A favored approach of the abstinence movement has always been to try to scare the crap out of kids. Now, a new advertising campaign has taken a more literal "sex as boogeyman" approach by promoting a horror flick about teenage motherhood. I'm telling you, "16 and Pregnant" doesn't have anything on this nail biter. Only thing is, the movie, "2028," doesn't actually exist.
In recent weeks, teenagers in Milwaukee have been inundated with promos for the imaginary film on hip local radio stations, during the commercial break for popular shows like "American Idol" and in big-screen previews. All come complete with a gravelly male voice-over and a creeping orchestral soundtrack. The final trailer features the requisite shots of blood, a screaming woman and a pale, wide-eyed child straight out of "Orphan." The general premise seems to be that a girl goes to a party alone, has sex with a boy, ends up pregnant, her father goes psycho, she has an excruciating labor, her child is, like, the devil's spawn or something, he grows up to become some sort of delinquent and she has him arrested.
The initial preview ended with "in theaters January," but subsequent edits of the trailer made it clearer that the previews were an end unto themselves with the following message: "Get pregnant as a teen and the next 18 years could be the hardest of your life." Then, a Web address flashes on-screen: BabyCanWait.com. At this point, I imagine a collective "oh, snap!" rising out of teenage moviegoers. That's right, kids, you just got punk'd -- or such is the hope of Gary Mueller, one of the admen behind the Serve Marketing campaign. "We're punking them," he told me over the phone.
This is the 15th anti-teen pregnancy campaign the company has done over the past three years for United Way's Healthy Girls program in Milwaukee. Past print ads included images of teen boys with pregnant bellies and a baby diaper with a brown "scratch-'n'-sniff" spot. He says the aim is to offer a contrast to high-profile young mothers like Jamie Lynn Spears and "deglamorize" teen pregnancy. Modeling young dudes after a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and producing PSAs about dirty diapers are certainly ways to do that, and Mueller credits the decline in the city's teen pregnancy rate in part to their "aggressive and provocative" approach. But are these shock-and-awe tactics the best way to reach kids?
There is no denying that these campaigns are attention-grabbing -- and with the seventh-highest teen birth rate in the country, the city can't exactly afford to make a soft sell -- but I get hung up on the hyperbole in the "2028" ad blitz. The spots don't talk contraceptives (although at least the Baby Can Wait site does) and portray sex as an inevitably horrific event. Consider the press kit for the faux-film, which includes the following blurb from an anonymous reviewer: "Makes 2012 look like a kiddie movie." So, volcanic eruptions, devastating earthquakes and mega tsunamis are child's play compared to teen pregnancy? Raising a kid as a teenager may be tremendously difficult, but it doesn't rise to the level of a cataclysmic event or even necessarily a -- screech, screech, screech -- horror flick. My general feeling is that teenagers deserve our honesty and respect, and they are poorly served by adults' lies and distortions about sex and pregnancy (see: the massive failure that is abstinence-only education).