Until last year, Ann Weinstein had never paid much attention to the billboard-style ads on the sides of city buses. Then one day, glancing out of her office window as a bus rolled by, she was startled to see a bold Calvin Klein ad. It featured what she describes as a ''larger than life'' couple in swim suits, their arms and legs entangled.
''The man was lying down, and the woman was lying on top of him,'' explains Ms. Weinstein, director of Parents Place, a support organization for parents of young children. ''It was obviously a very sexual picture. I thought, that's bizarre to have this out there in front of every child coming down the street.''
When Weinstein mentioned the ad to her advisory committee, others shared her concern. As they talked, they saw what she calls ''a terrific need to empower parents to object to media -- not just TV, but advertising, which is continually sexualizing its messages. They are bombarding children, and adults are becoming desensitized.''
As a result of that conversation, the group created a 90-minute workshop to help families deal with the media images their children observe. Sessions are held at Parents Place and at area schools when parents' groups hold meetings.
Speaking of values
''As adults, we no longer can control the information coming to our children,'' Weinstein says. ''You can't move far enough away, and you can't build the walls high enough to protect your children from the larger community, to keep the world out. So you need to help children make judgments about that world.''
Weinstein, the mother of four grown children, sees ''a split'' between what Americans say they value and what they tolerate.
''We talk about how terrible violence against women is, but then we exploit women and their sex in ads to sell things. We tell teenagers, 'Don't have a child out of wedlock,' but then we completely flood children's senses with sexual messages.''
On a rainy Wednesday evening this month, four mothers gathered in Weinstein's office to talk about guiding children through a morass of troubling media images. They also described their efforts to speak out to advertisers and media outlets.
For Darla Romano, the mother of two daughters aged 7 and 9, the galvanizing moment came when she saw a bus ad for Nautilus Fitness Centers. It showed a muscular man clad only in jeans. Behind him stood a young woman, her arms below his waist. A double-entendre headline teased: ''Do you want a firm offer?''
Ms. Romano, a marriage and family counselor, called the Nautilus center to complain. ''Of course, the local center couldn't do anything,'' she says. ''But they wouldn't even give me a number to call. I said, 'I would never consider joining your club because of those ads.' ''
Use of scare tactics
Not all offending ads contain sexual innuendoes. During last fall's political campaigns, a local radio station aired a Willie Horton-style ad that Marjorie Fulbright, the mother of two young sons, considered a ''total scare tactic.'' In it, a candidate warned that his opponent was considering paroling a man who had murdered a 12-year-old boy. Her five-year-old son heard the ad and became frightened.
''I told my son we were not going to listen to that radio station anymore because it was disturbing,'' Ms. Fulbright says. ''Together we called the station. I explained the situation, and then I put my son on the phone.''
Fulbright, an executive recruiter, also wrote a letter to the station and the candidate. ''I read the letter to my son and showed him we were sending it,'' she says. ''That ended his concern.''
On another occasion, when she and her family were flying to the East Coast, the airline movie included scenes of a child witnessing a murder. Although the family hadn't rented headsets, the violent images on the soundless screen scared her children.
''You can't sit there and put your hands over children's eyes for a whole movie,'' Fulbright says. ''I complained to a flight attendant that this is a public place. When I asked for the name of someone to write to, she really didn't want to give me the address. I wrote to the airline, but they never responded.''
Marla Miller, a lawyer and the mother of a four-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son, had a similar experience on a flight that featured ''The River Wild,'' which includes a murder. But she says even when parents remain silent about controversial images, ''I don't think it's that they don't care. They just don't know how to deal with these things.''
As the women shared ideas, buses outside Weinstein's window on California Street displayed the latest Calvin Klein ad. It shows a reclining model propped on her elbow, dressed only in skimpy underwear.
Representatives of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), which operates the buses, and Transportation Displays Inc., which handles transit advertising, refused to comment to a reporter about the Calvin Klein ads.
One employee in the railway's passenger service department says he receives ''a couple of calls and letters a month.'' Objectors have included pedestrians and a female bus driver.
An official of Transportation Displays Inc., speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledges that the ads, which he calls a ''fashion statement,'' are a ''tricky subject.'' But, he adds, the company could face a lawsuit if it refused to run them.
Officials at Calvin Klein did not return repeated phone calls.
Weinstein and the others emphasize that they are not advocating censorship.
''If you are buying a magazine or renting a video to bring into your home, that's your responsibility,'' Weinstein says. ''But when it's public -- in the street, on the airwaves -- we have to make our views known. If you object to something, let the company know you object.''
Romano adds that discussing ads like these with children can produce benefits that go beyond a specific ad.
''If your children always know there's an open door to come and talk about these things, it will encourage communication around even the most difficult subject,'' she says. ''Your children will feel comforted in knowing where to go to share their confusion or to get their questions answered.''
Emphasizing parents' responsibility, Romano adds, ''Images are so powerful. It's a big job.''
Weinstein, the director of Parents Place, a support organization for parents of young children, sees a split between what Americans say they value and what they tolerate.