Dueling media campaigns about sexual abstinence let everybody off the hook
It’s difficult to be enthusiastic while you’re telling teens not to have sex, much less look hip and cool about it, which is why the Texas Department of Health spent about $395,000 producing the public service announcements that anchor its new sexual abstinence media campaign, “Zip-It!,” now showing in five major markets in the state. The TV spot (there’s a radio spot, a logo, a t-shirt, and a keychain, too) is recognizable by the slogan, “You don’t have to prove your love.” The words flash like a marquee to the beat of a hip-hop song, while a camera peers through a fisheye lens at a DJ scratching a record in a narrow booth. According to Sherry Matthews, whose Austin-based Sherry Matthews Advertising Agency researched and produced “Zip-It!” for TDH, the music was developed by Los Angeles hip-hop producer Milk Chocolate, and Rolling Tiger films shot the video on the same set as the ‘La Vida Loca’ video. The biggest threat to “Zip-It!” is that teens will feel patronized by it, so no “Zip-It!” material identifies the sponsor as TDH, and a “Zip-It!” website won’t be linked to TDH’s. “The point was to make this something that’s really hip and cool for the kids, to position it as something they can really buy into,” Matthews says.
All this “hip and cool” has its origins in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. When Congress overhauled the welfare system, it also tacked on a funding program to promote abstinence-only education. The Welfare Reform Act established the ground rules for fundable programs through what’s now called “the A to H definition.” Abstinence-only programs must contain these eight features, labeled “a” through “h” in the federal law, the most controversial of which states that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.” The congressionally stipulated requirements are unsupported by scientific evidence. To qualify for federal funding programs must teach that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects” (also unsupported by evidence) and also teach “the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”
In Texas, the promotion of sexual abstinence via media campaigns has hit an unintended snag: competition among “brands” of abstinence. The tension over whose definition is right is especially intense given the evidentiary vacuum: Though national and state evaluations are underway, no one knows if nearly half a billion dollars in the last four years has been well-spent on effective programs. For people like Marilyn Ammon, the director of the McClennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project (McCAP), “Zip-It!” is obstructive, obfuscating, and a potential violation of federal law. For Ammon, “abstinence” means “abstinence-only-until-marriage,” strictly heterosexual, no teen dating, and all hands above the table (or the bedspread). The problem with “Zip-It!” is that it’s “non-directive,” according to Ammon–the audience gets no clear message about sexual abstinence, because the TV spot never mentions the words “sex” or “abstinence.”
A former coach and health educator, Ammon became head of a speaker’s bureau at a local crisis pregnancy center in 1995. Then she became a local beneficiary of national politics. In 1997, McCAP received the largest abstinence-only grant in Texas, well over $600,000, to bring abstinence-only presentations into local schools, educate doctors about sexually-transmitted diseases, organize youth development programs in churches, and develop an abstinence media campaign by partnering with KXXV-TV, the local ABC affiliate. At McCAP’s inaugural ceremonies in 1997, then-Governor Bush spoke, leading to rumors that Ammon was powerfully connected, which she denies. A forthright woman, she cultivates an image of herself and McCAP as beleaguered. Prior to speaking to the Observer for this article, she hasn’t spoken with the media since 1998, when the Waco Independent School District, one of 18 school districts in McLennan County, cited church-state conflicts and opted not to let McCAP into its schools. (McCAP, however, is also one of the six programs included in a Congressionally-mandated three year national evaluation.)
Ammon holds some odd views. For instance, she believes that “safe sex” campaigns are conspiracies to create consumers for condom manufacturers and the “abortion industry,” also that information about sexually transmitted diseases has been deliberately hidden. Ammon says she showed the TV spot to her 15-year-old son, who didn’t get the abstinence connection. She also complains that the keychain looks like a condom, and that the “Zip-It!” logo, which is a zipper in mid-zip, focuses people’s attention on bodies and clothing. “It’s a body part campaign,” she says. Ammon’s complaints to the Governor’s office about this may have held “Zip-It!” up–though data that kids liked “Zip-It!” were available in January, the spots weren’t broadcast for six more months.
A year ago, McCAP produced six TV spots of its own, with the help of KXXV. According to Ammon, these six scripts were vetted by “informal focus groups” that McCAP had gathered. These spots are unapologetically not cool: A single actor sits in what looks like a basement, faces the camera, and delivers a script like this one:
“A guy I know told me that the way he had it figured, girls were stupid. And the way he said he knew that was that all he had to say to a girl was that she was ‘special,’ and she’d have sex with him.
“That got me thinking.
“Someday I want to marry a girl who’s smart enough to know she’s worth waiting for. If she’s strong enough to stand up against all the guys who push her for sex, then she’ll be strong enough to stand by me when I need her. Now that’s special!
“Save sex–stay strong for me–and I’ll stay strong for you!”
Or like this one:
“I used to think if I didn’t have a boyfriend right now I’d die of loneliness! So I’d have sex with a guy just to hold on to him. But you know–it never really worked.
