NYC Teen Pregnancy Campaign Brings Shaming to Bus Shelters and Cell Phones


The New York Human Resources Administration (HRA) launched a new ad campaign this week that takes the use of shame tactics to prevent teen pregnancy to a whole new level. The ads feature images of young children alongside messages to their would-be teen parents. It’s hard to describe the ads as anything but horrifying and yet another link in the chain of shame-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts. 

It might be hard to believe, but there’s a component to the campaign that’s even worse than the ads. At the bottom of each ad is a message: “Text ‘NOTNOW’ to 877877 for the real cost of teen pregnancy.” I followed these instructions, and what resulted was a really screwy game of “choose your own adventure” via text message. First, the “game” asks you to pick either Louis or Anaya, the two characters you can follow. I chose Anaya, and this is the first response I received:

GoSms1362442905145

It only got worse, with more scenarios about Anaya being ignored by her “baby daddy” and shunned by her parents. None of the texts included any actual information for teens trying not to get pregnant—they just used an invented scenario to drive home the idea that teen pregnancy results in social isolation and losing your boyfriend. Below is the final text exchange in this version of the game. Just before, I was asked to respond “true or false” to the statement “Children of teen moms are MORE likely to drop out of school and not be able to make ends meet.”

GoSms1362442861409

The text you don’t see at the bottom is me replying, “That’s mean,” which got no response from the SMS bot.

Why the hell is the New York City government spending money on a system to tell young girls that their boyfriend will leave them if they get pregnant? 

If you choose to follow Louis, the exchange is no better. The Louis version of the game offers even less practical information and further reinforces the idea that teen parents never stay together. Furthermore, like this ad, the Louis exchange emphasizes the financial consequences of child support. 

I’m sick and tired of teen pregnancy prevention money being spent on these kinds of media stunts. Where is the proof that stigma actually leads to prevention? The messages sent by these ads and the ridiculous SMS game make it seem like the HRA is fine with the status quo of shame and isolation for teen parents. A pregnant teen gets called a “fat loser”? “Well, she shouldn’t have don’t pregnant!” the campaign seems to say. What kind of message does this send about bullying?

These ads put all of the responsibility on teens themselves and present avoiding pregnancy as a panacea that will solve all their problems. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for youth today is staggering, even if they finish high school. Teen pregnancy is much more than a personal responsibility problem, but the campaign might as well be telling teens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. 

The campaign also assumes that teens don’t understand how difficult it is to be a teen parent, and that they choose to parent as teens naively. I give teens more credit than that. Take blogger Natasha Vianna’s experience:

When I was a teen, I knew how hard it was to be a teen mom because I saw it in my family and in families around me. My mom was a teen mom, my grandmother was a teen mom, my aunt was a teen mom, my cousin was a teen mom, and so many more. Yes, I saw girls drop out of school and struggle with many aspects of their lives. I didn’t need a lame ad with a picture of a crying baby (who of course had to resemble a minority) to tell me that. Yet, at 17, I still became a teen mom and it was NOT what I wanted for myself. I never thought to myself, “Ahhh yes, statistics say my kid would be twice as likely to not graduate than kids born to moms over 22. SO, I will have a baby now before 22 and accept the challenge.” So what makes you think most teens are going to think the opposite? Pregnancies are usually unplanned and accidental. These ads don’t prevent unplanned pregnancies.

If the HRA wants to spend money on a texting program for teens, why not give them information about how to prevent pregnancy, such as where to get condoms and information about birth control myths? This campaign is an appalling waste of government dollars that seems likely to have more negative effects on teen parents than positive effects on teen pregnancy rates. Natasha again:

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 occurences 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).

The timing of this campaign is interesting, considering that data from 2008 was just released indicating that teen pregnancy rates are continuing their decline in most states, including New York. And what’s credited with this ongoing decline in teen pregnancy rates? Not perpetuating stigma or shame, but increased contraceptive use. 

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Follow Miriam Pérez on twitter: @miriamzperez

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1196615367 Tanya Nguyễn

    This is not education, this is harrassment. And it will lead to more girls hiding their pregnancies, and not talking to doctors about preventing, cause they feel stupid about the whole thing, and shamed.

    Can we grow up in this country, and start taking sex serisouly? You change behaviors when you TALK. when you EDUCATE. when you are open and when no one fears repercussions.

    And when you accept that KIDS WILL HAVE SEX, SO LET’S DEAL WITH IT.

