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Students Tackle Stereotypes in TV Public Service Spots

April 15, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Black girls don't dress fashionably. Latinos can't fight. Handicapped people take forever. Those are the stereotypes that a group of Los Angeles middle school students use to grab viewers' attention during a student-produced public service announcement to premiere Saturday morning on Channel 2.

Once viewers' eyes are drawn to the TV screen, students debunk the stereotypes by showing a beautifully dressed black girl, a powerful Latino boxer and a boy fitted with prosthetics who races around a track. The 30-second spot ends with a student-developed tag line: "Open up your mind before you open up your mouth."

The PSA from Audubon Middle School, produced in conjunction with CBS, the Ad Council and the Leadership Conference Education Fund, will air for the first time Saturday morning during CBS' children-oriented programming. A second commercial created by students at Emerson Middle School is now in production and will be broadcast at a later date.

The PSAs were developed in 1998 during a six-week program during which DDB Needham, a unit of DDB Worldwide Communications, sent agency employees to work with sixth- and seventh-graders on the Emerson and Audubon campuses. About 50 students at each of the ethnically diverse campuses worked on the PSA project.

Groups of students developed their own storyboards dealing with the thorny subject of diversity and stereotypes. Students controlled the process, according to Emerson teacher David Weiss and Audubon teacher Brenda Bright, but professionals from CBS, the Ad Council and DDB Needham were on hand to answer questions and provide technical assistance.

"When the people from CBS and the Ad Council first came to talk, they were wondering if students could do this," Bright said. "I told them that, after 23 years in the classroom, I'd never say what a student can't do, because they never cease to amaze me with what they can accomplish."

The "open up your mind" spot developed by Audubon students is a live-action spot. An animated PSA developed by Emerson students is still in production. The story line for the Emerson spot involves a bunch of tough and powerful dogs who belittle a small poodle that wants to join in their games. The spot ends with the poodle proving to be a star player.

Students at each school prepared half a dozen ideas for PSAs, but only two themes were selected to be filmed and broadcast.

Weiss said that adults also learned from the experience. Emerson students believed that the animated spot with the dogs was their most effective PSA, but ad executives opted for another story line. The advertising professionals reversed course, Weiss said, after focus groups consisting of preteens clearly preferred the spot that the students had backed.

Bright credited advertising industry players with treating the middle school students as equals in the creative process. "The adults were flexible, they took ideas from the kids and gave them a great deal of respect," she said.

Weiss said the PSAs were a natural evolution for students at Emerson. "This place looks like a little United Nations because we're a culturally diverse school. It was great because the kids weren't just doing something involving theory; they had a chance to actually put what they were learning to work in real life."

The PSA program was underwritten by the CBS Foundation. The Leadership Conference Education Fund is affiliated with the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, an organization that promotes racial harmony and equal opportunity.

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