Maybe you’ve seen the billboard, too, and likely done a double-take.
The copy leaps from the background: “Isn’t she a little young?” In smaller, blockier (more authoritarian, perhaps) type: “Sex with a minor, don’t go there.”
Go ahead, enjoy a quick snicker.
The Virginia Department of Health has been running the anti-statutory rape campaign for five years, and the billboards still pop up on occasion thanks to ongoing federal welfare funding.
One tangent before we dig in — with pop culture’s obsession de jour with cougars, or women who date younger men, shouldn’t there also be one asking, “Isn’t he a little young?”
The idea of a billboard encouraging grown men to think twice before dating 15-year-old girls is, let’s not mince words, absurd. And Robert Franklin, the department outreach coordinator for sexual violence prevention, is the first to admit it.
“I’m sure someone is not driving down the road and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t be [doing that].’ ” Franklin said.
But the billboards were a huge hit at generating media buzz when they first appeared, and that, in turn, created awareness.
“We had a situation where people weren’t talking about this as an issue,” Franklin said.
“What we’ve built is the ability for people to talk more about it.”
The reason for the effort: Teens who engage in sex at a young age with adults are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases and get pregnant, Franklin said.
Certainly a legitimate motivation, and, considering the budget is about $125,000, of which only a small part goes into advertising, that seems legit.
When the ads appeared in 2004 (they were designed by the American Institute of Research/Prospects) the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, Franklin said.
Officials from the VDH aren’t unrealistic. They aren’t targeting pedophiles or high school girls who might have a boyfriend in college. Instead it’s men in their mid- or late 20s with teenage girlfriends. And there are some women who enjoy the company of young boys (like those attractive gym teachers in their 20s who occasionally appear on the 24-hour news networks for sleeping with eighth-graders).
Franklin said he’s found something more effective than billboards: MySpace. He said he spent $1,500 on MySpace advertising (leaving Facebook alone for the time being) and generated 1.8 million impressions and 3,500 clicks in seven days.
The most recent budget is broken down:
$12,500 for Spanish radio
$23,000 for guerilla items at bars and in men’s rooms
$14,000 for billboards
$1,500 for MySpace
Billboard Grade: This is a tough one. The topic and layout (including silky lettering that seems almost illicit, like the neon lettering of a strip club) definitely jumpstart a conversation. Our newsroom was chatting about them for a while. And Franklin says that’s the point. But I am still skeptical that increased awareness can make even a small dent in this sort of behavior. The billboards themselves get an A. Eye-catching. Buzz-generating. Water-cooler worthy.
But if an ad campaign is judged by its overall influence, then this warrants a failing grade. Franklin said it is almost impossible to correlate any changes in statutory rape statistics with the marketing campaign, so it’s almost impossible to judge. But I’d say chances are slim.
Aaron Kremer is the BizSense editor. BizSense tries to run one Ad Report Card per month.