  • FauxClaud

    I wonder if there is an adoption agency behind this? It really seems like their tactics of using fear and self doubt to convince mothers at risk to relinquish to increase their profits. Of course there is no REAL information given, the adoption industry WANTS young women to get pregnant in bad situations so they can harvest their babies for $$.

    • http://twitter.com/newhall89 Mirren

      I think you’re 100% right about this. If there’s shame and denigration of parenting, the only option is to place. It’s completely suspect.

      • FauxClaud

        Does there happen to be a URL attached to these? I often will be able to trace them back to the guilty agency. With the adoption numbers failing and now with even more closings of international adoption possibilities, the agencies are getting desperate for fresh product. I know that Bethany is already in bed with Crisis Pregnancy Centers in California and Gladney is promoting adoption through the super sickly sweet “Bravelove”.
        This kind of garbage falls perfectly in the marketing plans of the adoption industry Want to be even more sick.. take at look at their “market research” http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/the-truth-about-adoption/adoption-industry/

    • http://www.facebook.com/al.murphy.902 Eden Murphy

      I smell a crisis pregnancy center….that are also part of the baby stealing crew in my opinion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.walden Rachel Walden

    Press release says “The campaign’s texts, developed by HRA in partnership with digital cause strategy company Whole Whale” – http://www.nyc.gov/html/hra/downloads/pdf/press_releases/2013/pr_march_2013/teen_pregnancy_press_release.pdf

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  • Hayley

    It’s too bad that abstinence isn’t credited with the decline in teen pregnancy rates. There is a lot of emotional baggage that accompanies sleeping around before marriage.

    • Dezzydez

      Because abstinence does not work. Comprehensive sexual education works better at preventing pregnancies and STI’s. Not all people have baggage from “sleeping around.” Some people are emotionally fine and marry after having multiple partners. Being a virgin before marriage is not a gurantee of a happy marriage. It actually can damage it because you do not know what you like or how to ask for it. You may not even be sexually compatiable with your spouse.

      • http://wtfwhatthefeminist.blogspot.com/ RubyTuesday

        You are right on the money, Dezzydez. You don’t buy a car without test driving it first. Some of us do more test drives than others, sure, but you can guarantee that we’re driving off the lot with a winner. :)

        • Dezzydez

          I agree Ruby. I have yet heard my boyfriend complain about my many “test drives.” He benefits from my experiences and I do as well from his.

      • http://twitter.com/witchbyrd roxy l

        additionally, not everyone can get marred or desires to get married, because it is 2013 and not 1953.

        • Dezzydez

          Very true. LGBTs still can not marry even in this modern time. Are they suppose to stay celibate for their whole lives? That’s just cruel to deny them loving relationships.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ella.warnock.7 Ella Warnock

      Oh yeah, abstinence only education is working out SO well for Mississippi.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/27/feature-mississippi-schoo_n_1831069.html

    • http://twitter.com/DonnaDiva Donna Gratehouse

      Can you cite proof that significantly more young people are delaying sex until marriage now?

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  • cmarie

    Generally speaking, unless a woman is a victim of rape, her life is at risk or there is some very severe fetal deformaty I am opposed to abortion. This puts me on the “radical right wing” of the followers of this blog and (predictably) I’ve made many unpopular comments on this site but there are two important things I feel obligated to point out. First, I’ve never been censored here… laughed at, ridiculed etc. yes but my comments have appeared and they are complete and the second point is this: Anyone who has researched adoption can tell you that women exploited by adoption are at an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide. They are at a much HIGHER risk than women who abort their pregnancies. Here is an excellent site: http://www.exiledmothers.com/…. heartbreaking but very worth reading.

    • Dezzydez

      That is why I am pro-choice. I do not want a woman to be forced to give up a child or forced to continue a pregnancy. Forcing anyone against their will is terrible.

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  • http://twitter.com/BigSofty2 Big Softy

    Perhaps there’s something in the small print that I’m missing, but with a lack of evidence that this is produced by an adoption agency I can’t see anything wrong with this ad campaign in itself.

    Reading the press release, this campaign seems to be focussed on reducing teen pregnancy rates by sexual health education, contraception availability, and informed choices.

    The questions in this pic are the type of questions I posed to my own daughters even before they become sexually active.

    Teen parenthood is a tough gig, so it needs hard questions and hard decisions.

  • relish5k

    But…isn’t it true? Teen mothers most often quickly become single mothers, and it’s really hard on them. A public awareness campaign to burst that bubble seems fair to me. Although the text messages are a bit weird.

    • Dezzydez

      This is just shaming teen moms. It does nothing to stop teen pregnancies and it leaves out the father altogether. Education is the key, not shaming.

