NYU’s “Ransom Notes” campaign: How Will It Work?

[UPDATE: NYU’s controversial “Ransom Notes” campaign has now been officially halted. Huge thanks and congratulations are in order for Ari Ne’eman of ASAN, and everyone in the disability, self-advocacy, and ‘neurodiversity’ communities who pulled together to convince NYU to rethink their approach. Still, there are crucial aspects of our message that have simply not been heard. This must change …]

To family, friends, neighbors, activists, weblog readers, and other fellow travelers on Planet Weird,

The advertising agency BBDO, which represents numerous US and multinational corporations including Pfizer and Glaxo-SmithKline, has produced pro bono a public service campaign, as conceived by New York University’s Child Study Center whose stated objectives include eliminating stigma and promoting awareness of what they call an epidemic of children with psychiatric illnesses.

(take a deep breath)

The “Ransom Notes” — these are what the general public will see:


Of the countless people who will see these ads, a very tiny percentage of them will actually take the time to visit the website for more information:

NYU Child Study Center

Now, considering the volatility of this campaign’s approach, and that of so many other related campaigns, past and present, it seems advisable that we ask ourselves a number of rather serious questions. Here are a few that came to mind for me:

1. Will these advertisements induce parents to bring their children to the NYU Child Study Center or to other institutions of mainstream psychiatry?

2. Will these advertisements help parents of such children feel more encouraged to openly discuss their experiences and concerns with professionals, educators, other parents, or the children themselves?

3. Will these advertisements help the general public to better understand the needs of people who have been assigned psychiatric labels?

4. Will these advertisements help those who have been assigned psychiatric labels to feel more comfortable in sharing their identities and experiences, and in seeking support, inclusion, or productive participation within our society?

5. How do these advertisements make you feel about such individuals?

6. How might those feelings influence your behavior toward such individuals themselves?

7. How might such individuals be impacted by your behavior toward them?

8. Do you consider your feelings toward such individuals to be typical of the general public? If not, how might a more typical person’s feelings differ from your own?

9. Will the general public be largely inclined to attach those feelings to the disorder described by the advertisement — thus making the disorder the object of those feelings? Or will they be more naturally inclined to attach those feelings to individuals they perceive as having such a disorder — making the person the object of those feelings?

10. On a raw, gut level of immediate reaction — where the rubber meets the road — will the general public perceive such individuals as being the person who was kidnapped (pity)? Or will they be more inclined to perceive such individuals as some semi-human creature that has taken the place of the real person (apprehension)?

11. (!) How might those perceptions influence the behavior of the general public toward such individuals?

12. (!!) How might those individuals be impacted by the public’s behavior on a daily basis?

13. (!!!) What might those ongoing daily impacts mean for their overall functional and emotional welfare throughout their life-span?

14. Do you feel that members of the general public are accountable for their behavior towards individuals who are regarded as mentally ill? If so, to whom does such an individual appeal for redress — and how often are such appeals given the full weight of due consideration and action, such as we “normal” citizens all demand for ourselves?

Okay, that’s enough for now. While I catch my breath, you might take a moment to review your thoughts in answer to the above questions…


15. Do you find that any of your answers have changed since you first considered the questions? In what way? How might any changes in your answers also impact on individuals with the described conditions?

And now, finally, one simple yes-or-no question:

16. Do you think the millions of people who have been assigned psychiatric labels will experience improved quality of life as a result of NYU’s advertisements?

I hope the foregoing exercise will not now appear superfluous, but obviously, all of these questions funnel down to a single issue: Leaving aside any possible ulterior motives, the overt strategy of this “Ransom Notes” campaign is to implicitly EQUATE psychiatric disorders with the criminal abduction of a child, and to leave that ominous equation impressed upon as many minds as possible in hopes that it will further the campaign’s objectives. But to what ultimate end? Is the strategy a sound one? Who can we reliably say will be helped? What harm might be done as a result, individually, or to society as a whole? Weighing the predictable human cost against the possible benefits, can it be worth the price?

Or, to put it absolutely point-blank: IS IT ETHICAL?

Hmmmmm …

Well, now that you’re taken some time to consider these issues, here are some reactions and responses other people have expressed regarding the NYU “Ransom Notes” campaign (these are not intended as a representative or “balanced” sampling of opinion):

Rescue Me: The NYU Child Study Center’s Ransom Notes Ad Campaign
[includes a collection of links to weblog entries discussing this matter]

Club 166: Ethics – Easier Said than Done
[this is the best essay I’ve seen on the matter so far]

An Open Letter on the NYU Ransom Notes Campaign
[and a petition to NYU]

Now, just two more questions:

– Do you feel that professionals and researchers in psychiatry are accountable for the attitudes which they themselves instill in others, attitudes which can be clearly shown to propagate throughout society and thus have a direct, daily impact on an entire class of human beings numbering in the millions?

– If so, whose job is it to hold them to account?

Thank you very much for your time. And if you find any part of the foregoing to be personally compelling, I encourage you to share your thoughts with any professional, social, or political organizations, or less formal social networks, including family and friends, as you see fit.

Best wishes always,


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