Abstinence with an attitude

From graffiti on buses ("Virgin. Teach your kids it's not a dirty world") to posters of chickens in tennis shoes ("What do you call a guy who makes a baby, then flies the coop?") to the heart-rending pleas of real teens ("Mom. Dad. Talk to me. I need you now."), Baltimore's Campaign for Our Children has for a quarter century brought the polished skills of Madison Avenue to the problem of teen pregnancy.

Through its symbiotic relationship with the successful ad agency Richardson, Myers and Donofrio, now Carton Donofrio Partners, the campaign was also able to leverage the agency's media relationships into free space on buses and billboards and free time on the airwaves.

And its ads, posters and lesson plans — best described as abstinence with an attitude — were used in all 50 states during an era when that was the only message the federal government would let you deliver. During that time Maryland's teen pregnancy rate moved from No. 4 in the nation to back into the middle of the pack.

Last week, Carton Donofrio announced that it was closing after 50 years. The dramatic changes in the advertising business combined with the health of CEO Chuck Donofrio, son of the founder Hal Donofrio, required the decision, the company said. The younger Donofrio has been battling early onset Alzheimer's for almost a decade.

The Campaign for Our Children still exists on line. And its materials are still available for sale. But without its home inside the ad agency — and without the agency's skills and its media contacts — the campaign is largely over.

"We used the stuff you learn in the advertising business," said the senior Donofrio, who founded the campaign. "The bureaucrats wouldn't even think like that.

"We had such dramatic results in Baltimore and the state of Maryland that every state in the union came knocking our door."

"It was just so exciting," remembers Susan Bankowski, a campaign director in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. She had a master's degree in public health from Harvard, and suddenly she found herself hanging out with all the cool kids.

"What we were doing was really new. It was social marketing," said Ms. Bankowski, who is now a medical ethicist with the Genetic Alliance. "When you explain it now, it doesn't seem that novel. But back then, it was."

Sean Carton — the agency continued to bear his name even after he departed in 2004 — came up with the idea of an on-line episodic "show" called "Room 411" where teen characters wrestled with questions about sex while the kids on the other side of the computer listened in. It was an enormous step forward in Web design, public service advertising and interactive media, and it won awards for its innovation.

"That was such a great time," said Mr. Carton, who is now director of the Center for Digital Communication, Culture, and Commerce at the University of Baltimore. "Helping CFOC was just so gratifying. And 'Room 411' is still one of the things I am most proud of."

"Hal was on the cutting edge," said Bill Albert, program director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. CFOC had been in the business for a decade when the National Campaign began.

"He was bringing Madison Avenue savvy to the non-profit world. He and his team really caught people's attention, especially with the 'Virgin' campaign. Nobody had ever talked like that before."

Not only did Mr. Donofrio let his creative team loose on the seemingly intractable problem of teen pregnancy — to the tune of at least $2 million — he used his clout among fellow CEOs to raise money for the campaign and among his clients in media to get space and time donated.

"I looked at teen pregnancy as an economic issue," said the always direct Mr. Donofrio. "We have literally hundreds of programs dealing with post-birth problems. I was hard-nosed about it. I didn't want teens to get pregnant."

He will spend the next few months finding a new home for the campaign materials, which are as fresh and hip now as they were two decades ago. Meanwhile, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control show that teen births have dropped by 52 percent since they peaked in 1991.

"We did pretty well for those 25 years," Mr. Donofrio said. "We got the messaging right."

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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