Sexualizing girls for a good cause

A public service announcement about statutory rape features adolescent girls with buxom bodies.

Published February 8, 2008 5:50PM (EST)

Retch. Gone are the days when public service announcements were an earnest G-rated branch of advertising. Between lurid pictures of drunken women crouching on bar bathroom floors to warn against excessive drinking to Alicia Silverstone emerging naked from a swimming pool in the name of vegetarianism, serving the public now increasingly means shocking, offending or sometimes simply confusing people into noticing.

This year's award for most controversial PSA has got to go to a series of ads (via CopyRanter) that never got launched at all. Late in January three PSAs began appearing on advertising sites and blogs designed by Serve, a Milwaukee ad agency, and attributed (falsely it turns out) to the Family Violence Partnership in Milwaukee. The ads were geared toward raising awareness of statutory rape -- which according to Heather Aldrich, executive director of Serve, has been identified as a huge problem among Milwaukee's inner-city youth. She cited statistics that 71 percent of all the children born to teen mothers were fathered by men over 20. "It's unacceptable for a young girl to go out with a 23-year-old man," she said, when I reached her by phone.

The issue of statutory rape is a sticky one. I dated a 24-year-old man briefly when I was 17, then dropped him because he seemed too naive and returned to my 16-year-old boyfriend. But in a culture where little girls are getting pregnant with men's babies, it's worth raising some eyebrows (and even some bile) to get people talking about the problem.

The ad was so unsettling that its appearance in the blogosphere put the kibosh on the plans for the large outdoor campaign. Frankly, when I first saw the images I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Offensive, disturbing, obscene -- give me an adjective of moral outrage and I will use it. The ads took little girls' heads (not teenagers') and Photoshopped them onto women with giant breasts spilling out of cocktail dresses. In the background in large block but not always legible letters are various warnings: "If you see a child as anything more it's wrong," or "When you look at a young girl as something more you need help," or, behind the picture of the African-American girl, the unfortunate line: "Just because she has the body doesn't mean she has the brain." At the bottom of the page comes the official message: "If you're over 18 and having sex with an underage girl it's statutory rape."

At best these images are confusing. The faces are of children, I would guess, 8 to 11 years old; they are not the faces of victims of statutory rape but of pedophilia. On the other hand, the bodies are obviously those of grown women, dressed seductively with painted nails -- these bodies don't really evoke the teen victims of statutory rape either. At worst the images -- of sexy, smiling child/women who appear ready for anything -- are titillating in a bad way. One commenter nailed it: "There are much better ways to raise awareness than Photoshopping some pervert's fantasy."

But according to Aldrich, who graciously agreed to speak to me, I was not the intended audience. "It was never for Caucasian women," she said. "It was for the largely African-American and Hispanic inner-city youth -- ages 15 to 25."

The campaign was also not created for the Family Violence Partnership, a former client of Serve, but for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, which has now pulled the ads in the wake of the controversy. Aside from being posted in a few bathroom stalls, Aldrich says, the ads never saw the light of day (only the flicker of the Internet). The confusion arose when a volunteer designer (Serve is a nonprofit that uses volunteer designers to help other nonprofits get out their message) enthusiastically posted the PSAs and mistakenly named the Family Violence Partnership as the client.

Aldrich said it's a shame the ads never got a chance to find their intended audience, which didn't find the images offensive in the least. What's perhaps more important is that focus groups (some of which are now posted on suggest that the PSAs might have successfully raised awareness about statutory rape. To prove her point, Aldrich has posted videos of the focus group members discussing how the ads will make their peers rethink their choices.

But does the end always justify the means? Should we use images that are appalling to one demographic because they effectively serve another? It's an interesting question and one that PSAs increasingly raise in the battle for catching our jaded eyeballs and then touching our hearts.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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