August 2, 2013 (HLI Worldwatch) – To the American viewer, the towering billboard’s purpose is ambiguous. But to young Ethiopian women, the lovely young woman is a picture of confidence and “progress.” Even to the target audience it takes a moment to realize that the small foil package in her hand, taking up just a fraction of the poster, is the product the advertisement is pushing. The billboard’s tactic is to first sell the image of prosperity and beauty to its viewers, the poor young women of the town of Awassa, Ethiopia, and then to boldly claim its product is an integral part of that desirable lifestyle.
The billboard, advertising a high dosage of the contraceptive levonorgestrel as a remedy for “the unexpected,” is dangerous because of its subtle suggestion that this drug is key to the progressive lifestyle, yet at the same time the drug is itself really no big deal. It is just a small facet of everyday life, nothing to worry about.
The careless attitude being sold is that human sexuality is unimportant. Having unintended sex is fine because you can take care of any unwanted consequences in a minute: “When you have unprotected sex, take this medicine [sic] within five days, and you will prevent an unplanned pregnancy.” Most women who see this and buy the subtle message won’t bother or don’t have the means to do a web search on the drug to find out about its troubling side effects. They may very well think that, with this miracle drug available, it is safe to have sex, without knowing that the drug does nothing to stop HIV/AIDS transmission, and can make this worse since women will think there is a “safe” way to deal with “the unexpected.”
These women will not see the scientific literature on levonorgestrel-based contraceptives that show that the drug can act as an abortifacient by preventing implantation of a human embryo, although as always the drug’s marketers claim that it “shouldn’t affect or terminate an existing pregnancy.”
And these are only the physical effects. In the confident woman’s assuring glance at the viewer, we don’t see how hormonal contraception leads – as even many secular writers now acknowledge – to the objectification and disempowerment of women.
Unfortunately the false sense of simplicity of this message is likely convincing to many young women; but for anyone who still feels vaguely uncomfortable with or resistant to the idea of using the drug, the billboard advertisement holds up International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) as an agency that supports “women’s health.”
The billboard is an attack from all sides, using young women’s desires and aspirations, their insecurities and worries, and their trust in medical professionals as weapons against them. The false offer of freedom and power is presented as a means of exploiting the impressionable and the vulnerable—all in the name of women’s health.
How about another billboard, one with a woman who has found that true love and better health means a rejection of this message. Her message to the woman holding the foil package?: “No thanks!”
Krista Shaw is a junior at the University of Dallas where she is studying English Literature and completing a pre-medicine concentration.
This article originally appeared on HLI Worldwatch and is reprinted with permission.