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The recent Above the Influence ads from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America demonstrate why many girl-targeted "healing ads" fail. They are riddled with messaging techniques that alienate us rather than enlist us in our own success. This is our message to the creators of this campaign:
Dear Above the Influence,
Your ad reminds me of how lousy I feel about myself, and how I keep messing up even when I don't mean to. Everyone wants me to be something that I'm not. My body isn't sporty, my grades aren't amazing, I wasn't supposed to do drugs but I tried them anyway. There is more, but I won't bore you.
Question: How do I fix myself? You didn't say anything about that.
April Jenkins, Age 16
Public-interest groups and consumer health products try to help girls, but their messages—which are laced with judgment, insecurity, and other self-defeating and destructive ways of thinking—get in the way of their cause. These attitudes don't fix problems or provide motivation; they psychologically impair us and exhaust our energy. Ironically, these are the very same unhealthy coping skills we tend to use on ourselves.
Illustration by Evelyn Lieu
Ads like these only make tough situations feel more painful and hopeless. Here is a tour of the damaging messages we found in the Above the Influence ads. For each ineffective technique, we suggest a girl-improved alternative—an approach that gives us the will, courage, respect, and inspiration to grow. (And you don't have to be creating a public-service ad to learn from these lessons!)
Lesson 1: Don't tell us that we're broken. Remind us of our value.
Girls are naturally self-critical and tend to measure themselves against impossibly high standards. We don't need any encouragement in that regard. Yet the mutated girls in the ads fuel our insecurities by portraying girls as freakish, weak, and broken. Having the strength to resist pressure and change bad habits requires confidence, courage, and determination. Shame is exhausting; it's a defeating attitude that takes the will out of the battle. Conversely, self-value and self-respect give a girl something to fight for. To be of help, "healing ads" need to quiet our inner critic, reminding us that there is no such thing as perfect, and that we are valuable—no matter what our mistakes are. When we believe in ourselves, we gain the strength to face our obstacles.
Lesson 2: Don't isolate us. Keep the doors open.
When we're depressed, we feel completely alone. We start to lock our feelings away and hide our secrets in shame. We feel misunderstood and start to believe no one cares. The imagery in these ads only exaggerates that feeling. The girls are alone, in the dark, slumped, deformed, and hopeless. Help us not to feel like the lone screw-up, the reject no one cares about. A feeling of belonging is healing. When people are supportive, encouraging, and willing to listen, a girl will open up, get outside her fears, and begin to face her life.
Illustration by Evelyn Lieu
Lesson 3: Don't exaggerate problems. We already do that ourselves.
Girls have a tendency to obsess over small problems. These ads encourage this paralyzing habit. Talking about a problem excessively makes it seem much bigger than it is. It becomes a monster in our imagination. The language of these ads overdramatizes problems such as peer pressure in the same way that a recent Tampax tampon campaign exaggerated the dangers of getting a leak. (One morbid ad features a goldfish in a broken bowl that's losing water fast, while another shows a girl swimming as a shark approaches in the background.) Casting a problem in such drastic proportions is ultimately defeating. To liberate girls from unrealistic and unproductive anxiety, don't overdramatize issues—turn down the wattage. Help us feel stronger than our problems; it will give us the emotional courage we need to confront them.
Lesson 4: Don't judge us. Express concern.
We don't need to be judged by you when we are our own fiercest critics. Girls are unforgiving of their own mistakes. Such judgmental messages sound more like political statements than honest expressions of concern for girls' lives. Already exhausted from self-scrutiny, we respond to this scorn by putting up defenses or simply shutting down. To be helpful, "healing campaigns" need to express human compassion and understanding. Being treated with kindness and respect soothes our self-judgment. Feeling loved is vital when our self-love is low.
Lessons 5: Solutions, please!
Having a problem and not knowing the way to solve it is the very basis of depression and self-doubt, conditions that drive girls to the numbing effects of addictive substances in the first place. The most tragic aspect of this campaign is that it only discusses the problem, not the solution. Don't focus on the deep pit of addiction without offering a rope. Don't portray girls as "stuck" or tragic. If you want us to rise above the influence, then point us to the stairwell, and offer a vision of a hope. If you give us kindness, encouragement, and compassion, you will be amazed at the miracles you will be part of.