Leftist pundits love to ask why younger people are so progressive on gay marriage but haven’t moved very far from their elders on abortion. Some have opined it’s because gay marriage is about extending an inherently conservative institution to include more people, while others say abortion will never seem as innocuous as marriage, even to supporters. “That element of the culture war appears to be here to stay,” one article concluded.
A young advocate posited that the visibility issue is the key — gay people have become visible everywhere over the past few decades, while abortion still remains behind a curtain. When a new state adopts same-sex marriage, we see pictures of proud and happy couples; when an abortion ban is struck down or passes, we usually see nothing. “Social conservatives continue to exploit silence and shame whenever possible,” Sarah Audelo wrote. “It is sadly clear that this is still a winning strategy on abortion, at least for the time being.”
Many groups are trying to the change that status quo with long-term culture-change initiatives, from storytelling to advocacy, that normalize abortion the way LGBT people have been normalized. This week UltraViolet, the hip feminist online activist group that has emerged in the turmoil of the last few years (contraception backlash, high-profile sexism, and more), is trying to normalize abortion and win young people over with a new series of ads. Previous high-profile UltraViolet victories have included campaigns against rapey lyrics from Rick Ross and an initiative to push the NFL to be more responsive to domestic violence.
With this new group of ads, they’re targeting some very interesting websites, including ESPN, Comedy Central, XBoxLive, VICE, and major social media platforms. The obvious inference? Not only are they going after young people, they’re going after young men. But Google and Hulu are refusing to run them on the grounds that abortion isn’t “family-friendly.”
The ads make the message that “abortion is normal” clear with a variety of emphases: that mistakes happen, and that abortion is about economic and social self-determination. “Condoms break. Mistakes are made. Abortion is a part of real life,” one ad says. With young, multicultural-seeming actors and a message of down-to-earth frankness, the campaign is a clear play for millennials, and for making abortion more visible and talked-about.
“The core message is that abortions are part of real life,” says Adam Bink, Campaign Director at UltraViolet. “The ads all reflect the reality of women’s real lives today.” Rather than wonky abortion news about restrictions, courts, and appeals, they’re going for something a little bit more relatable, and less likely to give young people that eyes-glazing-over sensation.
This campaign comes at a moment of head-scratching for reproductive rights activists. In a New York Times op-ed yesterday, Gail Collins took a moment to survey how bad things have gotten for women who are poor and living in states that have seen a surge of abortion restrictions since 2011, noting that for many, things are back to the way they were pre-Roe.
Poor pregnant women in anti-abortion states don’t have those options. But they’re often the most desperate, and these days some are resolving the situation with at-home abortions, using pills found on the Internet. Recently, prosecutors in Georgia attempted to charge a 23-year-old woman with murder after pills she bought online caused her to miscarry when she was five-and-a-half months pregnant. Last year, a 39-year-old mother of three in Pennsylvania was sentenced to prison for ordering pills that her daughter took to induce a miscarriage.
While some courts have since intervened on behalf of women, many have not. Purvi Patel, sentenced to a jail term in Indiana for a miscarriage that wasn’t definitively proven to be an abortion, remains imprisoned, for instance. Given that dire economic necessity is driving women to seek out self-induced abortions, UltraViolet’s message of economic empowerment seems timely, and the campaign says they’re getting a good response. “We’ve tested these ads across a variety of platforms, and this is an expansion,” says Bink. “The response is over five times the industry standard, which we measure by clickthrough rate, by people who finish the entire ad. Women are responding especially well, at an extremely high rate.”
Films like Obvious Child and series like Girls are doing a good job changing the media conversation on abortion, but their reach is narrow. Targeting mainstream websites (UltraViolet is still pressuring Google and Hulu to accept the ads) is one way to bypass the cultural divide that keeps nuanced, positive portrayals of abortion from permeating as far as they should. “When people see these ads, it will hopefully change their perception of what abortion is, and [they’ll] come to see it as we do — normal,” says Bink. “It’s empowering for women to make their own decisions, including birth control and abortion.”
After reading this piece, a Google spokesperson sent this statement to Flavorwire:
“We allow ads for reproductive health, including information about abortion, on search ads on Google and on video ads on YouTube through direct buys. We don’t allow ads for abortion information to run on third-party publisher sites through the Google Display Network.”
According to Ultraviolet, the following is the statement they received from Google:
“Abortion is considered a “Non-Family Safe” topic on AdWords, which means that these ads are not eligible to show on the GDN [Google Display Network] (including YouTube).”