Teen Sex Ad Campaign Pregnant With Criticism

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Catcalls, raspberries, howls of protest and various random drubbings have greeted a provocative new teen sex advertising campaign designed to do what it has done: grab attention.

"Teen pregnancy is a tough issue," says Sarah Brown, director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy which launched the campaign on its website. "It's not for the faint of heart."

The public service ads, called "Sex Has Consequences," were developed pro bono by the hip, Big Apple-based firm of Ogilvy & Mather to, in Brown's words, "break through the media clutter in teens' lives and reach them on an emotional level." The ads were launched recently on the campaign's website and distributed to over 8,000 magazines and newspapers. The campaign is targeting teen magazines, a spokesman says.

In the beginning, the words got the reaction. The words - Reject, Useless, Nobody, Cheap, Dirty and Prick - are superimposed in nearly four-inch, fire-engine-red capitalized letters over the upper bodies of six teen models (individual photos of four girls and two boys). In tiny black type running vertically above and below the first letter is an anti-sex statement that includes the word in red.

The word "dirty," for example, runs over the photo of a young Asian girl in jeans, while the entire statement reads, "I want to be out with my friend. Instead, I'm changing DIRTY diapers at home." Another photo reads: "All it took was one PRICK to get my girlfriend pregnant."

Toby Viramonte, 21, a teen activist and an unwed father of a three-year-old girl, says the words are "uncalled for." Viramonte, a stock clerk who lives in Madras, Ore. (pop. 5,000), says, "I come from a good home and I dress well. I also know real people who are teen mothers and fathers. I do not see real people in those ads." Viramonte notes that the models in the campaign all have blank, unemotional faces. "They all look down and dreary, uninvolved."

His main complaint is that "those of us who have children still have responsibilities for their upbringing - this isn't mentioned in this poorly written campaign." People seeing the ads for the first time won't get the message, he feels, and will be turned off by the negative portrayal of teens.

 "The campaign has missed an opportunity to interact with teens on an important issue in a respectful manner," says Natasha Sakolsky, former program officer in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Adolescent Family Life Program. Sakolsky, now director of the Global AIDS project for the D.C.-based National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, terms the ads "regressive in nature, not progressive." Since the American public's attention span is so short, she maintains, "what they'll see immediately is name-calling with those words in big type." Why not show a picture of a high school cheerleader, she asks, "rather than people who are withdrawn and depressed." She believes the ads imply that "only certain types of people are promiscuous."

"But these ads sum up the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's efforts," contends Sakolsky. "They're not focused on young people or the communities in which they live; offer no leadership or equal positions in the organization for youth; and what interactions they do have with young people are superficial."

In addition to the focus groups, the campaign used its own 30-member National Youth Leadership Team, which changes in number and composition every year, for reactions to the ads. One member, 18-year-old Lynsey Ross from Billings, Mont., admitted that there was an objection to one of the words. "We didn't like the word 'worthless.'" It was changed to "useless." Ross likes the ads: "They are so new, so different, they will accomplish their purpose of making people talk about the issue."

Agreeing that cutting-edge advertising "resonates" with teens, James Wagoner, president of the D.C.-based Advocates for Youth, nonetheless chastised the campaign in a letter to Brown, saying, "Our concern is that the campaign reinforces negative stereotypes of youth and compounds the damaging belief that young people alone are the cause of the teen pregnancy problem." Wagoner and others say the campaign labels youngsters as irresponsible misfits.

"We do not underestimate the negative reaction," Brown says, "but the reality is that the level of interest in our website has gone up dramatically." There is, she says, "room for straight talk." She has invited Wagoner and any other critics to meet and discuss their differences about the campaign's approach.

"After all," offers Brown, "sparking conversation is what the ad campaign is about."

Contact: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (202) 478-8500, www.teenpregnancy.org; Advocates for Youth (202) 347-5700, www.advocatesforyouth.org.