'Virgin' Billboard Getting Capital Attention In Westminster

Ad Campaign Aims To Foster Abstinence In 9- To 14-year-olds

October 20, 1991|By Cindy Parr | Cindy Parr,Contributing writer

The bright red word on the billboard along Route 140 near Westminster catches drivers' attention with it's bold capital letters.

VIRGIN.

The billboard's message: "Teach your kids it's not a dirty word."

The controversial billboard is part of a mass media program, known as Campaign for Our Children, developed to encourage abstinence among 9- to 14-year-olds.

Hal Donofrio, the man responsible for the message, is a former Carroll resident and chief executive officer of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, the Baltimore advertising firm that developed the five-year program for the state.

"This campaign is the only public-private campaign of its sort in the country," Donofrio said. "The state contributes $300,000 annually, while $2.5 million in contributions from companies and the United Way has been raised to date.

Donofrio said the campaign had its roots in Maryland, but has gotten the attention of 46 other states and three foreign countries "because of its power."

Public service announcements for television have been the most visible. One employs the sound of a crying baby at the end of a hallway, with a voice-over saying, "If you get pregnant,this is what the rest of your teen-age years will sound like."

Inanother, a mother tells her son that if he is ready to have sex, he better be ready to be a father. The mother questions his responsibility, asking, "How can you be a father when you can't even keep your room clean?"

Donofrio, who is blitzing the media with the thought-provoking

messages and posters, said he hopes over the next five years to help the state cut the $454 million it spends annually for prenatal care, welfare and other services required by pregnant teens and young mothers.

"This is a serious social problem with great economic impact, and we are trying to do something to solve this problem," he said.

Maryland's Department of Health approached Donofrio nearly four years ago and asked him to develop a media campaign.

"I developed a criteria and insisted on a five-year program that would be researched every step of the way," Donofrio said. "A curriculum was developed by the Department of Health, and the media campaign was engineered."

Donofrio and his staff have been working for three years with Maryland's Department of Education and the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy to develop the media campaign.

A 1988 Johns Hopkins study to determine children's attitudes about sex and pregnancy showed that 6 percent of the 10- to 12-year-olds in the Baltimore-Washington area had intercourse in the four weeks before the interviews. By the age of 16, half were sexually active.

"Based on the research, we chose to address kids ages 9 to 14," Donofrio said. "We found that 80 percent of the kids in this age bracket were not sexually active.

"By aiming our message at this age group, it allows us the opportunity to delay the onset of sexual activity."

Through the use of television ads, public service announcements on radio, billboards, posters, and lesson plans and videotapes for the schools, the program has been reaching parents, teachers and students since 1989.

"We had to realize that a mere media program alone would not change attitudes," Donofrio said. "We needed to go into the school system so that we could reach children and their parents."

The Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy said that in 1988, the most recent year for which data is available, an estimated 319 girls 15 to 19 years old became pregnant in Carroll County. There were two known births to girls younger than 15.

The federal and state governments spent nearly $2.4 million in fiscal 1987 on families in Carroll started by a birth to a teen-age girl. The money included funding for Aid for Dependent Children, food stamps, Medicaid and other social services.

"Ifthese births had been delayed until the mother was 20 years of age or older, almost $1 million would have been saved in 1987," said Marisa Mirjafary, a research statistician for the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

In Carroll public schools, learning aids from the Campaign for Our Children are used at middle and high school levels.

"Lesson plan pieces from the campaign have been distributed tothe middle schools to use as long as the information is in accordance with the curriculum guidelines that have been approved by the Boardof Education," said Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of home economics and health education for Carroll County.

She said school use was at principals' discretion.

"Board policy is that abstinence is portrayed as the best choice. Even though the message is targeted for the 9- to 14-year-old age group, it gets greater use in this county at thehigh school level."

Chris Spicer, coordinator for the children's support group, Intervention Means Parents and Children Talking, a Human Services program, deals with teen pregnancy issues in after-schoolclubs at the county middle schools.

"I received posters from the Campaign for Our Children last year and distributed them to the middle and high schools," she said.

"I do not use the curriculum, but Ihave referred to it for the programs that I do," she said.

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