But it must be done right.
This blog post is in reference to an issue that is of utmost importance to many states across the country, but in particular to my home state of Mississippi. As most recently reported by the CDC, Mississippi has the highest teen birthrate in the country.
Teen pregnancy is one of, if not the leading, predictor of being economically disadvantaged. Teen pregnancy more often than not leads to lower levels of educational attainment, which in turn can correlate with substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and other poor health choices. These factors then in-turn can lead to a dramatically higher cost to taxpayers, a lower standard of living for the effected persons, and perhaps worst of all, a generational cycle.
Yes, there are plenty of instances in which teen mothers (and their children) end up wildly successful. But looking at the numbers, we can’t ignore the fact that teen pregnancy is a problem on a personal and societal level. In 2008 (most recent year for which I’ve found reliable statistics), the direct cost of teen pregnancy to Mississippi taxpayers was $159 million. That doesn’t factor in lost productivity of other effected family members. The real impact number is much higher.
Whatever type of program is developed to address this issue, I think it goes without saying that an influential component of the effort will lie with the media campaign. Perhaps more than any other demographic group, teens engage with/are influenced by media messaging.
So how can an effective teen pregnancy prevention media campaign be created?
From a technical standpoint, and effective teen pregnancy prevention and education media campaign must be three things:
Public Health and Safety initiatives, particularly in regard to message development, differ significantly from “retail” or commercial marketing. When marketing a product or service, a company is typically speaking to an existing need or desire of its target audience, and attempts to present its product as the best alternative for fulfilling this desire. Public health and safety efforts, typically, are encouraging people to consider an aspect that is neither a need or desire, and then to have the target audience behave in a manner that is likely not natural or typical.
There are numerous science-based models for public health and safety outreach campaigns. As Mississippians, we must carefully examine and consider which one of the models we should implement, based our state’s demographics, culture, mores, and media consumption. What has worked in Oregon or Indiana may not necessarily work here. The wrong model can result in an ineffective effort.
The most successful public health and safety media campaigns have been those that are part of a larger comprehensive approach. One of the more celebrated initiatives was in regard to seat belt usage. We all remember the “Dummies” commercials. That campaign also worked in tandem with a strong advocacy component (think of all the safety belt messages that were filtered through schools and child care outlets), and a successful policy component (seat belt laws and enforcement thereof).
This approach roughly follows the highly comprehensive PRECEDE-PROCEED model for changing health and safety behaviors. This approach seeks to “diagnose” and “treat” issues in all areas of life that influence the particular behavior in question – social, faith-based, media consumption, and public policy.
Significant and lasting behavioral change can’t be achieved overnight. An intense but brief effort, regardless of any initial positive indicators, will not produce lasting results. For Mississippians to reap the benefits of lower teen pregnancy rates, we must be committed to committing resources “for the long haul.” This applies to all areas of the program, including the media campaign. Such a commitment, if correctly implemented, will pay us back many times over our investment.