      • relish5k

        Ok, well then enlighten me – how could a public awareness campaign such as this educate teens about the likelihood that their baby’s daddy will stick around without shaming them? What would that look like?

        • sharculese

          They could try not literally saying ‘the people you care about will call you a fat slut’?

        • Dezzydez

          Why have a public awareness campaign about teen father’s leaving in the first place? Teaching teens how to protect themselves from STIs and unwanted pregnancies would help more than shaming. All shaming does is make teen moms hide their pregnancies and keep them from getting the support they need.

        • crowepps

          Interesting that you say “educate teens” when the context makes it clear you apparently mean “educate teenage girls men are all scum”. A better public awareness campaign than the millenia-old and ineffective “girls beware, boys/men only want one thing, lie to get it, and then dump you” might be “boys, give your children the best possible advantage, an adult father with a job. Until you’re ready always use a condom.”

          Of course, that skims over the fact that a lot of those teens would then never get the opportunity to be a father because the unemployment rate for young black men is skyhigh, because they’ll get shot down in the street before they’re adults, or because the NYC cops preferentially stop and harass black teen boys until they find an excuse to label them lifelong with the stigma of ‘felon’.

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  • kittylu

    Its a good think NYC gives out condoms cause shame doesn’t work as good as latex.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001705934234 Laura Newman

    Great work, but outrageous that we have to deal with this. I woke up angry after seeing this last night, sent this tweet: ast I heard, Todd Akin wasn’t running @NYCHRA Ads degrading teen moms have no place. Yank them. rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/0… cc: @MikeBloomberg (twitter: lauranewmanny) and let Tish James, HRA, and Bloomberg know that this has to go.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/billy.kangas Billy Kangas

    Although I am a proponent of abstinence education this is terrible. Shame is such a terrible way to motivate people… disgusting

    • Dezzydez

      Comprehensive sexual education with abstinence works the best. Abstinence only education is a failure and completely ignores the reality of human sexuality. I agree shame doesn’t work and neither does telling teens just not to have sex.

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  • http://twitter.com/Ditzzeechick Ditzzeechick

    A young woman in the city of the age group most likely to benefit from these ads, just commented on the Today show that many people her age need a reality check and thinks this is the kind of honesty they need to wake up. Parents need to talk to their kids. They only know what they are told so change up the conversation. The larger problem could be that the girls who get pregnant as teenagers aren’t being parented. I think the ad telling daddy he’ll be paying for the next 20 years are spot on. This is the nitty gritty piece of parenthood. Having a baby isn’t the answer to happiness in life. They are a lot of hard work and problematic at times…especially if they get pregnant as teenagers. Birth, abortion, who pays, who stays, who goes, does the father want or not want the baby??? Yea, I think these are questions no one wants to ask themselves. Not a great way to start a life.

    • Dezzydez

      All this campaign does is shame. It does nothing to educate teens to prevent unwanted pregnancies and actually keeps teen moms from getting help because they are afraid of being shamed from their loved ones. Parents should talk to their kids, but they will not. That’s why it’s important to have comprehensive sexual education in school on how to properly use contraceptives and the facts about their bodies.

  • http://twitter.com/Ditzzeechick Ditzzeechick

    One more thing…harassament? abusive? offensive? have you watched any of the reality crap on tv including MTV’s teen moms? NOW that’s OFFENSIVE!

  • http://www.facebook.com/kerri.brantley Kerri Brantley

    seriously – I was a teen mom, once at 16 and again at 19. My kids are on the honor roll, my oldest (now 13) accepted into elite High school program, both boys successful athletes, and respectable young men. My daughter who I had at 22 is also bright, beautiful and full of life, independent and all 3 of them will be successful in this world, not because I had them as a teen, but because I have loved them uncondtitionally, supported them and have challenged them to be productive members of society, instead of being a welfare leaching, lazy-kicked down pregnant girl. I had a promising athletic career for college, but look at me now! Life gives you cards sometimes you just dont know what to do, but with faith, hope, love, determination all things are possible. STOP making excuses for a society that needs good mothers and fathers, God-fearing role models, who don’t judge you when you are down but help you to be a better you. Telling kids that killing babies is ok, instead of teaching them Sex is special. Make SEX less part of our culture, and growing and breeding ego-centric, I-want-it-now-kids or heres the quick fix solution ….Do something better, educate girls how to protect themselves, tech your children to not have sex too early or before marriage…Dont promote killing innocent life! I have mentored other mothers, teen moms, I have a successful career, I have a college degree, I finished high school first in my class with a nine-month-old son, 1-year early. Its not about giving up your life, its about changing some life styles, shifting focus, but with the right support, the right mind, and the right determination…..ANYTHING is possible. Stop the bullying and blasting your own self-insecurities and focus on how we can figure out this economic crisis and get all young people, college educated or NOT, teen mothers or NOT some jobs…

