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United Way Milwaukee’s teen pregnancy prevention campaign falls flat

Recently the United Way of Greater Milwaukee launched a new teenage pregnancy prevention ad campaign that features the heads of predominantly teenage parents of color on toys with the words, “Have a baby early and it’ll control the rest of your life.”

Teenage pregnancy prevention ads have a history of using shock, stigma, shame and teenage parents in them. Sociologist Gretchen Sisson has been keeping track of stigmatizing and shaming teenage pregnancy prevention ads on Shaming Teenage Pregnancy. Her Tumblr is a collection of troubling teenage pregnancy prevention public service announcements that mostly feature what you are led to believe are depressed, sad or angry teenage parents, while invoking the false absent-teen-father narrative.

While ads that use these tropes are usually celebrated as being “head turners” or “innovative” or “groundbreaking,” they aren’t. These ads use the tired and false tropes of shame and stigma, and further the false idea that becoming a teenage parent is the worst possible thing that could happen to a teen.

What always troubles me the most about “prevention” ads is that they do very little to nothing about providing prevention information and always use teenage families as shock value while further shaming and stigmatizing teenage families.

Furthermore, how does the United Way’s Greater Milwaukee branch not see the dissonance between the United Way’s Vision — “a world where all individuals and families achieve their human potential through education, income stability, and healthy lives” — and its several troubling prevention ad campaigns that infantilize teenage parents as toys instead of depicting them as the leaders of families that they are and belittle parenting as a baby’s ploy to “control” one’s life.

Being that poverty is one of the leading indicators of unintended teenage pregnancy and that United Way would like to see families achieve income stability, it would make more sense to make a prevention campaign that highlights the fact that poverty can lead to unintended teenage pregnancy and that, as a society, we should be worried about eradicating poverty for the greater good instead of scapegoating teenage pregnancy as a problem.

My parenthood is not a problem. Poverty is a problem. Creating ads that teenage parents will see and that might contribute to the already highest rates of postpartum depression for teenage parents is a problem.

It seems the United Way of Greater Milwaukee has a cognitive dissonance problem and needs to read more about how to create non-shaming ads on

More on teenage pregnancy

5 Ways schools can make education more accessible to student parents
Dear President Obama: Reducing teenage pregnancy will not “fix” America
Being a teen mom in the “mom club”

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