Will this boy graduate high school?

subwayThe other day, on the subway in NYC, I saw this ad. It turns out there has been some commotion over it. (Approved and defended by Mayor Bloomberg, it is part of New York City’s recent campaign to raise awareness about teen pregnancy.)  I would like to add my own two or three objections to the mix.

First, this is an example of the “precision fallacy” in statistics. (That’s the best term I could find; there may be better.) Specifically, the ad confuses the individual’s probabilities with those of the group. It may be that “kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than [sic] kids whose moms were over age 22,” but this probability doesn’t hold for individuals.

Second, adults put words in this child’s mouth (and banal words at that). A baby or toddler would not say anything remotely close to this, unless someone had prepped him to do so.

That brings up a larger problem: from a young age, children are trained to describe themselves in statistical terms, at school and elsewhere. They learn to say, “My growth in such-and-such a skill is 30 percent,” or “I was one of the sixty percent who had the right answer.” In measure, in the right context, this may be fine–but when it’s the dominant lingo and mode of thought, it crowds out substance and meaning. (I wrote a satirical piece about this tendency.)

Beyond that, I did not bear this child as a teen, nor did 99.999999 percent of NYC subway riders, in all likelihood. (For all we know, this kid’s mom might have a chauffeur.) The “you” is not a real you, nor the “I” a real I. Yet here’s a tear-streaked face bringing sadness to a passenger’s day–and to what end?

What good does it do even for the target audience, teens who might get pregnant or father a child? If I were a teen looking at the picture, I’d want to wipe the little boy’s cheeks. I’d want to take out a book and read to him. Yet I wouldn’t be able to do so. I might dream of being a parent one day–and, if I were foolhardy enough, I’d want that day to come soon.

Worst of all, this ad gives the impression that the boy’s existence is a mistake and his fate sealed (or at least tipped in a direction). This is wrong. Once a child comes into the world, he or she is no mistake. Nor do we know what that child’s life will be.

Of course teen pregnancy is no light matter, no matter how it’s handled. I imagine many involved with the ad had good intentions. Still, it  fails to inform, enlighten, or persuade. And what a sad-looking kid.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    IMO, nobody would be concerned as you are, since they would take it metaphorically, which is the point. Done all the time in ads for anything.
    About the only thing that might be a bad outcome is a teen mom would decide pushing her kid to do well in school would be a waste of time. Or maybe decide she needs to push harder. No telling.

    • Diana Senechal says:

      You are right that metaphors abound in ads, but this is a bad metaphor. It doesn’t make it to the poetic level. That’s why I took it so literally.

      • Here’s the thing: If I say I’m going to flip a coin and ask you what the odds are of producing “heads” vs. “tails”, you are going to say “50/50” – it hasn’t happened yet. If I flip a coin show you the result and ask, what are the odds that it’s “heads” or “tails”, the answer will be either 0% or 100% depending upon what you’re looking at.

        Without wanting to get into the “rich tapestry of factors” issue, as there’s a lot more to outcomes than the age of a child’s mother, if the goal is to persuade teenager girls who have not yet had a child, “It’s better to wait”, presenting a statistical argument that holds overall truth is not fallacious.

        Putting adult words in a child’s mouth, or unrealistic words in an adult’s mouth, or having a talking, singing, dancing cartoon character convince you to buy cereal… welcome to Madison Avenue. Nothing new or surprising there. Using an eye-catching image? Same story.

        Do you object to this ad? (But *you* didn’t abuse the kid.) What about this one? (Hey – virtually all abused kids survive.) This one? (Does that sound like a kid talking?)

        Anecdotal argument that kids see themselves in statistical terms… that would seem to be an argument in support of presenting an ad in statistical terms – it’s language to which you’re telling us that the intended audience will relate.

        I’m not convinced that the ad campaign will have a measurable impact, but it’s pretty obvious why the government is making an effort. Do you have an ad campaign idea that you believe will have greater impact?

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    This ad isn’t really aimed at teen moms. It’s for New Yorkers are pretty near exhausted with the social consequences of the poor choices of the under-class. It signals that the elites are finally getting on board with making some moral judgements about behavior that doesn’t involve Big Gulps. Working and middle-class NYers have been consistently harsh in their judgements. It’s about the acceptability of shaming. And that’s a good thing.

  3. It seems to me based on this and other of the same ad campaign I’ve seen that a teenager may come to the conclusion that it’s better not to have the child (i.e., abort it) rather than that it’s better to not have sex or insist on “safe” sex, which is the purported goal of the campaign.

  4. The effect observed here is not causal. Being born to a teenage mom does not directly affect kids. But the children of teenage mothers inherit both the genes of their mother as well as of the biological father. As a result they show similar behavior.

  5. Shouldn’t that be “graduate from high school?”

    • Diana Senechal says:

      Both are used colloquially, but “graduate from high school” is correct.

      From Webster’s College Dictionary:

      Usage: graduate followed by from is the most common construction today: to graduate from Yale. The passive form, once considered to be the only correct pattern, occurs infrequently today: to be graduated from Yale. Although condemned by some as nonstandard, the use of graduate as a transitive verb meaning “to receive a degree or diploma from” is increasing in both speech and writing: to graduate high school.

  6. Shows you the results of not graduating from high school.

  7. The ad is stating a fact. Whether or not it results in any changes in behavior, it’s kind of fascinating that someone is willing to say that some behaviors are more acceptable (to say nothing of being better for kids) than others.

  8. People are more willing to express condemnation of Big Gulp consumption because they know that anyone can stop drinking them and adopt a more healthy diet. Whereas, once you have the child, the child is here for good and we are reluctant to discourage the mother (and the child) by telling them that the child won’t do well.