How a made-in-Canada distress signal may have helped save the life of a North Carolina teen
Girl, 16, is believed to have learned gesture from social media platform TikTok
The Canadian Women's Foundation and a Toronto advertising agency faced a dilemma last year as they prepared to launch their campaign, Signal for Help, which they developed for women facing domestic abuse.
"It's a question that we really debated at the very beginning when launching it, which is should it be a secret sign, should it be something that is not actually super well known, so that it's not known by ... perpetrators?" said David Toto, president of the advertising firm Juniper Park\TBWA.
"Or should it be known no matter what because in any case, the more people know, the better."
They opted for the latter, a decision that may have helped save the life last week of a missing teenage girl from North Carolina who was rescued by police after using the hand gesture. She's believed to have learned the distress signal after it went viral on the social media platform TikTok.
Hand gesture is simple
"It was really relieving to hear that this young woman was able to do this and that people understood what was going on and that they were able to call for help in that circumstance," said Andrea Gunraj, the Canadian Women's Foundation vice-president of public engagement.
The hand gesture is simple: Tuck the thumb into the palm, then cover the thumb with four fingers. It's a way in which women facing domestic abuse can convey a message of help during a video call without leaving a digital trace, such as a text or email.
But the gesture was used in another way on Nov. 4. A motorist in Kentucky contacted police after observing a girl in a car who seemed to be in distress and was giving that one-handed gesture that she needed help, Laurel County Sheriff's Deputy Gilbert Acciardo told CBC News.
"We didn't know what that meant. We had no idea what the TikTok signal was. But obviously the motorist did," Acciardo said.
Police caught up with the vehicle and arrested the driver. James Herbert Brick, 61, was charged with unlawful imprisonment — first-degree and possession of matter portraying a sexual performance by a minor over the age of 12 but under age 18. The 16-year-old girl, who had been reported missing from Asheville, N.C., travelled with the suspect into Kentucky, Acciardo said.
"He obviously thought she was waving at individuals and she wasn't. She was using that signal, the TikTok signal, to signify, 'I'm in distress,'" the deputy said.
"Thank goodness there was a motorist out there that interpreted that, phoned 911," he said. "It was just a wonderful resolution."
Acciardo added, "We don't know what this guy was going to do, but we felt like we saved the young girl's life."
Pandemic led to rise in domestic violence reports
The Signal for Help campaign was launched last year, prompted by increasing reports of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With lockdowns, people were at higher risk of getting trapped at home with their abusers, Gunraj said. But they were also making more use of video calls.
"So those two factors together made a simple one-handed gesture that you could use without leaving a digital trace very helpful in a situation where somebody might be stuck in a violent home," she said.
To come up with the right gesture, research began into different movements, other hand signals and international sign languages, Graham Lang, chief creative officer at Juniper Park\TBWA, wrote in May on the Little Black Book, a website that focuses on advertising news.
"It was critical that whatever it was that we created was unique and different, to not cause confusion across languages and cultures.
'A metaphor for being trapped'
Lang said the foundation and the agency needed to develop a signal that could be made by a person while holding a phone — and a one-handed gesture was the solution.
"It came to us from the idea of tucking your thumb as a metaphor for being trapped," he wrote.
They then ran the proposed signal by multiple experts in the fields of sign language, domestic violence and gender equality to ensure that it would adequately convey their message, Lang wrote.
Following the campaign launch, the signal was adopted and promoted by the U.S.-based Women's Funding Network. But it went viral after a TikTok user filmed the campaign video that recreates a situation in which the hand gesture would be used and posted it on her account.
In the case of the missing North Carolina girl, a motorist who recognized the signal immediately called 911. But that's not necessarily the intention of the campaign, Toto said.
"The purpose was for responders or people that would recognize the signs to ask directly: 'What do you need, what's the best course of action,'" he said.
Gunraj said they have received a few calls of other situations where people saw the signal and were able to respond, follow up and make sure that the individual was getting the support they needed.
"But I'm really mindful of the fact that these things rarely come out in public conversation," she said. "So I can imagine it being used far more commonly than ever would come back to us, ever would be spoken about and certainly ever would make the news."