A new ad campaign prepared by the New York City Human Resources Administration has drawn fire from some of the nation’s best sexual health advocates.
I’ve been struggling with this campaign from the perspective of a communications person. I stand firmly with the campaign’s many critics, who rightfully point out that the campaign overly stigmatizes teen parents. I can also see how it was so easy to get it so wrong.
For the unfamiliar… The two-week old campaign appears to have two components: subway/bus ads and a text-based game. The ads feature teary-eyed toddlers saying things like, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” The text game prompts you to follow a fictional teen couple as they experience a pregnancy.
Most of what’s been written on these ads has focused on the inappropriate way they stigmatize teen parents. Indeed, shame-based ads are unlikely to help prevent a first time pregnancy and undermine the hard work of many successful parents. You can read criticism of the ads here and here and here and here and in many other places.
This type of advertising can cause more damage than just hurt feelings, though. Stereotyping undermines public support for really effective programs and policies that help young parents do well. Guaranteed access to education, affordable child care, parenting programs, the ability to make and afford family medical decisions are all crucial to helping young moms and dads succeed. They also require support from community leaders, policymakers, and the general public. These ads only reinforce current mental frames about personal responsibility – and worse, stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and poverty. And why on earth would Jane Doe subway rider want her tax dollars funding a program for that poor little crying baby’s awful, terrible, irresponsible teen parent (her view, not ours). In addition, more than a quarter of teen pregnancies happen to teens who have been pregnant before. Any serious campaign needs to work with them, not alienate them.
All of that said, it’s pretty easy to see how they ended up with the campaign they did.
When we set out to launch our own social marketing campaign, The Playbook, we had a lot of opportunities to make the same decisions NYC (consciously or unconsciously) made. Here’s where I think NYC made some very wrong turns.
Style beat out substance
When we requested proposals for ad agencies, we got lots of flashy ideas: PSAs with celebrities, video ideas, texting programs… Those can be very attractive, especially in a sector (nonprofit or government) that subsists on shoestring budgets and DIY projects. It’s also worth pointing out that those ad agencies were only repeating old tropes about teen pregnancy – which often start in the very organizations trying to do good work on the issue – and thought they were presenting something good and helpful. They are not steeped in the justice aspects of the work we do. In our process to launch the Playbook, we looked past the flashy ideas and hired an agency that was willing to research our target audience before proposing a campaign.
The solution didn’t address the problem
Despite some of our mythology around teen pregnancy, it’s important to understand that the overwhelming majority of teens don’t want to get pregnant. In fact, in their press release, NYC stated that 87% of the city’s teen pregnancies are unintended. Focusing so heavily on reasons to avoid having a baby doesn't seem like the right message for people who already don't want to have a baby. (And assuming teens thinking about their hypothetical future child’s educational outcomes is just weird.) There's nothing wrong, per se, about pointing the challenges of early pregnancy and parenting. But do it in a way that doesn't tear people down - like this. The city would’ve been better served by communicating that you can get pregnant, that you can avoid getting pregnant, and specific behaviors to avoid pregnancy.
They tried to appeal to everyone – but communicated the wrong thing
Why are the ads’ toddlers all multiracial-ish looking? Why are the teens in the text game named the ethnically vague (though most have assumed Latino) Anaya and Louis? I’m guessing they wanted to appeal to all teens. They didn’t want to kids to think it wasn’t for them. And so they went for photos and fictional teens that could exist in the world of most teens. It was likely a decision that took a lot of thought – but it failed to consider how easy it is to trigger stereotypes. For The Playbook, we used racially diverse illustrated characters to address this challenge.
They didn’t want to offend
Sounds crazy, right? Yes, considering the ultimate outcome. When we launched The Playbook, we went through umpteen rounds of edits to make sure we weren’t sex-negative or “promoting sex”, excluding LGBTQ youth, encouraging stereotypes based on race or gender, using shaming language, poo-pooing the decision not to have sex… We also took great strides to prep adults in the community, even giving a heads-up to people we thought would dislike the campaign. I suspect NYC knew the potential for backlash, and thought, “Teen pregnancy is bad,” would be a universally appealing message. I also suspect that the parent focus groups in NYC liked the ads – and that their opinion mattered to the campaign’s planners. We were up front with adults when we launched The Playbook and said, “We expect you to like this just as much as we expect you to like Justin Bieber. But you’re not our audience.”
In all of this, NYC made some really smart decisions – ones that I think will ultimately serve the campaign well:
- Following fictional Louis and Anaya lets teens “play along” and personalize the experience of a teen pregnancy. Seeing that decisions could impact your own life is an important step to behavior change.
- The final text asks users to share the game with their friends. Reaching teens is hard! I’m guessing NYC is staking most of the campaign’s growth on the virality of it, not on posters.
- They offer access to resources. The first text tells teens, “Hey , DYK as a teen you can call 311 for sexual health care services and contraception near you? Text "more" to play a game.” Teens get this message whether they play the game or not.
NYC deserves a lot of credit for their overall prevention efforts. The implemented universal evidence-based sex education in schools, and their CATCH program to connect teens with Emergency Contraception should serve as a model. Those programs have helped the city reduce its teen pregnancy rate by 27%. But, they messed this one up.
We all exist in a world that frames teen pregnancy just as this campaign does. It’s how our agencies, our advertisers, and our audience already think, and it’s often perpetuated by the very people who want good change. And it will continue to be that way unless we approach how we communicate about teen pregnancy with just as much evidence, thoughtfulness, and respect as we use in other areas of our work. That’s where NYC failed.