Deconstruction Gallery

Pregnant Boys and a Counter Ad

The pregnant boy advertisements, put out by the Office of Adolescent and School Health at the Chicago Department of Public Health, have been in the news a lot lately. A similar ad campaign ran in Milwaukee with the same pregnant boy images in 2012. Those ads were part of One Milwaukee’s teen pregnancy initiative, which was created by SERVE, a non-profit advertising agency, and funded by United Way Milwaukee.

Despite having the same images, the targets of the ads vary from the Chicago to Milwaukee campaigns, illustrating how text and image work together. The Chicago campaign reads, “Unexpected? Most teen pregnancies are. Avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Use condoms. Or wait.” This ad targets heterosexual teenage boys who are sexually active and who may want to avoid pregnancy. The advertisements help teenage boys to see that they are a part of and responsible for pregnancy as well as girls. They appear to be average boys, rather than celebrities. This “plain folks” technique increases boys’ identification with the ad. Using a persuasive technique called “simple solution,” the ad proposes using condoms or abstinence as a quick, easy solution to teen pregnancy, without addressing the complicated economic, cultural, and educational issues that coalesce around this subject.

The Milwaukee campaign targets a very different demographic, stating, “Milwaukee has one of the highest teen birth rates in America and it’s a burden the rest of us end up carrying through higher taxes for healthcare education and other services teen mothers can’t afford so get beyond disturbed [sic] get involved at” When this ad says, “the rest of us,” it doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be reading it. Instead, it means taxpayers, since “we” have to accept higher taxes due to teen mothers. This is the persuasive technique of scapegoating, since teen mothers are singularly blamed for higher taxes. There is an incorrect assumption here that teen mothers are not taxpayers, which helps create an “us versus them” dynamic and furthers the technique of persuasion titled “fear.” The campaign asks people to act out of fear of the burden teen mothers place on taxpayers.

In each image, the model is positioned in front of a particular background. The backgrounds of the ads provide assumptions about race and class in America. While the white model’s background shows nice, city buildings and trees, the Latino model stands in front of a graffitied wall adorned with a metal fence on top, with buildings resembling public housing behind the wall. The black model is in front of a plain, grey, concrete wall with an air vent. The white model is clearly positioned as more affluent than the others, showing that racial stereotypes are entrenched in the images we see.

The symbol of a pregnant belly in these advertisements is deployed in a way that is supposed to create dissonance. In the frame of the advertisers, the pregnant bellies in the ads are solely female while the rest of the body is solely male. This contrast is supposed to cause discord in the viewer, yielding feelings that the image is “disturbing” or “unexpected,” as the ads say. However, sex and gender are much more complicated than the advertisers understand.

Transgender boys and men can become pregnant. Calling their bodies disturbing perpetuates a culture of ignorance, prejudice, and violence against transgender people. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs at the New York Anti-Violence Project, anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected homicides were the fourth highest ever recorded in 2012. In addition, transgender people were 3.32 times more likely to experience police violence than cisgender people. There is currently a three-year trend in which transgender women and transgender people of color experience a greater risk of homicide than LGBTQ and HIV-affected people.

The ads were created by non-profit and government organizations with the intention of reducing teen pregnancy by the use of shock tactics. Why are images of pregnant, transgender boys a shock tactic? The Milwaukee ad has the text “It shouldn’t be any less disturbing when it’s a girl” strewn across the bodies of pregnant boys. This positions pregnant transgender bodies and pregnant girls’ bodies as a shameful, disturbing, shocking spectacle. Rather than urging the support of pregnant teens of any gender, the ads stigmatize and shame transgender pregnancies as “disturbing” or “unexpected,” further reifying cultural prejudice.

There are many untold stories in these ads, including the stories of pregnant boys and girls. The ads do not mention the lack of support that many pregnant teens feel and the inadequacy of public support programs. The ads do not explain the added pressures that transgender teen parents face in light of state-sanctioned intolerance. In addition, the ads do not include information about the lack of sex education, misinformation young people receive, and difficulty accessing public health clinics. According to the CDC, white young adults were twice as likely as Hispanic young adults to have private health insurance. Last year, two young women in MLP’s Girl Tech program (Diana Garcia and Georgia West) directed a documentary short about the lives of young mothers in New Mexico, entitled “Recognition: Young Parents in New Mexico." These stories, and more, help to illuminate the picture of teen parenthood in America.

MLP produced a counter ad to these images that embraces transgender teens. Here are some questions for you: In what ways does or doesn’t our counter ad transform the meanings of the pregnant boy ads? How does changing the text reposition an image? What role, if any, do you think counter ads play in reshaping the media landscape?

For more commentary on the issue, check out Hale T's blog.

Correction: We initially stated that the Chicago Department of Health only used the black and Latino images. This was an error. The Chicago Department of Health used all three images, one of a white boy, one of a black boy, and one of a Latino boy.


It appears that these folks at Chicago Dept. of Public Health have never taken a single class in health behavior change. Even beyond the harm and stigma they are perpetuating within the marginalized communities mentioned above, this would still be a horrendous approach to behavior change. Stigma Theory and Labeling Theory, Psychological Reactance Theory, Marketing and Advertising Theory (branding, framing), Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; the application of any of single ONE of these would produce a more effective media campaign.

Thanks for the comment Jessica! We at MLP also thought there are more effective ways to achieve the goal of encouraging birth control use.