The point of most TV commercials is to get people to buy stuff they don’t need. But broadcast “spots” — not to mention campaigns put forth in print, online and in other media — can also get people to do the right thing. Such as, for example, spare a baby’s life.
That, in a nutshell, is the operating vision of the Missouri-based Vitae Caring Foundation.
In Georgia, Jill Hardin was channel surfing when she happened upon a Vitae commercial. Instead of a pitch for beer or shampoo, she saw a touching message about the sanctity of life followed by the words “Think About It.” This was followed by the toll-free phone number of a local crisis-pregnancy center.
She called and now thinks back with gratitude on how the center “brought me through my deepest depression I have ever been in my life.”
“They made me feel loved and accepted,” Hardin says. “I don’t even know what my life would be without my daughter. She’s everything to me. If I would have made the wrong decision, I would not be the same person I am today. … And I thank everybody that got that ad campaign out that I saw. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Hardin’s is just one of many happy “turnaround” stories Vitae has inspired. In April 2006, abortions fell by 10.6% in Minneapolis the month after Vitae’s ads aired. Calls to pregnancy-resource centers increased 181% after a 2006 Kansas City ad campaign. In Dallas, calls increased 169%.
Catholic ethicist and moral theologian Pia de Solenni, a consultant for Vitae, points out that, since 1992, when Vitae began airing commercials in Missouri, the state’s abortions have declined 27%.
Recently a campaign in New York City used what Vitae calls integrated media — a combination of multiple messages on cable TV, in subways, on buses and in print publications — to reach women in “America’s abortion capital.” Since the beginning of this year, the campaign has generated upwards of 40 calls to Expectant Mother Care/EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers. De Solenni says the outreach helped convince well over 100 women not to abort their babies.
The Vitae Caring Foundation has developed and implemented “a bold, pro-life, mass media educational initiative that has had a tremendous impact,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., says. “Vitae’s commitment to produce well-researched pro-life media messages, aimed at audiences who are not already pro-life, has proven effective not only in shifting public opinion but also in saving lives.”
Creative and Persuasive
Vitae’s 30 or so TV commercials in English and Spanish have run in more than 30 states and 13 major cities, reaching into more than 65 “prime media markets.” They’re so creative and persuasive that Vitae won “Platinum Best of Show” at the 2007 Aurora Awards, a competition for independent filmmakers, for its spot on the dangers of embryonic stem-cell research.
Carl Landwehr, Vitae’s president and co-founder, explains one major reason for the work’s success: “We try first and foremost to use good research to get more effective with the commercials.”
He says the organization follows the principles of smart advertising, applying sophisticated market research and measuring tools to see which commercials work — and to make sure the message gets through to their target audience of women between 18 and 34.
Landwehr, who has been involved in pro-life work since 1974, explains that Vitae’s role is not to provide counseling directly but rather to connect women in need with rock-solid, pro-life resources near where they live.
Surveying women to find out “where they’re at,” to put it in the lingo of the street, helps Vitae figure out how to connect with them.
“The research shows that the conversation has to be about the woman,” de Solenni points out. And it shows the ads work.
Father John Jay Hughes of Christ the King Parish in University City, a suburb of St. Louis, recognizes the effectiveness of this market research. A strong Vitae supporter, he notes that the ads are “low-key, not preachy, and designed to make women make a choice they are happy with — not a choice to bring them years of regret and shame.”
“What I see important in their work is they are changing hearts and minds,” adds the priest. “That is the bottom line in the pro-life fight against abortion.”
“Mass media drives the American culture whether we like it or not,” says Landwehr. “We see where this target audience is getting their values.”
Indeed, Americans spend an average of 28 hours per week watching television. “John Paul really realized the media were the highways and byways and the marketplace where the people were,” says de Solenni. “You have to use it, not retreat or run from it, but encounter people where they are at. The place you definitely meet them is in various forms of the media.”
Through donations, non-profit Vitae buys airtime on the most popular television and cable stations, which draw large audiences with a cross-section of viewers and listeners.
“The message of life is very inviting and reassuring,” Landwehr concludes, “and we spread it in a way that’s believable and credible. You don’t have to threaten. We invite people to a value system that’s very exciting and uplifting.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.