people who called or e-mailed complaints said they saw the ad on websites, where copies appear to remain. She said the image was removed from the state's website at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The Control Tonight campaign took nearly two years and roughly $650,000 to develop. It's the most in-depth and targeted campaign the agency has undertaken, officials told the Tribune-Review. It includes ads on Internet radio apps such as Pandora and posters in college-town bar restrooms, where young people are likely to see them.

Control board CEO Joe Conti said the image of the woman is edgy, but it has provoked worthwhile discussion of the dangers of drinking too much.

"It's that fine line. Listen, in some respects the discussion that's going on in the blogs and the interest that you're saying, bravo," Conti said. "We're creating a dialogue. We're clearly making an impact."

The board posted a statement about its decision on its Facebook page. It reads:

"First, thank you for all the comments, emails and phone calls you shared with us in the last few days. Regardless of your point of view, positive or negative, we sincerely appreciate the feedback, and we recognize how heartfelt it was. We considered all of it when determining how to move forward with our 'Call the Shots' campaign.

"Some of you have already noticed that we are removing the 'date rape' scenario from the campaign. As we posted on Facebook yesterday, our intent with the 'Call the Shots' campaign as a whole is to raise awareness about a significant, but too-seldom discussed health and public safety issue, binge drinking and the dangers associated with it. And unfortunately, the reality is sexual assaults and excessive consumption of alcohol are closely intertwined.

"From the very beginning of this campaign, it was important to us to address this issue, which is difficult to talk about, in hopes of giving people the tools to help keep their friends safe because friends are the last line of defense for someone who has had too much to drink. Obviously, for some, the 'date rape' poster messaging brought about painful unintended consequences. Our intent was certainly not to 'blame the victim' or 'let the perpetrator off the hook.' Only a rapist is to blame for rape.

"This poster was never intended to suggest otherwise. We are grateful for all the victim's advocates who said that hard-edged conversations such as this are exactly what we need but if the messaging is causing any pain for victims of sexual assault — than that is a bottom-line point for us.

"As for the campaign itself, we will continue with the rest of the messaging regarding alcohol poisoning, fighting, etc. Our hope moving forward is that the dialogue we see here will continue about the risks associated with consuming too much alcohol because until people realize there's a problem, it's impossible to find a solution. Again, thank you for your input."

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