Why this truancy ad sucks and what I think would be better

Media, particularly that which is meant to attract the indifference of youth, has to be more informed by the end user.

Riding the El in Philadelphia, I see this truancy ad with Bill Cosby pretty often.

Maybe I’m just cynical, but this seems so clearly to be an ad that completely ignores its audience. This ad’s message of getting kids to go to school was made by adults, for adults or by high-achieving kids, for high-achieving kids.

I’m not sure I believe that any kid who is at risk for skipping school would look at this ad and be moved to change his or her ways.

It’s a picture of an aged Bill Cosby and a pack of clean cut students, suggesting going to school ‘made me a winner.’ I don’t believe it’s compelling: nameless kids and an older celebrity. I don’t think there is anyone there who, without context, would inspire other students to follow this suggested path.

What would be compelling, I believe, is making clear the looming risks of not graduating high school.

While working at homeless advocacy nonprofit Back on My Feet, I was moved by how many of our older members wanted to be able to get a message to young people: don’t follow my path. What’s more, there is no end to the studies and metrics that show if you don’t graduate high school — hell, even if you only graduate high school — you’re in trouble — your options are immediately limited.

So, though I don’t think most kids would want to aspire to this depicted standard, I do think most kids would want to avoid those troubling failures. Better telling the story of what can happen when you don’t go to school — increased rates of incarceration, drug use, early pregnancy and cyclical challenges that follow — might likely have a bigger impact.

We need to think of youth as an end user, and recognize that you’d be better off playing to their vanity. If you don’t go to school, your life has a much better chance at being fucked up and here’s an example of that.

[Updated: It’s true that this suggestion puts the subject in a negative light, rather than a positive light. i.e. ‘Don’t do this,’ as opposed to ‘Do do this.’ I might add that I do believe the right celebrity spokesman can be helpful: athletes, entertainers and other arbiters of cool can help convey that going to school doesn’t have to be entirely lame, but I still believe making it clear why you’d want to go can have more impact.]

2 thoughts on “Why this truancy ad sucks and what I think would be better”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’d love to bring young people to my workplace and let them talk to the adult clients who dropped out of school (and many of them would be open to sharing their experiences). Many of them have such poor literacy, math, and/or science knowledge that they have difficulty participating in printed or digital culture. Many have dim career prospects – dull or demeaning work for little pay. The kind of friends as kids continue to be a poor influence into adulthood.

    Some of my clients are finding success in their efforts here or elsewhere. However, they have to fight much much harder for every inch of ground they gain – children, housing, finances, and health all suck away their available time while their old study habits are gone and their brains aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

    The stereotyping is somewhat unfair – some clients had significant or insurmountable problems in their past. However, a good many of the clients simply fucked around too much when they were younger and paid for it with a much more challenging and annoying adulthood. Maybe the subway poster should have MLK on it and read “Quit fuckin’ around and get back in school, or you’ll just be another broke-ass adult perpetuating the stereotypes I worked hard to dispel.”

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