'Children Come First' - A Campaign to Make Good on the Rhetoric

One of the more memorable bumper stickers of the 1970s, often seen in the suburbs, carried a family-oriented message: "Have you hugged your child today?" Although the question sounded smug, the stickers served as a kind of homespun public-service announcement - one effort, however tiny, to make people think about the needs of children.

If hugs were all it took to improve the well-being of the next generation, that grass-roots effort might have made a difference. But on nearly every index of well-being, American children still rank below their counterparts in other industrialized nations. Politicians spout platitudes ("our most precious resource") and claim to support "family values," but progress remains dishearteningly slow.

Now a group of business leaders and children's experts hopes to change that by launching a massive public-service campaign to inspire people to act on behalf of children. For the next 10 years, in an unprecedented move, the Advertising Council will devote a majority of its public-service ads - television, radio, newspapers - to children's issues.

The project is called "Whose Side Are You On?" and subtitled "A campaign to improve the lives of children." It represents a joint effort by the Advertising Council, the Benton Foundation, and the Coalition for America's Children, a nonpartisan alliance of 350 organizations. A $3 million grant from AT&T will launch the campaign, which is expected to generate $200 million in free media space and air time over the next year.

Some ads will address specific topics, such as how to talk to children about sex and drugs or keep them from dropping out of school. Other messages will be more general, encouraging people to get involved in whatever children's issue interests them.

"Many people feel there's nothing they can personally do," explains Susan Bales, director of children's programs for the Benton Foundation in Washington. "This campaign is trying to open up the possibilities."

Traditionally, public-service campaigns tell people to do one specific thing, such as buckle up a seat belt or put out a forest fire. By contrast, this one offers hundreds of ways to help families - everything from volunteering to read to children at the public library to sending money to groups that help children.

Research by the Advertising Council and the Coalition for America's Children, Ms. Bales says, shows that Americans are far too willing to blame parents for every problem. To counter that, the campaign emphasizes community responsibility - what Bales calls "an obligation to prevent a child's failure, and to catch a child before he or she falls." The ads, featuring real people, "give Americans the message that most parents and most kids are trying pretty hard and could use some help."

That approach comes as a welcome change from negative news stories and punitive attitudes that often stereotype parents as "deadbeats" who won't pay child support or "freeloaders" who won't get off welfare.

People motivated by the ads can call a toll-free hotline (888-544-KIDS). Or they can visit an Internet Web site (www.kidscampaigns.org), which organizers call "a giant electronic back fence to get the conversation started." One possible use: posting candidates' platforms on the Web site to help voters know where politicians stand on children's issues.

Sponsors hope the ads will spur TV and radio stations to broaden coverage of children's issues. Bales says, "The kind of news coverage we want is not just depressing segments on 'Children's health declines again.' We want them to devote news time to helping people figure out how they can make a difference."

In a nation saturated with advertising and entertainment, turning public attention to serious issues long enough to make a difference will not be easy. But just as the recent Stand for Children rally in Washington marked a new way of seeking support for families, this campaign could signal another important beginning.

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