    • Dezzydez

      Good for you for parenting at a young age and raising two accomplished adults. You made your choice, but then have the audacity to take that choice away from other women. Then you shame other women that get help from the government, try to impose your religious beliefs, and insult people who do not believe in your “lifestyle.” How does it feel to be such a hypocrite?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/janelle.s.mitchell.9 Janelle Shaneé Mitchell

    I am a child of a unwed teen mom. I am well adjusted, I have a steady job and I make ends meet with conscious spending and saving. Me and my hard working brother and collage grad sister are walking, talking, living and functioning contradictions to this horrible scare tactic campaign.

    • Tigg

      n = 2. . . No offence, but the statistics were against you. Denying how hard it will be on the children and teen parents is not helpful.

      • http://www.facebook.com/janelle.s.mitchell.9 Janelle Shaneé Mitchell

        I am not deny how hard it is. I am saying that the first thought that I would be a fuck up because my mom had me at 16 is what I am tired of hearing and it should not be said. instead of scaring girls they should offer to help.

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  • jek216

    Thank you for this important post. The story of these shameful teen pregnancy “prevention” ads is critical and worthy of continuing coverage. In fact many of these “facts” are not true. Find out why on this new blog about the campaign:
    http://www.wrongdirection4nyc.wordpress.com

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  • Erica Lea

    I am surprised by the number of people who are okay with this, you should read some of the comments on this article: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/03/04/1668111/nyc-shaming-ads-teen-pregnancy/

    If people are okay with this type of shaming, then they better also be okay with fat shaming, slut shaming, poor shaming, living at home with mommy as an adult shaming, and every other type of shaming that there is out there. Fact is, shaming is wrong period. Education and availability of contraceptives are the only things that work to reduce teen pregnancy, and it has been working because for the past few decades, teen pregnancy rates have been consistently dropping.

    • Tigg

      Informing teen mothers that raising babies is HARD and the odds are that your man will abandon you is education, its just that the information isn’t pleasant to hear.

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  • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

    This campaign looks different if your priority is the wellbeing of children, which is my perspective as someone who worked in children’s mental health. Children born to teen parents — recall that 80 percent of those pregnancies are unintended — come into the world primed to end up economically challenged. Two thirds grow up in poverty. They do less well than average in school and on standardized tests and are more likely to drop out. Girls are more likely than average to become teen mothers themselves. Boys born to teen parents have almost three times the average risk of ending up in prison. And, the most significant cost here is the cost in human suffering.

  • fdgfgff

    This is just ridiculous. Why would anyone bother making these ads? Who’s buying this?

    As everyone has already pointed out, but I feel the need to restate anyways, there is no information involved here. These ads don’t tell you about how to prevent children, or what to do with your pregnancy should your preventative measures fail. Heck, it doesn’t even address any alternatives to having sex!

    Secondly, and again this can hardly be said enough, these ads are degrading to teen parents. The only message they’re sending is a big, fat “you’re not good enough and your baby is a failure” to all of the teens who already have kids and can’t do anything about it. No matter how many statistics aren’t in favor of teen parents, I believe it’s also extremely important to promote the teens who DO make it and give the rest a little hope, rather than ignoring the ones who do and making the whole situation seem hopeless.

    I, for one, got pregnant by accident at 17 (my birth control dosage was too low). Unlike these horror stories suggest, though, my then-boyfriend and I decided that we were ready to have a family and ended up buying a house, moving in together, and getting married. I carried a “textbook perfect” (as my doctor called it) pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Shortly afterward, I finished high-school, and I’m getting ready to start college next year. My husband and I love our lives very much and wouldn’t change what happened for the world!

    And we’re not the only ones, actually. One of my classmate’s parents were teens when they had their first child, and they went on to raise the star linebacker and a brilliant singer. They’ve been married for 20 years now. Our son’s godparents were also teens when they had their first, and they raised a chemist. They’ve been married for 23 years. Even my husband’s parents where teens, and they went on to have a marine biologist, a professional dancer, and a professional woodworker. They’ve been married for 25 years. And I just know our son will be great as well—phooey on this “twice as likely to drop out” crap!