This Provocative United Way Campaign Reads Between the Lines of Why Kids Drop Out

PSAs highlight how hunger and turmoil keep teens from succeeding in the classroom

First impressions don't tell the full story when it comes to kids at risk of dropping out. United Way of Anchorage
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If you assume a teenager who habitually skips school is a “lost cause” or a “bad kid,” you wouldn’t be alone. But you could be completely wrong.

The United Way in Anchorage, Alaska, via agency Spawn Ideas, uses common misperceptions as a way to draw attention to the backstories of young dropouts whose reasons for not graduating may have little to do with rebellion and more with their untenable situations (homelessness, abuse and neglect among them).

“Look Beyond the Labels” reads between the lines, literally, and flips negative stereotypes on their heads, showing some of the real-world barriers that keep kids from finishing their educations.

“I’m just lazy” in one print ad becomes: “How can I make it school when I’m busting my butt just to keep my sister fed? I’m not lazy.”

“I hate school” is actually a heartbreaking statement from a bullied girl who says: “I hate getting teased about my dirty clothes. It makes going to school hard.”

The United Way has been chipping away at the Anchorage dropout problem and making significant headway since 2005, when the graduation rate was below 60 percent (lower than the national average of 73 percent). It now stands at nearly 82 percent.

The goal with the current TV, print, radio and digital work is to edge that number up to 90 percent by 2020 by “giving Anchorage a story they could root for and including them in the solution,” says Kaylee Devine, the ad agency’s account planner, who called the effort “a community responsibility. It’s up to all of us.”

The “provocative approach” is deliberate, she says, “to heighten engagement” and push the United Way to its 90×2020 benchmark.

Donations to the United Way fund a variety of programs for at-risk youth, like tutoring, counseling, and one-on-one support for non-academic services such as transportation, housing and food.

The series of PSAs, supplemented with paid media, will run through the spring.

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@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.