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How A Powerful Anti-Bullying Message Became One Simple Emoji

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 3/11/2015 Damon Beres

There's no need to explain that bullying is horrible, but the problem might be worse than you realize. Kids who witness bullying are more likely to struggle with problems like substance abuse and truancy even if they're not bullied themselves, so the issue radiates well beyond the individual young people who experience abuse.

A new initiative that launched in late October hopes to give those witnesses a simple way to express themselves and shut down bullying as soon as it starts. 

Dubbed "I Am A Witness," the campaign is a collaboration between major tech companies and marketing agencies. Its logo, a simple icon depicting an open eye within a speech bubble, has already made its way into your iPhone's emoji set, though you might not have noticed it yet:

The idea is to give kids a way to call out bullying in text messages or online communications. If someone's trashing a peer, you can simply respond with the emoji instead of using words.

"This emoji felt like it could give teens something to say when they don't know what to say," Lisa Sherman, CEO of Ad Council, told The Huffington Post in a phone interview.

Ad Council spearheaded the I Am A Witness campaign, which pulled financial and creative support from companies like Apple, Adobe and Facebook. Advertising firm Goodby, Silverstein and Partners designed the campaign's logo, which was then converted into an emoji and approved by the Unicode Consortium, the organization that standardizes special characters across platforms. (You could think of it as the group that makes sure "😉" communicates a winking face regardless of what device you're viewing it on.)

Of course, there's a unique challenge to emojis: It's not always clear what they mean, exactly. Sometimes they take on a life of their own. The eggplant emoji "🍆" is used to refer to a certain part of the male anatomy, for example.

Weeks before the I Am A Witness campaign even launched, people uncovered its emoji in a preview version of iOS 9.1 and speculated about what it might stand for -- iMessage or read receipts, for example.

But Goodby thinks the message is clear. 

"Victims of bullying feel so isolated. And online, bullies feel they have the power to bully because they think they have anonymity," Kate Baynham, a copywriter at the agency told HuffPost. "So an eye felt like a no-brainer. It says, 'I see what’s happening here and I’m not into it.'"

Adobe, which provided financing to the campaign and helped put the emoji in front of Unicode, agrees.

"This is an easy mechanism for kids to take a quick stand against something awful that they see," Ann Lewnes, Adobe's chief marketing officer, told HuffPost.

If you remain skeptical about the emoji, though, Ad Council is also rolling out a series of videos on YouTube that explore bullying prevention. Three different clips debuted on the site just last week.

Sherman told HuffPost that there's more to come.

"At the end of the day, our hope is that this truly incredible and unprecedented collaboration is really going to move the needle on this issue," she explained.

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