NYC Teen Pregnancy Ads Try To Shame and Insult Teen Girls Into Not Having Babies

Well yeah, this makes all the sense in the world: New York City’s Human Resources Administration is going all in with a new “straight talk” campaign that uses ads and text messages to stereotype, ridicule and ostracize teenagers into waiting to have babies—a tactic Mayor Bloomberg and other city officials think will totally stop teen pregnancy.

* Insert side-eye here *

The ads feature images of crying babies—most of them children of color—alongside messages like, “Honestly, Mom… Chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” They also encourage readers to text “NOTNOW” to 877877 “for the real cost of teen pregnancy,” where teens are directed to choose an “adventure game” that spits out “scenarios about Anaya being ignored by her ‘baby daddy’ and shunned by her parents,” including one in which “Anaya” asks users if she should go to the prom with her boyfriend Louis despite that she’s pregnant and will “look HUGE in my dress.” Advise Anaya to go to the prom and her response is, “My BFF called me a ‘fat loser’ at prom. I was devastated.”

Dead serious.

Bloomberg insists the campaign will make “very clear to young people that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to deciding to raise a child.”

“By focusing on responsibility and the importance of education, employment and family in providing children with the emotional and financial support they need, we’ll let thousands of young New Yorkers know that waiting to [become] a parent could be the best decision they ever made.”

Of course, an even better way to help teenagers make rational decisions about sex and its consequences would be to both educate them about and give them access to quality reproductive health care and affordable, effective birth control—tactics that youth advocates who actually work with and have the trust of teens say are much more effective than awkward, goofy, out-of-touch bus and subway ads and cellphone “adventure” games that shame teen moms in general and black teens and single mothers in particular.

“The latest NYC ad campaign creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people,” said Haydee Morales, vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City. “The City’s money would be better spent helping teens access health care, birth control and high-quality sexual and reproductive health education, not an ad campaign intended to create shock value.”

Truth is, New York City’s been doing a damn good job of reducing teen pregnancy within its borders; the Department of Health and mental Hygiene recently reported a 27 percent reduction in teen pregnancy rates over the last 10 years, with about 72 pregnancies per 1,000 girls. Advocates credit the drop to the city’s comprehensive sex ed in classrooms and onsite clinics in some public schools where teens can get information, emergency contraceptives, birth control, pregnancy tests and confidential referrals.

For the 20,000 per year who do end up pregnant, the last thing they need is naysayers telling them they screwed up and that they and their kids are going to be nothing more than abject failures sucking the life out of “the system.” Natasha Vianna, a former teen mother, laid this point out beautifully by recounting her own experience on The Push Back, a blog hosted by the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy:

As a teen mom, my life has seen some insanely high peaks of hell and it wasn’t because of my pregnancy or motherhood, it was because of the crappy experiences I had to endure with people who were (and still are) judgmental and bitter. When I wanted to apply for college in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to bother – that I should focus on trying to graduate high school first and apply to a community college IF that even happened. When I turned to people for support, they threw statistics into my face and told me I was what these very ads portrayed. I wasn’t. I’m not. And most teen moms aren’t. Until today, I still hear the “Well, you should have thought about that before becoming a mom.”

It’s this very concept of shaming teen moms that drives us into a deeper hole of isolation. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was a teen mom, I didn’t want to ask for help, I refused to apply for any aid, and I put myself in unhealthy situations so I wouldn’t have to face the judgment of others. It was horrible. Yet, no one ever bothered to talk to me about the occurrences in my life that led up to my pregnancy. Or what my life was like before becoming a pregnant teen. No one knew that I was already depressed in high school. No one knew that I already faced many of the adversities that teen moms face too. My life may have been exactly the same if I hadn’t become a teen mom but no one cared to look at me until there was a baby involved (that no one really cared about either).

In other words, judging, lecturing, shaming and stereotyping teenagers—pregnant or no—gets them, their babies and us absolutely nowhere. Same for spreading subliminal messages that black fathers don’t ever support the women they impregnate, that the only way anyone can raise a smart, financially-stable, successful human being is to be heterosexual, educated and married, and that black women of childbearing age need to be bullied into planning their pregnancies. Acknowledging that teen pregnancy is an outcome, rather than a cause, of poverty and that the best way to keep teens from getting pregnant in the first place is to give them quality sex education, healthcare, contraception and a choice about when they’ll become parents goes a much longer way in keeping teen pregnancy numbers in check. Perhaps New York City could slap that on a billboard or two.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

9 Comments

  1. This is just a small step towards re-enslaving black people via managing their reproductive rights because we are not mindful of the power, privilege and preciousness of our genetic legacy. Pretty soon, we’ll be in petri dishes, frozen, and only brought out when the human race needs an injection of “color”…

  2. The people that create these ads could not possible be Christians or Jews. because many people in the bible where born out of wed lock and to whom would be viewed as unfit mothers or fathers. WOW!!!! We solve the problem of teen pregnancy by judgement. Ok! What about the problem with these teens being over exposed or just following family tradition. I know teen mothers and fathers and I have seen them go into a state of depression. This is very sad.

  3. Denene,

    I love your posts and this one just struck a nerve with me. As a teen mom (19) I had graduated high school, first year of college and was told by my family (mother and step father) that I should have thought about all of the things I would be responsible for. Teen pregnancy is a result of ignorance and “miseducation”. No one told me about sex, the streets did. My OB told me at 16 I would never have children (this while she suggested sterilization). While I got through high school, today at 31 I am still trying to obtain an undergraduate degree. Since moving here to Georgia, i have found that this is not just an epidemic in the black community, it’s in all communities.
    When I became a mom, every bit of assistance was denied for me because I worked right out of freshman year with an awesome organization, BUT my baby who will be 12 in 2 weeks, is disabled and I still even hit road blocks with doctors, teachers etc. Bloomberg s a SOB to have children, mostly of color, on these flyers. He also needs to check his stats, many of the “baby daddy” situations happen in non traditional white homes (at least in GA). I feel that our people are so ignorant and arrogant and mis educated about what we are, we are quick to believe the mess a billboard ad says. I really am saddened that a lot of our young mothers will see this and run out to have some one to love (hell that’s how most of them get pregnant). What about the single fathers right out of high school, no accountability there though huh??? Good job Bloomberg! You’re stickin it to ‘em Darn teens! SMH n SAD

  4. A powerful commentary, Denene. As a marketer I have to wonder what agency created these ads and how they tested them. They are just so incredibly insulting it’s hard to believe they thought they would be effective. It reminds me of when public health educators were trying to keep kids from smoking. And what they learned during the testing of initial ad concepts was that preaching, bullying and cajoling kids into not smoking didn’t work. Flash forward a few years and we have much more nuanced Ad Council sponsored ads such as the “Live Above the Influence” campaign which I love which talks about how kids can take control of their own lives and not be influenced by negative role models.

    I feel the same way about these ads and concur with your observations about the blatant stereotyping, condescending tone of these ads. I hope the negative publicity will force NYC to rethink its strategy.

  5. I don’t care what these ads say. I’m not letting anyone orany billboard yell me that my little girl is gonna be a nothing because I had her when I was 18. She can and will be anything God has in store for her and that’s that.

  6. It is our moral duty to warn children about the statistical likelihood of negative consequences when engaging in irresponsible behavior (be it teen pregnancy, smoking, or drinking and driving).

    For teenage girls who already have a child these warnings will hopefully serve as a deterrent to future out-of-wedlock births.

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