Billboard girl stands tall with message

The no-nonsense words to teens: Wait to have sex

Observations

March 21, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

The woman on the pinkish-red billboards dotting the cityscape is hard to miss. She is black, beautiful, proud and defiant.

Staring at us from behind her black-rimmed glasses, we know she's all business because she tells us so. "I don't give it up. And I'm not giving in," the words practically shout.

Driving by her on St. Paul Street near the train station, on Interstate 83 heading north, Orleans Street heading east or any of the other locations where she can be found, we read her message and ponder her life every day.

What is it, we wonder, that she's not giving up? Her virginity? A baby? Her battle against injustice? What isn't she giving in to? Drugs? Cancer? The dreaded comeback of culottes, those long shorts that cut women off at the calves?

Not that it mattered.

Her piercing gaze and her empowering, albeit vague statement won us over when we first spotted her earlier this year. Despite our uncertainty about the root of her struggles, we couldn't help cheering for her. We began rooting for her success, making up a different story every day about her hard life as a kid driving her to become a powerful crusader.

Whatever her story, whatever it was she was fighting, we only knew we wanted her to come out on top.

Turns out she's been fascinating others around town, too.

The Center for Maternal and Child Health has "gotten a great deal of feedback" on the billboards, according to Christine Evans, community health director for the center, a division of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (They are the ones responsible for the billboards, we were happy to discover, when we slowed the car down enough to read the fine print.) Some of that feedback, she acknowledged, was confusion.

"Some people didn't understand what it meant," Evans said. "Some wondered about the image. What the heck does it mean, some asked? Why is it a black woman? Give it up? What does it mean? It's generated a lot of attention."

Better than no notice at all, we say. But to get to the bottom of the billboard question, we tracked down Hal Donofrio, president and chief executive of the Campaign for Our Children Inc., a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization and creator of the ads.

Donofrio, who started the group in 1987, gave us a quality point for our obsession with the woman's message. But the ad executive gave us a good scolding for missing the point: She is not a woman.

"That's a teenager on those billboards," Donofrio said, a touch exasperated. "It's teenaged slang. Girl empowerment. It's a wonderful billboard, designed to talk to teenagers about preventing teen pregnancy."

Ah, it's been a long time since we've seen our teenage years, we explained. Even longer since we used hip, teenage slang. In fact, we were probably not ever very hip. Could be our aging eyes played tricks on us, too, fooling us into believing our crusading messenger girl was really a middle-aged black woman?

Willing to forgive our lack of coolness (Hey! Virginity was one of our guesses!), Donofrio good-naturedly set us straight.

Campaign for Our Children has a dozen of these large billboards and about 80 smaller ones up around the state. Most are in the metro Baltimore area. The Pink Campaign, as the $400,000 advertising crusade has been christened, also includes TV spots that have girls - and they do look like teenagers in the video - dancing to the rhythms of a song that starts with the lyrics, "My hour. My power to wait," and ends with "Virginity can't be replaced."

"It's a very important, vital message," Donofrio said.

No newcomer to the advertising business, CFOC has been responsible for about 50 national campaigns over the years involving the same issue. We recalled their earlier, spot-on ads such as "Virgin. Teach your kids it's not a dirty word" or the one with chickens in tennis shoes that said, "What Do You Call A Guy Who Makes A Baby, Then Flies The Coop?"

When the CFOC was started, Donofrio said, Maryland was the fourth worst state per capita in the country for teenage pregnancy rates. Today, the state is ranked No. 33, he said. A lot of that credit goes to advertising programs, school lesson plans and other literature that hammer the message home to kids.

Still, the CFOC estimates that more than 88,000 babies will be born to teens 15 to 19 around the country this year.

"It is so sad that we don't do more about this problem," Donofrio said. "It's so much easier to prevent than to cure. Birth, welfare, child care education and at-risk programs, all of these things cost tons of taxpayer money. The people who get hurt are the kids. There are too many 30-year-old grandmothers out there. That's unfortunate."

"There was a study in North Carolina that showed that when their teen pregnancy-prevention program stopped in 2001, the numbers of teens getting pregnant went up again," Donofrio added. "It shows this is something that needs constant pressure. That's why our campaigns are used so often by other states.

"Outside of Baltimore, we're pretty important."

Make no mistake, we know that CFOC's message is mighty important here in Baltimore, too.

"You've got me worried now, that we didn't do a very good job with the message," Donofrio said, adding that sometimes ad campaigns "are confusing, and sometimes, they're just wonderful."

We assured him that CFOC is doing just fine, even if a few of us were puzzled. Besides, even a strong, teenage sister needs a little support to get her message out once in awhile. Consider it done. We've got your back, girl!

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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