Can Sex Sell Peace? A Baltimore Advertising Executive Thinks It Can Help

Justin George, Baltimore Sun, July 27, 2017

Tell  young people they might die from gun violence, and the message gets lost in the hopelessness of impoverished neighborhoods, where fatalism runs deep.

Tell young men that a bullet could lead to lifelong paralysis and what the pill-makers call “erectile dysfunction,” and you are more likely to have their attention.

That is the working hypothesis James Evans reached after conducting focus groups, online surveys and one-on-one interviews in his murder-plagued hometown of Baltimore. Evans, an advertising executive who has developed pitches for such clients as Timberland and CVS pharmacies, is on a quest to promote a message that might ease the spiking gun violence killing Baltimoreans at a rate of almost one a day.

His research suggests that the age-old advertising adage, sex sells, may apply when it comes to keeping people safe.

“What does an 18 year old value?” Evans said. “Eighteen- to 20- year- old men value their freedom. They value their sex, their sex drive. … They value the fact that they can play basketball or run or jump or beat someone up. They do not want to be in a wheelchair.”

Evans assembled focus groups of former drug dealers, mothers of shooting victims and people who lived in neighborhoods beset by violence, and presented them with poster-like messages. One brandished the threat of prison time: a man holding a gun and the slogan, “It Ain’t Worth The 20!”

Another featured a man in a wheelchair with the words “Gun Violence Doesn’t Always Kill.”

But the poster that resonated most powerfully portrayed scattered bullet shells on a bloody tile floor, and the message: “Saved Him, But He’ll Be Pissing In a Bag for the Rest of His Life … No Sex And No Kids!”

Evans, who is African-American, is aware that using sex as an incentive to curb inner-city violence may play to racial stereotypes. But with a dearth of research on preventing gun violence and a homicide rate spiking towards record levels in a number of big cities, he believes in desperate — or at least novel — measures.

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Evans gathered about $30,000 in foundation grants for his research and a marketing plan. He found that anti-violence messages coming from mothers were particularly effective. So were reminders of the direct and indirect impact of gun violence on children. The possibility of life in a wheelchair really weighed on the men.

And so did the mock-up ads threatening “No Sex.”

“Around here . . . that one there would catch their attention,” said one focus group member quoted in Evans’ marketing study. “ ‘..no sex, no kids,’ they would think about that for a couple of minutes. Because that’s probably all they think about is sex, money and guns.”

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Other researchers question whether sex should be part of any urban anti-violence campaign. Tolulope Sonuyi, an emergency room doctor and assistant professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, said public service announcements based on the approach was a “very lazy, passive approach to a complex and nuanced issue.”

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“No one is saying only African American men would be caring about their prowess,” Evans responded. “It’s just that the audience happens to be mainly African American men.”

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