Finally Some PSAs About Sex; A Closer Look at the New Bedsider Campaign

The first public service announcement (PSA) that I remember is one about prejudice.  It featured a young white boy fishing in a rowboat with his grandfather.  He complains with a little bit of stutter on the big word:  “Grandpa, yesterday Jimmy said I was prejudiced.” Grandpa explains that “prejudice is when you react to someone because of their religion or their color.”  The boy protests that he doesn’t do that but proceeds to describe Jimmy as “one of my Jewish friends.”  Grandpa calmly says, “Then you are prejudiced because you think of Jimmy as one of your Jewish friends and not just one of your friends.”

This commercial, which aired in the late 70s, has clearly stuck with me over the years; though I will admit that in my memory Jimmy was “one of his black friends” and grandpa didn’t have to explain that the kid was prejudiced, we were just meant to see the irony in his protest. (Thanks YouTube for correcting the flaws in my memory.) Still, I’ve got to think that that PSA did its job – 7-year-old me saw it, went to talk to my parents about it, and never forgot what prejudice was – or the image of the kid and grandpa in the boat. 

In the years since, we’ve seen many PSA campaigns come and go.  Who can forget the fried egg – “this is your brain, this is your brain on drugs,” for example.  My sex educator colleagues and I, however, have always bemoaned the fact that there have been few widely released commercials celebrating safer sex, condom use, or contraception.  They have them in Europe – my favorite, as of today’s YouTube search, being one depicting a 6-year old having the king of all supermarket tantrums when he’s denied candy by his father.  The tagline is simply, “use condoms.”



But in this country, our discomfort with sexuality in general and teen sexuality in particular, has meant that commercials for ax body spray can be replete with sexual innuendo but PSAs stick to telling kids to eat better, get active, and stay out of their parents' medicine chests. 

That changed a little bit last week with the launch of the Bedsider campaign.  A joint project of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Ad Council, Besider is described by the two groups as the “first-ever advertising campaign to address unplanned pregnancy among young women.”  The ads encourage young couples not to give up on birth control and the campaign, which includes a website and a social media component as well, is designed to help young women “find a method that is right for them and stick with it through a series of online, video, and mobile components.”

The ads have a distinctly European feel perhaps as a result of the jaunty music (which I'm pretty sure is in French) or the fact that they were created pro bono by ad agency Euro RSCG. The two television ads that I’ve seen feature young couples having a hard time getting it right when it comes to sex – they are fumbling with clothes, falling out of showers, and trying like hell to position themselves on small couches or in tiny cars.  The tag line “You didn’t give up on sex. Don’t give up on birth control either.” 

I like them. They’re fun, silly, positive about sex, and not at all scary.  In fact, let me take a second here to thank everyone involved in creating them for skipping the fear-based messages entirely.  We don’t want to scare people out of having sex – we want to educate them into doing it safely. And we do want them to have some fun.

My only complaint about the ads themselves is that they are intended for an audience of 18-24 year olds and therefore depict people and situations on the older side of the phrase “young people,”– like the two couples who run into each other passionately making out in the office supply room.  I understand that there would be far more political ramifications of making a campaign like this specifically for younger teens because, among other things, doing so would require acknowledging that it might be okay for high school couples to have sex. I just think this kind of ad campaign would be great for younger teens and wish it could have targeted them as well.  I don’t know where and when these ads will air but I can only hope that younger teens will see them and comfort myself with the knowledge that, for example, Disney channel’s Shake It Up is about 13 years olds, probably made for 10 year olds, and avidly watched by my 5 year old. 

The ads direct viewers to the website which contains information about all options of birth control.  I clicked around it a lot this morning and though I am more than a decade older and far less hip than its target audience, I think it looked pretty good.  It’s got a nice and clean look to it and its information is simple and to the point.  I was particularly pleased that on the front page, or as the site calls it “the method explorer” page, all of the information about each method was positive.  We sex educators often try too hard to cover all our bases (pun intended) and temper the good with the bad or mitigate the bad with the good. I think that if the first goal is to get more people to use more methods of birth control more often, it is good to start with just the good. 

Digging further into the site there is more information on each method, guides on how to use them, articles about the most recent research, answers to frequently asked questions, and very earnest videos of young people describing in lots of detail the method they have chosen and why.   

As I clicked through – clearly seeing some but not all of what is up there – I did have one important concern.  I worry that in its zest to prevent unplanned pregnancies and promote using a method of contraception it de-emphasizes (or at least doesn’t stress enough for my taste), the importance of STI protection.  I realize that there is only one method of contraception that also protects against STIs – the condom – and I’m not suggesting the website limit its information to just that.  That said, unless the young people visiting the site are in a long-term relationship where everyone has been tested for STIs and no one is cheating – the sex educator in me wants to say, “you really should be using condoms.”

Though the website throws in a few quips about how important condoms are with scroll-overs such as "IUDs are party-perfect though of course should be combined with condoms for STI protection," it by no means emphasizes STI protection and in my opinion, is kind of hard on condoms (that pun was by accident, I swear).  In its comparison of methods, for example, Bedsider gives condoms a low rating for “effort,” saying “you have to use a condom (correctly) EVERY time you have sex.” Ok, but it’s really not that hard to use a condom and it’s certainly no harder to remember to use a condom every time your vagina gets really close to a penis (or vice versa) than it is to remember to take a pill every day 6 pm or get a shot every 3 months.    

Still, in the same vein, the website rates condoms low on the scale of “party-ready” (“Some methods mix better with booze. As in you don’t have to think in the heat of the moment”) and  “do me now” (These methods are ideal for spontaneous hot sex. Anywhere. Anytime.”) Though I’ve never thought about it in quite those words (remember, I’m neither young nor hip), I have to say that I would put condoms on the top of both of those lists.  They’re cheap, easy to find, require no forethought other than throwing it in your purse before the party, and take only a few seconds to put on. That combined with the fact that they protect against STIs (and drunk, hot, spontaneous sex may very well be with someone you just met) should have earned them a few extra stars in my mind.

The campaign launched last week and it will be interesting to see how young people respond.  While I’ve heard mostly positive reviews of it, a couple of colleagues worried that it smacked too much of adults telling young people (or younger adults in this case) what to do and an ad agency telling them what’s cool. 

That may be true, but it may work anyhow – after all, it was an ad agency that taught me that prejudice was uncool, and 32 years later, I still remember it. 

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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