These kids are begging for talk from parents

March 29, 1998|By Susan Reimer

HE IS A HUGE KID.

The television screen frames only a corner of his face, but you can tell that he is very big. Probably more than 200 pounds. But his cheeks are soft and so is his voice, so you know he is still a kid.

"You used to nurse me," he says into the eye of the camera, and you know he is talking to his mother.

The kids that follow him in this 30-second montage of teen-aged faces, teen-aged voices are talking to their parents, too.

That is the point.

"You changed my diapers." "You took care of me 24 hours a day," the kids are saying. Their eyes are unblinking, their gazes level. It is the look of truth-telling.

"Mom, Dad, I need you.

"There are all of these things I'm feeling that I never felt before. I need to know about sex, love, values. I need you to tell me what you think. I need you to tell me where you stand.

"Mom, Dad, talk with me."

It is an appeal no parent can resist, and it is made in the latest teen pregnancy prevention advertisements produced by Campaign for Our Children, a nonprofit organization started by Hal Donofrio, chairman of RM&D, a Baltimore advertising and public relations firm.

For 10 years, with campaigns including the famous "Tell your kids 'virgin' isn't a dirty word" billboards, Campaign for Our Children has been setting the standard for icy-hot ads that pierce the consciences of parents and children like an acupuncture needle.

This one meets and exceeds that creative standard. But this time, there is no scolding ("A baby? You can't even keep your room clean"), no fierce warnings (a weeping trumpeter playing "Taps" for a friend dead of AIDS), and no smart cracks ("It's amazing how many guys disappear when a baby shows up").

This time, there are kids looking their parents in the eye and asking for a conversation about sex, love and values.

"We wanted to tap into the idea that no matter how they look or act, they are still children," said Ken Majka, Campaign for Our Children's creative director. "And they still look to their parents for help and guidance."

The campaign's creative team of Majka and Marjorie Weeks spent 14 days filming in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, Calif., casting kids from the malls, beaches and bus stops there.

They are not actors. And in the end, there was no script.

"They dress aggressively. There was a lot of ' 'tude.' They had very clear opinions," said Majka.

"But once we got past all that, it was clear there was a real disconnect between their outward appearance and their emotional state. Even our 250-pound guy at the beginning of the ad is only 16.

"They look older, more self-confident, but they are still children and they don't want to disappoint their parents. They look to their parents for guidance.

"We asked them where they wanted to get their information about sex and, overwhelmingly, they said they wanted to be able to go to their parents."

The ad, which was launched this month on some Baltimore and Washington television stations, dovetails with fresh research showing kids believe their parents are the most reliable source of information on matters of importance and that kids who can talk to their parents are likely to delay their first sexual experience.

But research also shows neither kids nor parents want to be scolded. Instead of threatening teens with the end of life as they know it, instead of demanding that parents own up to their responsibilities and lecture their kids about the dangers of sex, Campaign for Our Children is banking on its instinct that an earnest request from a child for a little conversation will be pTC irresistible.

There is a flip side to this approach, too. Kids will see other kids saying what they have not found words to say, silenced as they are by pride or embarrassment: Mom, Dad, talk to me.

"The thing we wanted to do was be honest," said Weeks, who has three kids of her own. "And to do that, the kids had to control the spot. So we let them have it."

"The words are theirs," said Majka, also a parent.

"I love it," said Patti Flowers-Coulson, director of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, which has been the campaign's partner for the last decade.

"Ken and Margie managed to pick up on every important point: We need to reach parents and the best way to do that is through kids. Kids want to hear more from them. And they want to hear more than just about sex. They want to hear about love and values and relationships."

Campaign for Our Children will develop billboard and transit ads from this television spot and fresh material to be used in schools.

The ad and the supplemental material also will be sold by Campaign for Our Children to other states, which can use the federal dollars released by welfare reform to pay for it -- all part of the battle to reverse the tide of unwed teen births that foretell so much heartache for the mother, child and the society that must support them.

The latest research from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy shows that while it may take only 30 seconds of television to persuade someone to buy a different brand of spaghetti sauce, only a long-term, multifaceted campaign can change health behaviors.

"This ad doesn't scream teen pregnancy," said Flowers-Coulson. "Life isn't just about sexual intercourse. It is about relationships."

That's clearly the message from one young girl in the new spot.

"I need you now," she says into the camera's eye. "You always said I was your little girl."

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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