Opinion

Offended by bawdy ads? Take a stand.

Fighting for my child's right to innocence, I have been surprised at how effective one phone call can be.

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Parents will go to great lengths to protect their children. But much of the time, that protection is physical: feeding and clothing them. But what about kids' spiritual protection? This often gets sidelined, and when it does, kids can be robbed of their sense of security and innocence.

That's why years ago I began to fight – on a small scale – some of the worst excesses of our "anything goes" media, whose flaunting of sexually provocative and violent images and language was clearly disturbing my children. The turning point was when my son, then 7, tried out his new reading skills on a billboard.

"Get your butt in here," he read, tittering. He would have gotten in trouble for using vulgar language at home, yet obviously some grown-ups had decided it was OK in public. I was incensed and sad.

The billboard was intentionally provocative, revealing a bare-bellied woman with jeans unzipped halfway down. I viewed this advertisement as a direct assault not only on my children's innocence, but on the standards that our culture once adhered to. And while you can avoid TV shows or movies that you object to, billboards that you pass on your way to work or even the headlines about the latest sex scandals on magazine covers in the supermarket are impossible to miss.

That day I began to wonder: Why are we not as concerned with firsthand cultural pollution as we are with secondhand smoke? Why are we banning tag on schoolyards but allowing outdoor advertising for movies such as "Saw V," that give our children nightmares?

I called the retailer responsible for the billboard and made my case. Though prepared for resistance, I was happily surprised to hear that others, too, had called and that the ad campaign would soon be scrapped.

Over the next several years, I succeeded in helping get many offensive billboards removed from my community, including those paid for by soft-porn self-promoters, and one by a sports radio station whose genius was to display the backsides of four males, all of whom were unzipping themselves in order to urinate.

It was easier than I thought. Most billboards feature the name of the sponsoring outdoor media company at the bottom. From there, you can look online for the contact information of the company.

When I reach someone at these media outlets I am always polite but firm when explaining myself. I don't expect people to snap to attention just because I'm unhappy, but I don't back down either. I point out that today, when companies love to boast about their sense of "social and environmental responsibility," that those concepts ought to extend to our moral and social environment as much as it does our natural environment.

Years have now passed since I fought that first billboard, and the media have become even more coarse and senseless. Currently, in my neighborhood, there are digital billboards promoting a movie called "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" and for a Showtime miniseries called "Californication." It is small comfort that none of my four children are still young enough to ask what these words mean; but thousands of other local children are reading these words and asking their cringing parents to explain.

You don't need to be a parent to be concerned about the wholesale vulgarization of our culture. It really does take a village to raise a child: Neighbors, teachers, and shopkeepers all have a stake in promoting a culture with boundaries meant to protect the next generation, both physically and emotionally.

Even when just a few people speak up, businesses pay attention. They know that for every one person who bothers to call or write, hundreds more are offended by what they've seen.

I'm not deterred when I am told, as often happens, "No one else has complained about this. You're the only one." Even if it's true, it doesn't mean I'm wrong. And I still sometimes get results. What a powerful testimony to the difference each and every one of us can make in our own communities, for our sake, and for our children's.

Judy Gruen's latest book is "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement."

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