Sending a clear message to teens Pregnancy: Campaign for Our Children could wait no longer to spread the word on abstinence. A decade later, other states and nations try to reproduce its success.

July 03, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

On television, a baby wails uncontrollably. "If you get pregnant," the commercial's narrator says, "this is what the rest of your teen-age years will sound like. You can go farther when you don't go all the way."

On billboards, 10-foot-high letters in spray-painted graffiti spell "VIRGIN," above the words, "Teach your kid it's not a dirty word."

In classrooms, posters depict the hard realities of adolescent pregnancy in graphic terms. One shows a young man cradling an infant. "A baby costs $474 a month. How much do you have in your pocket? Child Support. You play. You pay."

For a decade -- on the airwaves, on the roadsides, in newspapers and magazines, in shopping malls, counseling centers and, most recently, cyberspace -- the message from the Baltimore- based, nonprofit Campaign for Our Children Inc. has remained the same: Wait to have sex.

Today, what began as an experimental public-private partnership to stem alarming teen pregnancy rates in Maryland has spread throughout the country. It has been adapted in some form in every state, with many signing on in the past year or two, as well as several foreign countries.

And the pioneering approach has been followed by numerous other media campaigns to fight teen pregnancy, including the newly formed Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a national effort launched by the Clinton administration.

Teens appear to be heeding the message. Though no studies have documented a direct relationship, state officials say the high-profile, hard-hitting campaign has contributed to steady declines in Maryland's teen birth rate, which dropped from fourth-highest in the nation in the late 1980s to 29th.

Most recently, Campaign for Our Children entered cyberspace last month, with a slick Internet site offering reams of facts, figures, advice for teens and parents, lesson plans for teachers, success stories -- and a disturbing reminder.

Beneath a ticking "teen-pregnancy clock," it reads: "Every 26 seconds, a U.S. teenager be-comes pregnant. Every hour, 56 children are born to teenagers."

Against this backdrop, in a society that bombards children with sexual messages on TV, in movies, in music videos, the campaign targeting 9- to 14-year-olds prescribes a decidedly old-fashioned antidote -- abstinence.

"These billboards say, 'Virgin is not a dirty word,' but everything else these kids see and hear, you know, just seems to be the reverse of that," says Osborne Payne, chairman of the campaign's governing board since its inception.

"We've got to be as much a part of encouraging kids not to do it as all these other forces in their environment are encouraging them to do it."

Chickens and rats

From the beginning, the campaign has relied on a tough, in-your-face approach bearing little resemblance to the traditional public-service announcement and going well beyond anything anyone had ever seen in the battle against teen pregnancy.

TV commercials liken fathers who impregnate teens and then disappear to chickens and rats.

In another spot, a girl and boy embrace, then the boy fades away, leaving the girl alone, unable to quiet a screaming baby. "Now you see him; now you don't," a somber voice says. "If you're going to have sex, be ready to go it alone."

A photo that appears in newspapers, magazines and billboards shows a young girl cradling an infant. "Poverty. Illiteracy. Crime. Drug Abuse. Unemployment. All start here," it says. "Teenage Pregnancy. We all Carry the Burden."

"We needed the shock value, absolutely," says Hal Donofrio, the campaign's creator and executive director. His advertising agency, Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, provides its services free.

"The touchy-feely stuff is pleasant, but it doesn't develop any emotion. We need to lay it on the line."

In advertising circles, the campaign is well known as a trailblazer among public service announcements, particularly those focusing on controversial subjects such as teen pregnancy and AIDS.

"It was part of the vanguard of advertising that helped change the whole perception of (public service announcements)," says Jim Osterman, Southeast editor of Adweek magazine. TV, movies and, particularly, MTV underscored the need for slick ads to seize teens' attention, he says. "Let's be honest about it. You already got a very loud, proven message out there. You've got to hit these kids over the head with the message."

'In the other person's shoes'

Teens have certainly seen it and heard it, even if not all have heeded it. Most in Maryland can recite the campaign's slogans verbatim, surveys show.

Some of them say the campaign forced them to confront realities of teen pregnancy.

"You look at that poster that says it costs $474 a month to raise a baby, and then you think, man, I only got $2 in my pocket," says Collin Sears, an 18-year-old student at Baltimore City College and a peer counselor at Healthy Teens and Young Adults, a publicly financed health clinic at Mondawmin Mall. "That really makes you think twice. It makes you think about the consequences."

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