'Pregnant' Teen Boys Turn Heads in Chicago's New Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

Chicago is hitting above the belt in its aim to prevent teen pregnancy, unleashing a startling new ad campaign that features images of teen boys that have been digitally altered to make them look pregnant. Those who praise the concept say that, if nothing else, it’s getting people to pay attention.

“With any sort of advertising, job number one is to get you to stop and look at the ad. And you don’t need a PhD to know, in this day and age, it’s an increasingly difficult job to cut through the clutter,” Bill Albert, spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told Yahoo! Shine. “So step one, I would say, check. Mission accomplished.”

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The ads, launched by the Chicago Department of Public Health and appearing on public buses, trains, and train platforms, pair the provocative images with the tagline: “Unexpected? Most teen pregnancies are. Avoid unplanned pregnancies and STIs. Use condoms. Or wait.”

The posters then direct people to visit BeYouBeHealthy.org to find information on local clinics, teen healthcare rights, and a range of issues relating to sex and sexuality—a vital part in the equation to lower teen pregnancy rates, Albert said.

“An advertising campaign alone is unlikely to change teen behavior. It’s usually kind of a messy portfolio that can get teens to change their behavior,” he noted, adding that a campaign like this can “start an internal conversation, which is a critical first step towards changing behavior.” Whether it works or not, he said, “we will wait and see.”

Brian Richardson, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Health, told the New York Daily News, "The point was to get people’s attention and get conversation started about teen pregnancy and teen births, and how they really affect a community."

Not everyone is a fan of the campaign, though. “It’s sensational,” said Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, a Chicago advocacy organization for sexual health and reproductive rights which maintains the sex-ed portion of the campaign's website. “And this idea that it turns heads is true, but at what cost?” The images, Hernandez said, are not trans-friendly, and “poke fun at” what could be the actual body of a pregnant transgender male.

“It completely disregards the fact that people would look at it and think, ‘Hey, that looks like me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s how I would look if I got pregnant.’ We think that all young people deserve to be safe, affirmed and healthy,” she added.

Nevertheless, the images already seem to have had success in decreasing teen pregnancy rates—at least according to Milwaukee’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which used the same images in a differently worded public campaign in 2009. That initiative, honored last year as a national model for community collaboration, is known for its cutting-edge ad campaigns to help prevent teen pregnancy. And it credited these particular pregnant-boy photos, taken by Tim MacPherson, in helping to subsequently reduce Milwaukee’s rate of teen pregnancy by 10 percent.

Past “shock ads” used there have encouraged teens to download free ringtones from a new album, with the download turning out to be a crying baby with a message about teen pregnancy. Another ad, meant to address the city’s high rates of statutory rape, showed a teen girl with a boa constrictor around her with the words, “What kind of man preys on underage girls?”

In New York City, a new ad campaign aimed to reduce teen pregnancy with posters that featured crying babies, and captions like, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” and “Got a good job? I cost thousands each year.” Planned Parenthood and other critics derided them, though, saying the messages shamed young women. 

Similarly, a recently unleashed national campaign from the Candie’s Foundation, which featured celebrities like Carly Rae Jepsen and Hilary Duff, carried messages including, “You’re supposed to be changing the world…not changing diapers.” It also inspired outcry, with a coalition of reproductive rights organizations joining forces to denounce the ads for shaming young mothers.

The fact that the Chicago ads are drawing young men into the conversation, Albert said, is another reason to applaud the campaign.

“One of the challenges we’ve had is the notion that [teen pregnancy] is the girl’s problem,” he said. “We’re not focused appropriately on the guys in the equation,” and so Chicago deserves kudos “for recognizing that boys and young men play a critical role in helping to avoid teen pregnancy.”

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