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A Madison Avenue executive embarks on a crusade to battle youth violence

In the wake of several high-profile shootings in schools this year, lawmakers, parents and educators have been looking for ways to help curb youth violence. Madison Avenue has traditionally tried to support such efforts by creating public service advertising, and then offering the commercials and print campaigns free to the media. But one advertising executive has taken a different approach.

Alan Rambam, already a seasoned executive at 32, has started Shine, which stands for Seeking Harmony in Neighborhoods Everyday, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing youth violence. Using a Web site as its hub, at shine.excite.com, Shine tries to provide teenagers a voice to express themselves through poetry and art about substantive topics like racism, self-esteem and violence.

The site features original work created by children to promote peaceful solutions to troubling issues. Celebrities like Puffy Combs, Katie Couric and Kevin Spacey have also contributed inspirational words and drawings.

Even President Clinton has joined Mr. Rambam's crusade, naming him director of the National Youth Campaign for the National Campaign Against Youth Violence. Mr. Clinton created this initiative soon after the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. According to Mr. Rambam, the president is planning to announce various programs for parents and children that would involve Shine.

Shine began its own $30 million antiviolence campaign in October with advertising and media partners including Excite@Home, Tommy Hilfiger, MTV and Teen People magazine. The companies have committed a combination of money, media space and commercial time.

Each is sponsoring a different medium for the campaign: Excite@Home, online; MTV, television; Teen People, print; and Hilfiger, outdoor. In addition, Geppetto & Partners in New York, part of the WPP Group, was named agency of record.

Nickelodeon Digital Animation Studios in New York, part of Viacom Inc., developed the first television commercial for Shine, which is running on MTV. The spot features Maxine, a digitally created hip teenager, walking into a serene field filled with vibrant flowers. Then as a storm of dark clouds and debris swirl around her while she hears recent news reports about teenage violence, she shouts: "Stop! Choose your weapon: art, music, technology. Shine: you stop youth violence."

The goal is to establish Shine as a brand, Mr. Rambam said, not unlike other labels popular among American youth.

The Web site uses a phrase meant to serve the way a tag line or slogan does for a brand, "Take a stand; use your voice; impact your world."

Stephen Friedman, vice president for public affairs at MTV in New York, also part of Viacom, said the partnership with Shine "raises the visibility of our viewers' No.1 issue and allows kids the platform to express themselves."

MTV and Shine are producing a contest, called Speak Your Peace, asking young participants to offer an idea for a 30-second public service announcement to stop youth violence. Two spots will be produced to run 50 times each on MTV.

Hilfiger is sponsoring a similar contest, "Stop Violence, Start Art," which will place winning entries on billboards in the hometowns of winners. Hilfiger is also printing the Shine Web address and message on about 600,000 garment tags in stores.

Teen People is planning to play host to a national series of "Teen Town Hall" meetings, award an annual scholarship and donate space in its pages to promote Shine. The magazine will also produce content for the Shine network, an in-school club aimed at helping students curb violence and racism in their communities. It will publish lesson plans in Scholastic Inc. publications.

"Only with the help of teen-inspired ideas and solutions can we start to eliminate youth violence," said Anne Zehren, the publisher of Teen People, part of the Time Inc. unit of Time Warner Inc. in New York.

Mr. Rambam is not new to Shine's main audience or mission. In 1989, Shelly Rambam, his mother, who was a teacher, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Largely in honor of her, in 1991 he started Zoot Suit in Philadelphia, an agency devoted to advertising aimed at children.

Mr. Rambam also founded Kids Bridge in 1994, a nonprofit series of four multicultural children's complexes under construction in New Jersey. Raising more than $6 million, including a $350,000 Housing and Urban Development grant from Congress, Mr. Rambam said the complexes would consist of an art gallery and theater.

After working with clients like Crayola, Hilfiger and Toys "R" Us, Zoot Suit was acquired in April 1997 by Gillespie in Princeton, N.J., now part of McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising, a unit of the McCann-Erickson World Group, owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies.

To communicate with children effectively, Mr. Rambam said, recalling a lesson he learned at Zoot Suit, "it's necessary to speak to them in their voice, not at them."

That is why Shine selected Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, the popular rap trio, to be the host of a Voices Against Youth Violence meeting last month in Washington, which drew almost 500 youth participants.

"We're trying to shift the paradigm away from Nintendo and 'South Park,'" Mr. Rambam said, "and toward programming that is involving and accepting of the specific ethnic backgrounds, interests and tastes of young consumers, while maintaining a cool and hip brand identity."


Westray Battle, The New York Times, Tuesday, December 14, 1999

Copyright © 1999 The New York Times. All rights reserved.