Crime In Britain: Advertisers 'prey' on female dread of random attack: Real life or media hype? Marianne Macdonald reports on women's growing fears of violence

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The Independent Online
SCENARIO ONE: A dark, wet night. A middle-aged woman arrives at a deserted bus stop as the last bus pulls away. She is frightened, but luckily has a mobile phone and calls her husband for help.

Scenario Two: A late-night phone call. The young doctor borrows her boyfriend's car and gets stranded in a bleak backstreet when the petrol runs out. She has a phone in the car and a trusty mechanic zooms to the rescue.

The situations were the plots of advertisements for Cellnet and the RAC which ran last year. They sum up a controversial marketing trend which plays on women's fear of random attack.

The Cellnet advertisement, one of four which showed the benefits of mobile phones, provoked 33 complaints to the Independent Television Commission from people who felt it 'preyed' on fears of women.

Cellnet defends it as being based on a real-life situation and rejects accusations of scaremongering. Gerry Moira, creative director of Woollams Moira Gaskin and O'Mally, which conceived the RAC's advertisement, says: 'It's merely a demonstration ad; problem, solution.'

Yet in the eight weeks during and after the campaign Cellnet sold more than 50,000 phones costing pounds 250 to pounds 300.

Three weeks ago Claire Tiltman, 16, became the fifth female whose murder was highly publicised in recent months. She was killed in an alley in Greenhithe in Dartford. In June, Katie Rackliff, 18, was stabbed after she left a nightclub in Camberley, Surrey. In July Rachel Nickell, 22, was killed under the gaze of her two-year-old child on Wimbledon Common. In August, Helen Gorrie, 15, was strangled in Horndean, near Portsmouth. And in December Johanna Young, 14, died after she was hit on the head and sexually assaulted in Watton, Norfolk.

This seemingly relentless rise of violence against women has pushed up sales of personal alarms and doubled the inquiries from firms for safety talks from London crime prevention officers.

The fear has proved rich meat for businessmen. Firms have seized the opportunity to promote mobile telephones, personal alarms, and gadgets ranging from skin dyes to blow-up torsos as important safety equipment.

Devices include Rapel Skunk Oil ( pounds 15.49), which emits such a disgusting smell that the attacker is repulsed (although so, presumably, is the victim); DYEWitness ( pounds 30), a foam that temporarily blinds the attacker and stains his face green for a week; and the Silent Passenger ( pounds 40), a blow-up torso with wig and hat that rides pillion beside the lone woman driver.

DYEWitness, which is sold by Spycatcher, a security shop in central London, has proved so popular that it was sold out last week. Staff describe it as the closest thing to the gas Mace, which is illegal in Britain. Police are concerned that the dye could be used for offensive, rather than defensive purposes - not to mention the risk of civil claims for accidental misuse, or the possibility it could be used to brand someone falsely.

The effectiveness of personal alarms is also open to question. In 1990 the consumers' magazine Which surveyed seven types. Although products have improved since, its conclusions were damning.

'The only people who took any action when we set off alarms in 13 places were the ones who thought their car might be being stolen,' researchers wrote.

'In all cases . . . the lack of reaction was the same. Passers-by simply carried on walking or chatting. And when we asked people what they thought the noise was, only one said it could have been 'one of those things for muggings'.'

Despite fear of random attack, the principal suspect in 43 per cent of murder cases in England and Wales in 1990 was the spouse or lover. In only 11 per cent of cases was it a stranger. Over the years this figure has remained fairly consistent. Dr Betsy Stanko, a criminologist and expert on women's safety, said: 'In reality women's most dangerous place is in the home, from anyone, including fathers, brothers, friends and ex-lovers.'

The public thinks otherwise. A security salesman at Spycatcher said: 'Every day if you pick up the paper there's a murder on the front page. You don't need to do any research, just read the paper.'

But it is the news coverage which is misleading. Random attacks are front- page precisely because they are rare. This is not recognised by readers, whose exaggerated fear of them was revealed in a Home Office survey in 1984 which compared men and women's expectation of attack with the actual risk.

Sixteen per cent of women aged 16 to 30 said they would feel unsafe walking after dark. Actual crime statistics showed they had a 2.8 per cent chance of being attacked. While 37 per cent of women aged 61 and over said they would feel very unsafe walking after dark there was only a 1.2 per cent chance of them becoming victims.

'This is partly due to a tendency in literature and news reporting which focuses on women as victims of rape and murder,' said Helen Peggs, of Victim Support.

She believes figures showing that reported rapes have steadily increased from 515 in 1960 to 4,046 in 1991 are 'extremely unreliable' because social acceptance and increased police sympathy means women will admit rape far more often than in the 1960s.

Other little-quoted Home Office statistics appear to confirm the view that women need not be running scared.

In 1989 only one-third of victims of violence against the person were female. Of that third, those most at risk were 16- to 24-year-old women.

Such calculations find little welcome from Kal Mohamed of Spycatcher. 'Do you always go by statistics and surveys?' he demanded. 'We live in 1993, we know about violence everywhere, in the UK, USA and Europe.'

'That's right,' chipped in his colleague. 'It's terrible. You only have to read the papers.'

(Photograph omitted)