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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Seeing Children in a Whole New Light

August 11, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It takes a paradigmatic shift to think advertisers might regard children as anything more than a market for plastic toys or sugar-coated cereal.

But, over the past year, the New York-based Advertising Council has put its analysts to work on behalf of children, hoping to find out why the public ignores their deteriorating circumstances. The ultimate goal was to join with some other business leaders and children's advocates (AT&T, Young & Rubicam, the Benton Foundation and the Coalition for America's Children) to create a public service campaign that might improve children's lives.

Many advocacy groups have aimed to improve children's lives. But despite the dire statistics they release, children's issues don't work their way up to the top of the political agenda. The strange paradox discovered by the Ad Council's task force is that while people really believe they care about children, they see troubled children as too distant to need their help.

Using the tools of their trade--focus groups--the team found out that commonly used approaches such as shocking statistics or appeals to altruism didn't grab people's attention.

The task force learned that people tend to blame irresponsible, undeserving parents or society as a whole for children's troubles. The problems seem too global and overwhelming to be solved and they think, "Those parents are not like me."

In short, middle-class people in positions to help deny such problems could affect their own neighborhoods.

The public service announcements the Ad Council created, TV shorts called "Whose Side Are You On?" use some of the messages it found did break down barriers. For instance, the researchers found people will be motivated to help when they understand most parents in need are facing temporary crises and are struggling in circumstances that would defeat many of us.

One PSA shows a single mother working two jobs, trying to raise teenagers in a neighborhood a drug dealer has just moved into. Another spot shows MAD DADS, a group of family men, patrolling their neighborhoods at night to take back the streets from pushers and gangs.

Carla Sanger, president of LA's BEST After School Enrichment Program, has her own ideas about what sells interest in inner-city problems to a frustrated and overwhelmed middle class. She thinks people need to understand that consistent, reliable caring can lift children beyond their environments.

Too, she said, the advertising spots do nothing to debunk the common misperception from TV that children are either victims or perpetrators.

Sanger said she would like the public to see what she sees: resilient children at her program, which serves 4,500 children every day in Los Angeles on 22 sites chosen for vulnerability to gangs, drugs and crime.

While she's thrilled the Ad Council cares enough to have funded the $3-million campaign, she said, "The message should be that all kids will not succumb to the horrors of the neighborhoods or family dysfunctions. We have wonderful success stories at every school."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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