Hillsborough begins human trafficking awareness blitz


TAMPA — A new message might seem out of place amid the excitement of consumer spending and a regional economic boost from the upcoming Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium — “Don’t buy it, Tampa Bay.”

The words will be on billboards, social media and print advertisements. The message will be wrapped around vehicles used by Uber, Lyft and food delivery services and on buses from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the agency’s bus shelters. Broadcast commercials with the same theme will feature the WWE’s Titus O’Neil.

It is part of an advertising and promotional blitz, with a $250,000 budget, about the dangers of human trafficking. The effort began in November and will continue through June 2021, but the early, heavy push comes over the next two months to coincide with the build up to Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7.

Elisa DeBernardo, account director at FKQ Advertising + Marketing, previewed the effort last week for Hillsborough County commissioners. The county’s Commission on Human Trafficking also was briefed on the effort Thursday afternoon.

“Don’t buy it”” is aimed both at potential victims being told false promises of romance and wealth as lures into exploitation, and at potential customers of sex workers to “help them recognize that human beings are not for sale and this isn’t really what consent looks like,’’ DeBarnardo said.

The advertisements include images of people — both young and old, male and female and of different ethnic groups as potential victims — information on how to report suspected human trafficking and messages including warnings that victims are in plain sight or are forced to work without compensation.

“It’s really important that we use the campaign to rally the community around this issue, versus it being a scare tactic that somehow disparages Tampa Bay,” said DeBarnardo.

Though the kick off is timed to the Super Bowl and an expected influx of visitors, DeBarnardo said, “we know this is an activity that occurs all year long in our community.”

It’s a key distinction. Super Bowls long have been portrayed as once-a-year centerpieces for sex slavery, but some scholars now indicate that image is a myth. In 2019, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, found online ads for sex may increase simultaneously with large events like conventions and sports competitions, but the spike was not distinctive to the Super Bowl.

“It is really talking to all of Tampa Bay,” Commissioner Kimberly Overman said about the local campaign, “but focusing on visitors coming to the area for major events — not just the Super Bowl, but major events.”

Billboards will appear on major highway corridors like Interstate 75 and I-4, in locations that are expected to be “key Super Bowl areas’’ like Westshore Boulevard, International Plaza, Dale Mabry Highway and Raymond James Stadium. The effort also will spread toward Plant City and Wimauma. The digital and social media campaigns will launch closer to the Super Bowl, DeBarnado said.

Related: Hillsborough forms commission on human trafficking

The county created its Human Trafficking Commission a year ago at the urging of Overman who chairs the committee. Advocacy groups have long named the Tampa Bay area as one of the top destinations in the nation for human trafficking, according to the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office. In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that Florida was the third highest state in the nation in numbers of calls to the emergency hotline.

The formation of the Hillsborough Task Force followed the lead of a similar task force in Pasco County. A regional effort is important to combating human trafficking, commission members said Thursday.

“We don’t want to just push the problem around,” said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

Anyone who believes they are a victim of human traffickers or believe they know a victim can call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-200 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.


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