Public-Service Ads for Black Teenagers Fail, Study Says

By Peter Schmidt — June 10, 1992 4 min read

To gain acceptance by young blacks, the study said, a message must be delivered in a form that will make members of the black urban culture accept it and want to repeat it. An effective strategy for delivering such a message, the study said, “simply doesn’t exist yet.’'

The study, released in late May, concluded that no communications medium can penetrate the subculture of black urban teenagers with messages promoting positive behavior.

These youths are caught up in a social system that encourages dangerous behavior and shuns nonconformists, the study suggests.

Moreover, they are as alienated from their African-American traditions as they are from the white mainstream, found the study conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment Productions Inc., a black-owned market-research and film-production firm based in Philadelphia.

The three-month study, aimed at finding ways to reach black urban youth with anti-drug and other positive messages, concluded that “an effective strategy for reaching this audience with these messages simply doesn’t exist.’'

“No messenger and no message is really working,’' Thomas P. Gore, vice president of communications for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said in an interview last week.

“We thought the messages being brought by athletes and rock stars were probably getting through,’' Mr. Gore said, “but they were not if they had to do with lifestyle or pro-health or pro-social messages.’'

The study’s authors recommended convening black communicators, filmmakers, music-video producers, and public-health experts “to seek a way for this nation to speak effectively to its most alienated children.’'

Dr. Steven A. Shroeder, president of the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation, said last month that the philanthropy might sponsor such an event.

Mr. Gore said the foundation would continue to fund public-service campaigns aimed at young blacks until an effective medium is found.

Experts on the education of African-Americans who were shown the study last week said they would have to redouble their efforts in light of its findings.

“I’m taken aback by the fact that these kids don’t seem to be centered in anything positive, but that does not mean that we should give up,’' said Herman L. Reese, a consultant to the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta.

Although the study appears not to have taken into account the success of some mentoring programs, it nonetheless “tells us that our work is clearly, glaringly cut out for us,’' he said. “We need to re-intensify our efforts.’'

Nelson O. Onyenwoke, director of the Center for the Study of the Black Male at Albany State College in Georgia, said he agreed with the study’s recommendation that positive messages must be delivered to black youth early, and must treat their culture in a more positive manner.

Ivan J. Juzang, president of the firm that conducted the study, said it was reviewed by several prominent urban educators. He said they all praised it as a “bridge from their academic world to the reality of what is happening in the streets.’'

The study was based on surveys and on focus-group interviews of 262 inner-city teenagers in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Camden, N.J.

The study found that anti-drug ads and other messages aimed at inner-city teens “are reaching the wrong audience with the wrong information.’'

The messages generally are aimed at blacks in their mid-teens and older. Most of these youths, the study said, made their lifestyle decisions much earlier and are not open to suggestions that they change.

Moreover, campaigns based on slogans like “just say no’’ or “stay in school’’ are rejected and treated with derision by inner-city teenagers because they are based on “the mainstream assumption that these are rudderless, leaderless young people yearning for a catch phrase upon which to focus their lives.’'

Multiple Subcultures

Those trying to deliver these messages, the study said, tend to overestimate their credibility with youth. They also rely on styles of communication that are not effective with their target audience, and to assume falsely that there is one homogeneous “street culture’’ when there may be several distinct but overlapping subcultures centered on drugs, gangs, sex, or music.

To simply state a position without defending it is to appear incompetent and preachy to this target audience, the study said.

And no message will get through if it runs counter to peer pressure, which, the report said, constrains the behavior of inner-city teenagers “with all the power of taboo’’ because of their belief that, if ostracized, they will have no other culture to join.

Attempts to get such youths to think about the future are undercut by the fact that most of them do not think they will live long, the report said.

“Appeals to their African-American sensibilities are also likely to be ineffective,’' the report said, asserting that these youths have “very little positive identification with the African-American experience, even to the extent of perceiving it as imposed burden.’'

“Few of the students we interviewed in Washington and Philadelphia could name a black elected official, even though both cities had black mayors at the time,’' the study said. Few knew what the acronym N.A.A.C.P. stood for or the meaning of the “X’’ on hats and other clothing.

To gain acceptance by young blacks, the study said, a message must be delivered in a form that will make members of the black urban culture accept it and want to repeat it. An effective strategy for delivering such a message, the study said, “simply doesn’t exist yet.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1992 edition of Education Week as Public-Service Ads for Black Teenagers Fail, Study Says