“Then I decided I didn’t like living out of fear. So I set my own limits–no more sex before marriage. I made some guy friends, and it’s cool–I know they like me, not the sex!
“Now I’m living my life instead of letting fear live it for me. And I’m not lonely at all!
“Save Sex–Live Your Life.”
Five of these spots are currently airing in Waco. (In a sixth spot a young African-American woman complains that when she decided to wait for marriage to have sex, her black friends accused her of acting white. Ammon says that on the advice of African-Americans in Waco, McCAP decided not to release it.) She’s also frustrated that the $1.2 million price tag of “Zip-It!” would have been better spent on programs such as hers. If the Health Department doesn’t follow the full “A through H” definition, then it’s violating Congressional intent, she says.
TDH’s reading of the law is rather less fundamentalist. “The feds say that the states must not conflict with the eight points, but they do not have to emphasize all eight,” says Shelley Bjorkman, TDH’s media campaign coordinator. “[Our reading] is very defensible because it doesn’t conflict with any statements, and it doesn’t single out any one statement.” Is “Zip-It!” non-directive, as Ammon charges? “I don’t see it as non-directive,” she retorts. “It’s ‘zip it,’ as in, ‘Don’t have sex.’
It might be tempting to dismiss Ammon’s criticisms, but they highlight both sides’ facile assumptions about media campaigns, particularly the political cover that the supposed success of “social marketing” provides. As the battle to reduce teen sexual behavior rages around the country, media campaigns like “Zip-It!” have become favored tools–in 1998, almost half of the 48 states that received federal funding planned media campaigns. It’s easy to see why. For one thing, they’re less costly, politically and economically, than pushing sex education into public schools. Given the acrimony of the sex ed debates of the last 20 years, you can’t really blame officials for going this route. Still, it seems to pretend that a whole knot of questions about cultural norms, moral standards, and public health evidence, not to mention the proper scope of the government’s role, don’t exist. After all, a media campaign literally goes over people’s heads, reaching more people more quickly. Showing now in the state’s five major media markets (Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth), “Zip-It!” reaches 80% of the households in Texas. There’s also an enjoyable irony here, since a 30-second TV spot that urges kids to remain virgins uses the same channel of information that saturates American society with pro-sex messages.
In other words, the virginity movement isn’t a phenomenon bubbling up from the masses, it’s the product of major marketing muscle. For “Zip-It!” Sherry Matthews’ agency spent $114,000 on teen focus groups and groups of mothers. The teens ranged from the age of 13 to 16 (even though “Zip-It!” targets 10- to 14-year-olds), and represented a range of economic and ethnic backgrounds. They viewed spots from campaigns in other states, such as the Maryland-based nonprofit “Campaign for Our Children” and a campaign from Maine, “Not Me, Not Now.” According to Matthews, the teen tests corroborated some eternal verities: Kids want to be cool, they don’t want to be left out, and they don’t want to be preached at. According to Bjorkman, the “Not Me, Not Now” spots were deemed “too future-oriented,” and “didn’t click with kids, especially with young teens, who are very much in the here and now.” This was the same group that was open to an abstinence message. “They wanted a message as a way of dealing with peer pressure,” says Chris Sharman, a producer at Matthews’ agency. “So a girl can say to a guy, ‘Zip-It!’ It’s a quick snappy comeback, instead of this encompassing message.”
“Zip-It!” will generate political capital and real capital as well, by drawing down matching revenue for the federal grants. Bjorkman says it will generate between $1.6 and $2.2 million in matching funds during its 16-week run around the state. (TDH pays for a certain amount of airtime but television stations donate several times that amount, which TDH calculates as in-kind donations at the going market rates.) For TDH, this is a good thing. Despite Governor Bush’s support for the abstinence movement, the Legis- lature never approved new funds to match the state’s $4.9 million federal allotment. Instead, TDH was required to generate the match out of their administrative budget. Now, with “Zip-It!” the agency hopes to recoup some of those funds.
Media campaigns are preferable for one final reason, and in this Ammon and Bjorkman are unified. Simply put, it’s easier to claim that media campaigns are effective. Most public health professionals want evidence that a sexuality education program achieves three things: reduces the teen pregnancy rate, delays the age of sexual debut, and reduces the STD infection rate. For a number of methodological and political reasons, however, these are difficult numbers to document.
That’s why, according to the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, only nine states will evaluate the effectiveness of their media campaigns via a long long-term decrease in the rates of sexual debut. However, 18 states will “assess the general awareness of the campaign message among the target audience or audiences,” as TDH has done with “Zip-It!” Because marketers deal with image, attitude, and intentions, they can ask teens if they remember a slogan or intend to change their sexual behavior. For instance, after “Zip-It!” was piloted in Austin in late 2000, telephone surveys found that three-quarters of the surveyed teens recalled having seen or heard it; of that group, two-thirds had recognized the abstinence message. People in the field report that “Zip-It!” is durably catchy, too: Little kids are walking around humming the “You Don’t Have to Prove Your Love” song. The song might be catchy, but it’s not catchy songs that anybody should be interested in.
Michael Erard is a writer living in Austin. He can be reached at [email protected]