Boston -- When Kathleen Sylvester began researching welfare reform for the Progressive Policy Institute, she asked a Baltimore school principal the one thing she'd do to reduce the number of teen-age pregnancies.
The principal had an immediate two-word answer for her: ''Shoot Madonna.''
She was probably thinking of the Madonna of the 1980s, the one who wrote the classic paean to teen-age motherhood: ''Papa Don't Preach.'' The Madonna of the '90s has a line in ''Bedtime Stories'' that sounds more like paean to Joycelyn Elders: ''Happiness lies in your own hand.''
But the principal was speaking in a familiar vocabulary. It's a language shared by parents, teachers, policy makers, the whole range of frustrated adults whose voices of reason are drowned out by a culture that sells kids sex as successfully as it sells them sneakers. Just Do It.
These messages that kids actually listen to ought to be piped into the hearing rooms where Congress is busy concocting a new welfare policy. The plan the House Ways and Means Committee is contemplating for teen-age mothers is called euphemistically ''tough love.''
But our culture offers something else. Sex without consequences. ''How many times do kids see sex on TV, '' says Ms. Sylvester, ''in which no one gets pregnant, no one gets AIDS and no one has to get up in the middle of the night to feed a baby?''
In the face of the onslaught, the true counterculture in America is not the ''McGovernik elite'' or, for heaven's sakes, PBS. It's parents and reasonable adults who are left to literally counter the culture, to do combat with the incessant messages of mainstream films, music, television -- the conglomerate known as Hollywood -- as best we can.
Hollywood may not cause teen pregnancy. But Ms. Sylvester and others are convinced that any national campaign that goes to the heart and hard-core of the problem is going to have to engage these cultural message makers.
We're going to have to do more than label them as villains. We need them as allies.
It will take all their creativity to make a successful pitch against irresponsible sex and teen pregnancy. ''Just say no'' won't do it. Teen-agers are the most risk-taking part of the population. They're still being seduced by cigarette ads.
It will be harder to fashion a stand against sex than against smoking. After all, smoking is always bad for you, sex isn't. And hormones are even more powerful than nicotine addiction.
It will also be harder to campaign against unwed parenthood than against drunk driving. The campaign against drunk driving was successful in curbing dangerous behavior by creating a new social role: the designated driver. But a baby is a different sort of accident than a head-on collision.
If we can't preach, however much papa (and mama) may want to, we can say unequivocally in rhythm, rap or reel what Ms. Sylvester says in plain words: ''It's wrong to bring a child into the world that you can't take care of.'' It's not cool, it's not manly, it's not womanly. It's wrong.
This goes beyond using Madonna for target practice. It even goes beyond lowering the sexual thermostat of the culture.
Entertainment executives like to say, on the one hand, that they are just reflecting reality and, on the other hand, that they're in the business of fantasy. With both hands, they wave furious charges of censorship at any critic.
But how about more reality? In an ad campaign, in soap operas, movies, music.
Not long ago, an outraged producer complained to Jay Winston, the public-health guru who created the designated-driver campaign: ''Can you imagine that people are lobbying to have Tom Cruise use a condom? Tom Cruise?'' Why is that so hard to imagine?
At Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a nervous Barbra Streisand recently offered a spirited defense of the artist as citizen. But the problem isn't that this ''cultural elite'' is too political, it's that it isn't political enough. As Mr. Winston says, ''They ought to be powerful players in this process. They need to come to the table.''
Let's begin with some sexual truth-in-advertising: one part passion to two parts diapers. Sex and consequences. Try humming a few bars.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.