What Can Super Bowl Ads Teach the Field of Public Health?

A reaction to the CNN article: “MTV’s ’16 and Pregnant’ led to fewer teen births

With Super Bowl XLVIII in our recent memory, most people who watch the game remember the uniquely crafted commercials just as well as the winning champions of the game. Within just a few days, products promoted during the Super Bowl often see a rise in consumer purchase. Through tactical and captivating market messaging the consumer’s behavior is swayed.

Related to this concept of media influences on social outcomes is an intriguing study released earlier in January 2014 on the impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on teen childbearing. As a 19 year old high school student hearing the buzz and popularity of the newly released television series, critics predicted that such a show would encourage rather than discourage teen pregnancy. Sensationalizing teen moms would draw young girls into the culture that was seemingly increasing in attention and popularity. Early news coverage around the initial premiere was particularly sensitive to teenage pregnancy in the media. Just one year earlier to the MTV season release, the Glouchester High pregnancy pact had made headline news, spurring copycat situations around the nation. Hit movies such as Juno and Knocked Up were also criticized for glamorizing young, unwed mothers.

Five years later, research conducted and published in the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that there was a 5.7% reduction, or about 20,000 teen births prevented, in the 18 months after the MTV show release. I have not evaluated the research to endorse or dispute its findings, however, I do think the conclusions presented can be beneficial when thinking about future public health interventions targeted at this age group or health topic. It seems that a hit television series captured its intended audience of teenage women, and in highlighting the harsh realities of teen mothers, subtly encouraged the importance of birth control for sexually active teens.

What do you think? Should public health interventions take more messaging risks to target at risk populations? What do you think of the “16 and Pregnant model” as a method of contraception education? In light of our recent talks with the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, I wonder what their reaction would be to these study conclusions.


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