March 21st, 2013

The NYC Teen Pregnancy Campaign in Context

Images from the recent teen pregnancy print campaign by New York City's Human Resources Administration.

Images from the recent teen pregnancy print campaign by New York City’s Human Resources Administration.

I first read about New York City’s Human Resource Administration’s latest public health campaign in AMNY on my way to work. The campaign against teen pregnancy has drawn fire for including images of black babies alongside some ‘tough love’ statements about parenting as a teen. According to the AMNY article on March 4, the HRA wanted the new campaign to “feature images of babies who ask hypothetical questions about the high cost of raising of child.” One ad says, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars a year.”

I am no newbie to reality television, and many a night I have watched MTV’s Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, the series which has been following the same group of teen mothers for about 2 years. I also heard about the true story of a pact of teenagers girls who decided to all get pregnant around the same time, which was later documented in the Lifetime film Pregnancy Pact. Given reality-based media like this which at times glorify teen motherhood and play down its costs, why all the fuss over the public health attempt to somewhat tip the scales in a more realistic light? Health issues are difficult enough to portray without having to combat conglomerates like Viacom (owner of MTV) and their far-reaching capabilities. Given the media arena in which the issue of teen pregnancy resides, I don’t think the HRA has done such a terrible job.

As the show Teen Mom 2 rallies on with throngs of young girls trying to mimic the cast’s “success,” , there is still some degree of questioning as to the real message behind such a show as covered recently here.  Lifetime’s Pregnancy Pact film demonstrate that teenagers (and many adults) do not always think about pregnancy, motherhood and parenting as something that has real consequences and sacrifices – but as something desirable as mentioned in Time magazine back when the film first aired. I am well past the naivete of my teenage years, and when I read the ad and its goals I felt that the message resonated with me too! As a twenty-something woman chasing my dreams, the realities of my wallet, current living situation and the economy are all constant reminders of why this ad is relevant – not only to teenagers, but to youth in general. It’s an honest question-and-answer session that should occur for anyone even thinking about becoming a parent.

In her piece on the Reproductive & Sexual Health and Justice News, Analysis and Commentary site, Miriam Perez discusses the campaign as one that uses shame-based, isolationist and “horrifying” tactics to drive the point home that many teen mothers end up alone. “Why the hell is the New York City government spending money on a system to tell young girls that their boyfriend will leave them if they get pregnant?” Umm…because he just might leave her if she gets pregnant? For all the critiques that this ad has garnered since it was publicized in the first place, the reality is that many women – not just teenagers – believe that getting pregnant is a sure-fire way to keep a man around, save a relationship, or have something to call their own. Many people – teenage and otherwise – do not think about the costs of childhood or how their life will change, and this is something that should be brought to light. Teens (and many adults) do not respond to subtlety in the media, so with public health campaigns up against shows like Teen Mom 2 and movies like Pregnancy Pact ,simply telling teenage women that they have  choices just doesn’t pass muster. This puts public health media in a precarious position because you are only as relevant as your competition, and you have to be stark to be considered relevant as a print advertisement.

Perez does a great job of following the “Text ‘NOTNOW to 877877 for the real cost of teen pregnancy’” component of the ad and highlighting the scenarios and outcomes that came about in her critique. The addition of a text and “follow the adventure” features are spot-on in terms of today’s digital phone culture. Teens can relate to and hopefully engage with what ensues when you text and choose which person to follow. While critics may say that this is bullying teens and usurping teen reproductive rights, I think that it’s okay to keep it real.

Anne Desrosiers is the founder and Executive Director of The World is Your Oyster, nonprofit consultant and former Americorps Volunteer in Service to America. As an avid media consumer, Anne enjoys engaging in the critique and debate of improving what we see, hear and eventually become as a result of media and its influence on our lives.

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