A Safe Sex Campaign That Doesn’t Judge

The Back Story: Sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancy, birth control, family planning—these subjects often strike fear—and confusion—into the hearts and minds of young people.

But this shouldn’t be the case, says Paul DesRosiers, creative director at Vermilion, the agency responsible for a recent sex education and wellbeing awareness campaign targeted at 18- to 29-year-olds in Colorado, the goal of which is to, as he puts it, “normalize the conversation around sexual health” and reduce the overall number of unintended pregnancies. At one point recently, the rate of unintended pregnancy in that age range was up to 50% in Colorado; it’s currently down to 41%.

“What we realized, through our research and even some attempts at media placement, is that there’s an ongoing taboo about talking about these things between friends, family, at clinics, and in the community,” says DesRosiers, who notes the general prevalence of misinformation in the mainstream on everything from getting tested to contraception.

The cleverly named “Beforeplay” campaign aims to change that with an integrated approach focusing on social, mobile, and digital channels to reach its target audience of millennials and twentysomethings.

The Strategy: Based on focus groups, surveys, and pre-launch research with the target audience, it became clear that young people want reliable information—but they’re not looking to be judged or shamed.

“One thing we heard over and over again is that they didn’t want to be told what to do,” says Greta Klinger, family planning supervisor at the state-run Colorado Department of Health & Environment, which partnered with Colorado Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy on the Beforeplay effort. “In other teen pregnancy campaigns, there’s often a real stigma attached; there’s shaming involved—but we wanted to keep our message positive.”

As a result, the Beforeplay messaging is both pragmatic and fun. Rather than pointing a judgmental finger—a campaign in Chicago featuring pregnant teen boys with the tagline “Unexpected? Most teen pregnancies are,” for example, has received some negative feedback in the press recently—Vermillion adopted a savvy tone designed to appeal rather than repel. For example, one ad encouraged participation in a Facebook giveaway contest by telling entrants to “End your summer with a bang,” and one memorable banner ad reads, “If you think IUD means you owe someone money, you might want to text us.”

The Channels: If you want to reach a digital native, you’ve got to be online, which is why both social and mobile pay a key role in bolstering activity on Beforeplay.org, the campaign’s central digital hub, where visitors can find a vast store of information on all topics related to sexual health and wellness, including helpful features such as the “Birth Control Method Selector,” information on the LGBT community, and the “Are You Ready?” quiz that helps takers understand their physical, emotional, and financial readiness for pregnancy.

“Online is where they engage, so we knew we had to be present in those spaces—that’s where this age group is looking for information,” says Klinger, who notes that the site is mobile optimized. Millennials and twentysomethings access most of the content they engage with through their smartphones, she says. Most of the information on beforeplay.org is also available on the campaign’s Facebook page.

Beforeplay representatives also engage in personal outreach at music, health, and cultural events around the state, interacting with people directly, answering questions, and handing out condoms and educational material. Young people can also anonymously submit their sexual health questions to a text line.

The campaign is rounded out with TV spots, billboards, out-of-home, optimized digital display using Google AdWords, Facebook ads, and the placement of broadcast spots for automatic play before related videos on YouTube.

The Results: Since launching a little over a year ago, beforeplay.org has brought in more than 405,000 unique visitors and over 1.5 million page views. Facebook likes are at nearly 11,000, and there have more than 1,000 users of the dedicated text line so far. The Spanish version of the website, which launched in February of 2013, has had 8,500 Web views in just six months. Sixty-percent of YouTube visitors watch Beforeplay ads all the way through.

The Takeaway: Know your audience and your audience will respond, says Klinger.

“The facts on birth control, family planning, and STDs, can be scary to talk about, but young people were telling us that they even though want reliable information, they didn’t want the whole thing to feel very serious,” says Klinger. “It was important for us to listen to them and honor what they told us and what they wanted—and not just tell them what to do.”

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