NYU nixes controversial awareness ads on child psych ills

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Ads mimic ransom notes.
Ads mimic ransom notes.

Bowing to outraged patient advocates, NYU Child Study Center said it will halt its controversial print and outdoor ad campaign aimed at raising awareness of mental health problems in children.

The ads, produced pro-bono by BBDO, take the form of ransom notes from a range of psychiatric disorders including autism, attention defecit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger Syndrome, depression, bulimia and obsessive compuls. Copy opens with the words: “We have your son.” Patient groups said the ads, which appeared in regional publications and on billboards, kiosks and construction sites around New York, reinforced damaging stereotypes, wrongly suggesting that children with autism, Asperger's and other psychiatric disorders are helpless and incapable of functioning in society.

The center's director, Harold Koplewicz, M.D., said in a statement that while the ads got people's attention, they'd become a distraction from the issues they were meant to raise awareness of. “The campaign succeeded in getting people's attention and sparking dialogue, but much of the debate centered on the ads instead of the issues,” said Koplewicz. “Though we meant well, we've come to realize that we unintentionally hurt and offended some people.” He invited critics to contribute their ideas to the dialogue and to the future of the campaign at a virtual “town hall” meeting to be held early in the new year on the campaign's website, AboutOurKids.com.

The ads had originally been slated to run through March. A spokesperson for the center said it was “ending this phase of the campaign and putting some thought into the next phase.” 

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