When Campaigns Go Bad: New York City’s Teenage Pregnancy Campaign

The following guest post is authored by Susan Nall Bales, FrameWorks President.

y-teen-popupIf FrameWorks had a Frames of Shame Award, New York City’s new Teen Pregnancy Campaign would be a strong contender.  It represents a series of catastrophic but classic mistakes about social issues campaigning.  In that regard, it is instructive.

First, about the campaign: follow along by accessing “City Campaign Targeting Teenage Pregnancy Draws Criticism” in today’s New York Times.  The central strategy is to present victimized children who are destined to fail because they were born to teen mothers. A complementary game follows a pregnant Latina teenager through her day as she is routinely ostracized for her “choice.” National stats about the connections between teen pregnancy and drop out rates are used to credential the campaign message. The call to action is “not now.”

For starters, this campaign gets the social analysis wrong.  Kudos to Planned Parenthood of New York which immediately recognized this fundamental flaw at the heart of the campaign strategy and spoke up.  “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” said their spokesperson.  Indeed, this campaign ignores a public health approach in favor of messages that assert individual responsibility.  In fact, the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration admits that the goal of the campaign “was to send a message about personal responsibility that would resonate with teenagers.”  In buying in to a myopic, individualist view in which individual actors choose their fates regardless of the environments, conditions and opportunities that surround them, the campaign sponsors ignored their responsibilities as public health educators.  In choosing the “target” of the campaign as the teenagers themselves, they demonstrated profound disregard for decades of social science that show that social determinants matter greatly or “what surrounds us shapes us.”

I am remembering a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss in which he attempted to reconstruct a battle scene and observed, “What does it matter as long as the wounds fit the arrows?”  I have interpreted that to suggest that good meaning-making depends upon matching cause and effect and making sure that they are in alignment.  In this case, the vectors were wrong.  The wounds were perceived as self-inflicted, so the size, shape, origin and location of the arrows didn’t much matter.

Really – don’t New Yorkers deserve better than this?   What’s curious about this campaign is its context – New Yorkers have been greatly educated by the lessons of social responsibility put forward by the city’s ban on sugary drinks.  Even the ads associated with this campaign often reflect the recognition that the problem has a primary cause beyond individual responsibility. “Portions have changed,” reads one ad, “and so has Type 2 diabetes.” On this issue, responsibility for changing up the circumstances in which people make decisions has been front and center. This campaign appropriately connects the “epidemic of obesity” with the ubiquitous, irresponsible marketing of sugar in ways that make it extremely difficult for individuals to opt out.  As well as recognizing that cultural norms play a big part in our “going along” with the dominant paradigms and lifestyles of our time.

It is the very contrast between these two campaigns that is so interesting.  Do public officials not recognize that there is an ideology inherent in any campaign, that where you assign responsibility has consequences for how people learn to see the world and to interpret those same statistics?  If they are primed to see them through the lens of individual responsibility, they are less likely to care about budget cuts that take funds away from single mothers and poor people more generally.  If they see those statistics as symptoms of unaddressed structural inequalities, they are far more likely to engage with preventive and remedial policies.  While the Teenage Pregnancy Campaign purports to address itself to at-risk teenagers, it fails to take responsibility for its polluting influence on the rest of us.  It is teaching us, with every ad to which we are exposed in those bus shelters throughout the city, that teen pregnancy is an act of choice in the face of a clear decision-making tree.  Mothers, it infers, willfully put their own children’s future at risk by their irresponsible acts.

And this brings us to another error in the social analysis: the assertion of determinism.  By using population level statistics to explain the fate of each individual face in the ad, the campaign plays irresponsibly to the strong American cultural model of determinism. Those children are clearly doomed – the emotional base of the ads turns around this trope.  What is overlooked are strong findings from neuroscience that the presence of a loving and caring parent can buffer children from the effects of toxic stress resulting from extreme poverty and exposure to violence.  Or the fact that effective programs that engage children throughout their development can yield positive outcomes.  It all depends how many negative factors get stacked on their resilience scale and the strength and accessibility of positive factors to counterbalance.  By hardening the fate of the children in these ads, the Teenage Pregnancy Campaign diminishes the importance and effects of intervening variables which can make all the difference in these children’s lives.   New Yorkers have a need and a right to know about such programs as they decide how to spend their public health preventions and interventions to improve the city’s future.

Consider the facts used in the campaign: a child born to a teenage mother who has not finished high school and is not married is nine times more likely to be poor than a child born to an adult who has finished high school and is married.  By focusing on teen pregnancy, this campaign chose to ignore the other variables in the equation.  How about focusing on the relationship between education and poverty, or the difficulty of returning to school in our society, or the lack of quality child care available to moms who work and are trying to get their GED?  Or cuts to afterschool and mentoring programs? The reductionist nature of this campaign only becomes evident if you know where to look for what’s missing.  Let’s face it – most people won’t be encouraged to do so by this campaign.

“But what about the ‘research’ that was done to inform the campaign?”, supporters will ask. This is what “focus groups with teenagers, parents of teenagers and parents who had children when they were teenagers” told the marketing firm that came up with this campaign strategy.  Well, there’s research and there’s research.  In this case, I do not doubt that many informants voiced explanations for their failures, hopes and fears that echo this ad.  “We humans overdetect agency,” concludes Brian Boyd in a comprehensive review of the relationship between the way our brains function and the stories we tell ourselves about the world (Boyd, Brian.  2009. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press).  That is, we have a structural, in-built tendency to assign responsibility to individual actors who are seen as having control over conditions, regardless of facts to the contrary.  Compound this with a culture that is highly individualistic and the tendency of focus groups to play to cultural expectations and norms and – voila! – you have a recipe for this precise campaign.  The goal of qualitative research should not be to find out where people are stuck and to play to it, but rather to appreciate what it would take to get people to see the dynamics of an issue in ways more proximate to those recognized by experts in the field.   New Yorkers do not walk around asking themselves, “I wonder what causes teenage pregnancy,” but when engaged in explanations that comport with the science and social science of the issue, our research strongly suggests that they can appreciate causes, effects and the value of effective interventions.  This campaign offers nothing new and simply hardens old stereotypes.

The racial and ethnic stereotyping in the ads and the game have been well acknowledged by critics.  Certainly, these ads reflect and play to odious images of Latinas.  Again, marketers will tell you that they wanted to “connect” with the prime at-risk population.  But the rest of us are subject to these ads as well and unprotected from the connections they forge in our minds between irresponsible behaviors and young Latinas.

Mr. Mayor, tear down those bus shelter ads.  They pollute the public discourse about how society can help families and children prepare our children for meaningful lives and work.  Give us something we can sink our teeth into, something that educates us about the root causes of the problem – give us something to do as a society that helps, not hurts, folks who are trying to find their way up in a very stuck social structure.


One thought on “When Campaigns Go Bad: New York City’s Teenage Pregnancy Campaign

  1. “The central strategy is to present victimized children who are destined to fail because they were born to teen mothers. A complementary game follows a pregnant Latina teenager through her day as she is routinely ostracized for her ‘choice.'” I’m speechless. Suggesting a new hashtag:



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