Babies shouldn’t sleep with knives — or their mothers, says PSA

Milwaukee clearly has a problem – at roughly 10.4 infant deaths for every 1,000 live births, certain zip codes in that city have higher baby mortality rates than some undeveloped and Third World countries. The culprit? Often, unsafe sleeping arrangements, including substance-abusing and/or over-exhausted mothers “co-sleeping” in the same bed with their babies, according to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

That’s pretty bad. Agreed. But to combat what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel refers to as a “crisis,” the Milwaukee Heath Department unveiled a duo of provocative ads last week – just minutes after the city’s medical examiner announced yet another SIDS-related death, the ninth this year – and, as expected, the ads have been stirring up controversy on the Internet.

Designed by SERVE Marketing, the PSAs feature Botticelli-esque babies, one white and one black, sleeping the sleep of purely innocent angels … right next to huge mean-looking knives out of a slasher film. Tagline: “Your baby sleeping with you can be just as dangerous.”

Opinion on the ads run the gamut. One mommy blogger points out the “many well-documented benefits to co-sleeping,” including fostering emotional health, while a commenter on that same blog says, “As someone who lives in Milwaukee and therefore witnesses the pretty much once-a-month reports of yet another child dying from a parent smothering them in their sleep – I have to say, for the community they are targeting, this is the right ad.” 

Not to enter the fray of the debate regarding the pros and cons of co-sleeping, but it does seem to me there’s something lacking in these PSAs.

I was having trouble pinpointing exactly what was bothering me about them; and then I realized what it was. As many PSAs do, these ads are trying to shame people into doing the “right thing,” instead of addressing the root problem, which appears to be general negligent parenting. Another blogger makes a similar point. The ads imply that any parent who co-sleeps with a child is ignorant. According to the blogger, there are simple things parents can do to co-sleep safely with their baby: no pillows, no blankets, no pets, tight-fitting sheets only, make sure the baby is lying on its back, etc.

The implication is also harsh. Is the ad telling parents that an accidental smothering death, though tragic and ultimately preventable, is akin to murder? Though I know the ads are a bit over-the-top on purpose to bring their point across, leaving a butcher knife in bed next to your baby seems a little more insidious to me than co-sleeping. (“Hey honey, what did you do with the knife? I don’t see it in the kitchen.” “Oh … uh, try our bed? Or maybe the baby has it? I don’t know. Let me check.”)

The ads remind me of an anti-drunk driving television PSA out of Ireland from 2006 with the tagline, “Could YOU live with the shame?” It’s a powerful ad, I’ll admit that, and when I saw it for the first time, it shocked the pants off me, but there was something about it that didn’t sit well with me either.

Beyond the shock tactics, which have an immediate, visceral impact, shouldn’t PSAs ultimately be about education, not fear?

I don’t know. What do you think – shouldn’t PSAs be about more than just fear mongering?

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