Mommie Dearest: NYC Failed On Its Teen Pregnancy Campaign

New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has recently launched a new ad campaign aimed at teen pregnancy that has caused quite a stir — and rightfully so. The campaign employs some of the most shameful tactics I have ever seen in the name of preventing teen pregnancy. These offensive ads (pictured after the jump) feature crying babies and blaming language that the HRA hopes will turn teenagers off from becoming parents.

Much of the wording places the onus of teen parenthood directly on the mother. Only one ad talks directly to young men (focusing on how much money he’ll have to pay in support), while the rest weigh heavily on the shoulders of young women, with one specifically focusing on how it’s highly likely a teen mom will end up raising her baby alone.

Is becoming a teen parent ideal or easy? No. Nobody is saying it is. But the way to go about preventing teen pregnancy isn’t by shaming and blaming those who already are young parents. The money that was spent on this horrible (and most likely ineffective) ad campaign could have been put to better use in more widespread comprehensive sex-education programs within the city.

Odds are that the population the HRA is attempting to target isn’t even going to bother paying attention to these ads. If teens do come across these ads at a bus stop, I’m not so sure how much it’s going to change their mind if they’re intent on having a baby. What could be useful, especially for many of the unplanned teen pregnancies out there, would be to have better sex ed in schools, as well as ensuring that condoms and other forms of birth control are readily accessible to and affordable for teens.

Over at Reproductive Health Reality Check, blogger Miriam Pérez took one for the team and texted the number at the bottom of the ads to see if she would be given any helpful, useful information. Not surprisingly, the text exchange she got into with the SMS bot only continued along the shaming path as it detailed how the father would dump the fictitious pregnant teen Pérez was “playing” the role of in the text exchange. What is the takeaway here? That nobody will love you or be your friend if you become pregnant young? Who wrote the copy for this ad campaign — the cast of “Mean Girls”?

Besides a heaping dose of shame and blame, the other problem with these types of ads is that they perpetuate negative stereotypes of teen parents. Young parents are already fighting an uphill battle against corporate media’s representation of them. “16 and Pregnant” is not the reality for most teen mothers. I know this because I spend time each week with a group of young mothers who live a very different reality than the ones portrayed in the various MTV series.

In speaking with the young mothers I work with, the overwhelming consensus was that these ads would have had little to no impact on any of them. For some, it was lack of knowledge about or access to contraception that led to their pregnancies, and ads like these wouldn’t have made a difference. For the young mothers who became pregnant intentionally, no amount of ads, especially shaming ones like this, would have mattered.

These young mothers are not alone in thinking that these ads are useless at best and offensive at worst. In response to these ads, the New York Coalition for Reproductive Justice has launched a No Stigma! No Shame! campaign. The campaign hopes to open the HRA’s eyes to just how shameful these ads are, while urging them to create a campaign that will actually have a positive effect. The campaign’s demands are simple:

  • Public acknowledgement and apology from HRA
  • Removal of all HRA campaign posters
  • A meeting between the HRA and NYC4RJ leaders
  • Creation of a Teen Parent Council within HRA, composed of teen parents and their advocates, to approve any future messaging around teen pregnancy prevention

How revolutionary: allowing teens who are already parents the chance to speak for themselves and have a hand in working on future teen pregnancy campaigns. Unfortunately, the HRA has yet to respond, and it’s uncertain if they ever will. Yet, if they’re truly committed to lowering teen pregnancy and birth rates, then it might behoove them to pay attention to those who are actually living the lives they’ve so shamefully exploited in the name of public health.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto.