Introduction           

In February of this year, the city Health Department announced that teen pregnancy dropped by 27% in the last decade. The health commissioner credited the drop to increased access to contraceptives and a delay in the age that teens begin to have intercourse. The HRA also sponsors such teen pregnancy prevention programs as the No Kidding program, which brings teen parents to New York City public classrooms to speak to students about their difficult experiences. And the Health Department unveiled the first ever pregnancy prevention app on May 8; it helps teens find free sexual health services like contraceptives and clinics.

Nevertheless, the Human Resource Administration (HRA) launched “The Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” campaign to aid their present efforts and further reduce teen pregnancy and the burden it brings to parents and society. This is an ad campaign that, through the following analysis, I contend perpetuates the same behaviors that keep minorities in poverty, with poor access to education and becoming teen parents. I can say this with certainty because these ads are ideological; they do not cause a  disruption in the way that we think about teen pregnancy as much as it upholds the ideologies that cause it.

The Campaign

Before discussing the message carried by the advertisements in this anti-teen pregnancy campaign, descriptions of the five adverts and its social media components will organize my analysis. The campaign features toddlers – two Black girls, one Black boy and one White boy – speaking directly to their teen parents. I use the terms Black and White because, considering the target audience, which I assume are Black and Hispanic girls, the ones most likely to become teen mothers, these terms allow the flexibility needed for the children to be interpreted as Hispanic as well as African American and Caucasian.

Nonetheless, it is an act of faith on my behalf to consider that the children were selected as they were for their ability to represent the array of races encompassed by the Hispanic community in New York. I choose to interpret them as possibly Hispanic because otherwise the ads would be terribly misguided as the statistics published by the HRA show that Hispanic women outnumber Black and Non-Hispanic White women ages 15-19 when it comes to birthrate. Black girls led in the number of pregnancies and abortions in 2005.

I’m assuming that the makers of these ads are responding to the changing face of the Hispanic community in New York, which has slowly shifted from predominantly Puerto Rican to predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican in the last decade. The African roots of the people of the Dominican Republic and the country’s proximity to Haiti can explain why the ads embody the Mulatto and not the Mestizo.

Further, if these advertisers have been paying attention to the critique of segmenting and oversimplification of the Hispanic community (Turow, 84) and Latinidad by such scholars as Arlene Davila, then casting an Afro-Latino would be the right response. “However, content analysis of ads filmed in the early 1980s compared with those filmed today confirms what I was told by experienced casting directors and model agents working in this market: the generic look has become whiter and thus less representative of the average Hispanic consumer” (111).

Still, it’s important to note that while the children in the ads conventionally represent their ethnicity – the White boy has blond hair and blue-gray eyes and the Black girls have coarse hair and a darker skin tone or wide nose – the boy in the last ad, with tight blond curls, green eyes, a caramel skin tone and wide, round nose, is ambiguous; he has in fact been washed of his Blackness. These advertisers still could not resist the standards of American beauty, which demand that minorities be boxed into a Caucasian mold of blonde hair, light eyes and a light complexion (Davila, 112).

Adv 1

Of the five advertisements, one features all of the children and the text, “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty.”

The second features a White boy and the message, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years,” followed by a message on child support obligations.

The third asks, “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” It uses one of the two girls; the subtitle gives statistics on the propensity of teen parents to marry.

The fourth pictures the second girl with tear stains on her cheeks; the message reads, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year,” followed by the average yearly costs of raising a child.

And finally, the fifth ad shows the Black boy, also in tears, telling his teen mom, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” The statistics on this ad speaks about the level of education the child of a teen parent is likely to complete.

Adv 2

Adv 3

Adv 4

Adv 5

In addition to the text and images, viewers are asked to opt in to a subscriber list to receive information on “the real cost of teen pregnancy” from the HRA. These come in the form of games, quizzes and links sent via text message.

TM 1

TM 1

TM 2

TM 2

Analysis

To analyze the target audience and the message being delivered to it, I will unpack the campaign in three parts: a semiotic reading of the advertisements text and images, the ideologies the campaign purport and the lifestyle it assumes the audience to identify with.

This analysis will be slightly different than one on product-based advertisements because it is an analysis of a public service announcement, not founded on consumerism. Nevertheless, there are frameworks that can still prove valuable in trying to understand how the audience is interpellated by this campaign and what it is being asked to believe.

In “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning,” Robert Goldman and Stephan Papson give us several questions to help connect the signifiers in an ad with their social and cultural values, what gives meaning (a backstory) to advertisements. These are particularly handy when “Ads invite viewers to perceive an exchange between otherwise incommensurate meaning systems, and they must be structured to steer interpretation in that direction if they are to fulfill their purpose” (82).

The signifiers in these adverts are the children, the questions they ask, the hard facts from the HRA, and the text message service. These work together to directly associate the ideologies that guide this campaign (which we will get to soon) as the reality of these teen parents and their children.

The American Dream

In the third advertisement, the hard fact is that “90% of teen parents don’t marry each other.” This is what the campaign says is the cost of teen pregnancy. The stat may well be true but it’s a logical leap to assume that not marrying means an unhealthy, unsafe upbringing for a child. In fact, using this statistic to prove that teen pregnancy is a bad choice assumes that marriage guarantees a happy childhood, free of domestic and street violence, and divorce. Further, it equates marriage to commitment, not taking into consideration the growing number of relationships with kids living in cohabitation.

Similarly the first advertisement paints a clear path to happiness: go to school, get employment, marry, and finally, have children and you’re 98% likely to be stable economically. It says this is the path out of (or to avoid) poverty, but this too is a logical leap as the level of education a person completes is contingent with their family’s socioeconomic class. It’s to say, if a teenager is living in poverty, he/she may not complete high school or college whether they delay pregnancy or not. What’s more, this ad assumes that education leads to employment, which is a premise in conflict with the high unemployment rates of graduates brought on after the recent recession. Last, the facts used in this ad could be omitting a valuable piece of information: what percentage of the people who have avoided poverty by taking this route are Black and Hispanic? If they’re predominantly White, then there must be something more at play than just teen pregnancy. The fifth advertisement has a similar message. It associates the chances a child will graduate with the age of their mother, omitting that 20% of the children of parents over the age of 22 still flunk out of high school.

What’s common in these ads is their use of the American Dream as a model viewers adhere to. “Producing marketable commodity signs depends on how effectively advertisers are able to colonize and appropriate referent systems…Any referent system can be tapped, but remember that advertisers appropriate referent systems for the purpose of generating sign value, so they dwell on referent systems that they calculate might have value to their target audience” (Goldman and Papson, 88).

It tells youngsters that their hard work and sweat will guarantee them upward bound social mobility, and that having a child too early will turn their work into fruitless efforts. Using such referent systems or creating a pastiche of images and ideas, in this case the well-known American Dream (this famous Google ad uses the same model), gives the audience something familiar enough where they no longer question the validity of the logic in the ads (86).

Deadbeat Dads

In direct contradiction to the American Dream ethos assimilated by these ads, they use the stigmatic “deadbeat dad” to illustrate the irresponsible parent. The second advertisement, the one I find most problematic, is the only ad to directly address teen fathers. It warns young men of the 20 years of child support they’ll be responsible for if they have a child – and nothing else. Here the campaign equates parenting and a responsible father to one that pays child support.

It makes no mention of the father’s participation in teaching the child how to ride a bicycle, build a fort or care for a pet (in line with the American Dream ethos); saving to pay for the child’s college education (an expense that can extend beyond a child’s twenty-first birthday); or teaching the child how to read, helping them overcome their childhood fears, or caring for them when their sick; all the responsibilities of any parent.

It almost negates these young fathers the opportunity to fully experience their parenthood, telling them they’ve done good by their families by making a monthly payment. But the narrative of the deadbeat dad in this campaign is not only problematic because it separates a good father from a bad father by his adherence to child support law alone. It is also problematic because it uses, more subtly, the Latin family as a second referent system (Davila, 93) to reinforce stereotypical gender roles.

By assigning monetary responsibility to the father, it leaves the rest of the parental responsibilities strictly up to the mother, reaffirming a woman’s role as one of the nurturing, self-sacrifing parent. This is clear as only non-custodial parents are under the obligation to pay child support. Although there is nothing inherent in women that predisposes them to perform such duties better than a man (Fausto-Sterling and Gowaty, 1997), it’s a stereotype deeply rooted in gender ideologies and segmented advertising.

Segmentation and Ostracizing

The use of a text message feature tells us it is meant for an age group that has access to personal mobile phones and avidly texts. The campaign is seen only on New York City’s public transportation system – inside train cars and on bus shelters. This gives us more information on the target audience, which must be an everyday user of mass transit.

Taking into account the number of ads addressed to the mother as oppose to the father, we can further conclude that the main target are women, likely considered the “dependent” women (Turow, 64) who is unemployed, unmarried and with children; or if not targeting these women, warning teens that this is the women they will become if they are careless and become pregnant teens.

In addition, the teary-eyed children are setup to place blame and guilt on their teen mother for being irresponsible. Aside from the messages these adverts send to teens about what they will become if they don’t take measures to avoid pregnancy, it tells them how they should think about the women and men who are already parenting teens. The images of suffering children don’t give room for teen parents to be considered as able to offer their children adequate emotional support and attention, make sacrifices to make up for their mistakes, and even attend college.

On the other hand, the use of mobile technology to promote interactivity with the campaign can be viewed both as fruitful and futile. By engaging the audience in a vicarious pregnancy, teens have to make the same decision, albeit simplified, that teen parents face in the real world. These decision include dropping out of high school to find a job and pay for childcare expenses; attending prom with a pregnant belly; attending prom alone without a pregnant girlfriend; and even choosing to throw up  or finish an exam. It also asks questions about contraceptives and dispels myths about them. Links take users to information on pregnancy planning and other health services.

The peril of this service, though, is getting the audience to use it. The HRA has not published any numbers yet to prove the success of this text service. And with a new app offering similar information available, I’m not sure it offers anything worth while.

Conclusion

By using the narratives of the American Dream paired with the gender roles associated with the deadbeat dad, this campaign proves to 1) disguise and suppress inequalities, injustices, irrationalies and contradictions 2) promote a normative vision of our world and our relationships 3) reflect the logic of capital and 4) socially and culturally construct a world in which teen parents live (Goldman and Papson 95).

These are messages that are in effect, counterproductive. To encourage young people to chase an American Dream that is unattainable, is focusing their attention and energy  in the wrong place. It’s a setup for disappointment. To focus the attention of men on being breadwinners exclusively denies them full involvement in their children’s lives, the type of involvement that keeps children off dangerous streets, successful in school and following a positive model of parenting. Last, it burdens women with the same stereotypes they’ve been fighting for decades – that of the vulnerable women in need of government services, who will spend her life serving her children to make up for her own mistakes.

The campaign uses hard facts and sharp realities to get teens to think about the consequences of their actions, even if these oversimplify a large and complex social issue. But oversimplification is an unavoidable cost when using advertising to spread a message, which begs the question, is advertising, with all its ability to reflect and create culture, the right method to employ to decrease the rate of teen pregnancy?

Works Cited

Dávila, Arlene M. “Images: Producing Culture for the Market.” Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2001. 90-125. Print.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne, and Patricia A. Gowaty. “Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinian Feminism.” Feminist Studies 23.2 (Summer 97): 402. Print.

Goldman, Robert, and Stephen Papson. “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated         Meaning.” Sign wars: the cluttered landscape of advertising. New York: Guilford Press, 1996. 81-98. Print.

Turow, Joseph. “Mapping A Fractured Society.” Breaking up America: Advertisers and the New Media World. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1997. 55-89. Print.

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