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Truth and Consequences


Susan Philliber, a New Yorker who spends her days analyzing human services programs, had one simple reaction to the ads she held in her hands from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy:

"Has Sarah lost her mind?"

Surely campaign director Sarah Brown, the politically astute, former healthcare adviser to scientists and members of Congress, was kidding. Surely, these teenage tarts and thugs, each one branded with a different scarlet label like CHEAP or REJECT or DIRTY, weren't really going to blast into print.

Oh yes, they are. Beginning Wednesday, the National Campaign, an established research and advocacy organization, will roll out six in-your-face ads designed to get kids talking about what can happen after a couple hits the sheets. Love notes and flowers are not among the possibilities.

Conceived by the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, the project is titled "Sex Has Consequences." Fine print runs up the left side of each ad, playing with the bigger word in red. In the CHEAP ad, for example, the word is blazoned across the bust of a brunette wearing thick makeup, her blouse knotted above her navel. The tiny type says, "Condoms are CHEAP. If we'd used one, I wouldn't have to tell my parents I'm pregnant."

Brown, a former study director at the Institute of Medicine, has been quietly passing the ads around for review. The ad provoking the most buzz, she says, features a gaunt young man who wears PRICK across his olive polo shirt. The message? "All it took was one PRICK to get my girlfriend pregnant. At least that's what her friends say."

"These ads are not just more of 'Let us tell you how to protect your health,' " said Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the National Campaign's president. "They're about how to think about a boy who has just gotten your best friend pregnant, or how to keep your boyfriend."

Sawhill showed the ads to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "I found them shocking," Shalala said later, "but that's the point. They're designed to reach teenagers, not adults, in the magazines teens read and the Web sites they view. I think they achieve their goal. They cut through the clutter of all the messages bombarding teens and get them to think for themselves about the risks and responsibilities of pregnancy."

Several magazines and Web sites have volunteered to run at least some of the ads for free--including CosmoGirl, MH-18, the Source, Teen People and Web sites managed by Oxygen Media. "My jaw dropped when I saw them," said Amy Paulsen, executive editor of Teen People. "They're edgy, unexpected." The double play on words, she said, "respects teenagers' intelligence."

Public officials, including Frankie Sue Del Papa, Nevada's attorney general, have volunteered to distribute the ads. "They are designed to make people talk about the issue, and I think they will," Del Papa said.

But not everyone has been receptive. "The message is pretty negative," said Michael McGee, vice president for education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "I know the intent is to portray pregnancy as the problem, but what you walk away with is the red line and the pictures. The kids are all losers." He has no plans to send them to Planned Parenthood clinics.

Brown understands McGee's reaction. Traditional sex educators prefer esteem-building phrases, she said, such as "Respect yourself," or "Protect your dreams." The National Campaign has talked that talk plenty in the five years it has been around.

But in magazines where female models in mink spread their legs for guys happy to see them, tasteful, feel-good ads are not enough, Brown contends. "Our new ads were never designed for community programs," she said. "They were designed for magazines that kids read, like Spin and Vibe. In that environment, it takes a lot to get kids' attention."

Chris Wall, Ogilvy's executive creative director, said he and his team spent hours observing focus groups of teenagers talk about sex. They also read conversations collected by the National Campaign. What came through loud and clear, he said, was that "kids don't like being talked down to. They want the truth. Also, fair or not fair, they call each other names. These ads make them think what could happen to them."

Lynsey Ross, a freshman at Montana State University, saw the ad prototypes last summer with about a half-dozen other teens who informally advise the National Campaign. She and her colleagues had rejected some earlier ads, but agreed that these "are wonderful."

The PRICK ad "drew the greatest response" she said. "You say, 'What the heck is that?' and you have to read it."

Ross, a national leader of SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), said she hopes to test the ads at an upcoming conference. "The ads are not saying teens are bad," she continued. "They're saying, 'Don't let this happen to you.' I think they'll make a difference."

The ads, by themselves, don't necessarily mean a guy will grab a condom on his way out the door, Brown admits. But she believes that the series, combined with other forms of education, may change some teens' behavior, particularly if public opinion is already moving in the direction of the ads' message.

There are signs that teens' opinions about sex are changing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the birth rate among teenagers in this country--the highest in the Western industrialized world--is declining. So is the proportion of teens who report having sex before high school graduation.

"We should take advantage of the momentum that seems to be out there right now," said Sawhill. "Timing is critical in terms of creating a new social norm, and we may be at that tipping point."

The National Campaign's Web site, www.teenpregnancy.org, appears in the bottom right corner of each ad. But the campaign's name is nowhere to be found, Brown says, because "that would look too much like a PSA. Kids can spot a PSA a mile away and will have nothing to do with it."

That won't be a problem for these images, said Susan Philliber, whose initial horror subsided after she witnessed the reaction of her 18-year-old daughter, Ashley, and two of Ashley's friends. The three girls spied the ads on the table where Philliber had tossed them--and immediately grabbed them up. "Now they're fighting over who gets the one saying 'prick,' " Philliber said.

 

Laura Sessions Stepp, The Washington Post. October 16, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.