1994-1997: Squash It! Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence

Logo for the Center for Health Communication's Squash It! Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence

From 1994-1997, the Center for Health Communication conducted a national campaign — Squash It! — to curb violence among urban youth by recruiting leading rap-music artists and sports figures to promote a social norm that says, “Sometimes, by walking away from a confrontation, you can prove yourself to be the bigger person.” Partners included leading television networks, Hollywood studios, National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). Survey data revealed a positive shift over three years in acceptance of the walk-away message among key target groups. In a parallel initiative, the center convened a series of invitational forums to mobilize the support of policy makers for expansion of evidence-based youth programs offering positive alternatives to violence. Based in part on findings from the forums, which featured extensive input from young people as well as policy experts, the center developed a national media campaign to recruit large numbers of volunteer mentors to help young people achieve their full potential. 

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States experienced sharply increased rates of gun violence. The toll of fatalities fell heavily on male African-American teenagers in city centers. To contribute to the nation’s response to the problem, in 1994 the Center for Health Communication launched the “Squash It!” Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence (Squash It!) with support from The Joyce Foundation and MetLife Foundation. Squash It! included a national media initiative, focused primarily on reaching male African-American teenagers in urban settings to promote the social acceptability of walking away from potentially violent confrontations without fighting.

To complement the media initiative, Squash It! created a series of leadership forums aimed at mobilizing the support of policymakers for research-based community programs for youth.

Media Campaign

To inform the development of the media campaign, the Center conducted focus groups with male African-American teens from Boston neighborhoods. Participants explained that when two groups of friends from different neighborhoods crossed paths, a confrontation could result if someone looked at another the “wrong way”– a confrontation that could escalate rapidly. Sometimes, however, the leader on one side makes a silent calculation: He doesn’t know what weapons the other side has, and whoever loses will come back tomorrow. He says to his friends, “It’s not worth it, let’s squash it”, and his group disengages. Center staff learned that the phrase “squash it” occasionally was used by African-American youth in other cities as well to signal a decision to walk away from a potentially violent confrontation. Therefore, the Center designed the campaign to build on, and strengthen, this “walk-away” element of street culture to help it become more dominant.

In addition, the Center conducted national survey research involving teens, in collaboration with Louis Harris Associates. The survey findings revealed an intriguing disconnect between the social norms and private beliefs of teenagers in urban settings. A large majority agreed with the statement, “Most people I know would say it’s almost impossible to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” At the same time, when asked about their own privately held beliefs, large majorities agreed with these statements: “It takes more self-control and more self-respect not to fight than to fight.” and “It shows strength to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” The same disconnect between social norms and personal beliefs was expressed by a majority of young people who acknowledged having been previously involved in serious violent incidents.

The survey findings, combined with insights gleaned from the focus groups, provided a strong rationale for the media campaign — namely, that publicizing and validating teenagers’ privately held beliefs would help change social norms by granting social sanction to decisions to disengage.

The campaign’s walk-away message achieved wide exposure: Television producers incorporated the Squash It! message in scripts of “Beverly Hills, 90210” (Fox), “Dangerous Minds” (ABC), “ER” (NBC), “Family Matters” (ABC), “Hanging with Mr. Cooper” (Fox), “In the House” (UPN), “Living Single” (Fox), “N.Y. Undercover” (Fox), and “South Central” (Fox). Two of the programs, “Family Matters” and “South Central,” also tagged the episodes with Squash It! PSAs featuring the entire casts.

The Center also forged a partnership with MTV, which produced Squash It! PSAs featuring top recording artists, including Coolio, Method Man, and KRS-One. For example, Coolio delivered this message: “You know when someone gets in your face and you just want to smack ’em? Check this out — you don’t have to, because you have a choice. Sometimes by walking away you can prove yourself to be the bigger person. I’m not saying don’t protect yourself, just use your brain to make the best choice. Be the solution. Squash the anger. Squash it.”

The PSAs aired frequently on MTV, Fox, and Fox affiliates. Black Entertainment Television (BET) featured the PSAs during a BET Teen Summit special on youth violence prevention in July 1996. CBS aired a Squash It! PSA during the Grammy Awards in 1997 and 1998.

At the Center’s request, the National Basketball Association (NBA) produced and sponsored PSAs featuring players with a walk-away message that aired frequently during the 1995 and 1996 playoffs. In addition, the National Football League (NFL) and Fox Sports produced PSAs featuring players with the Squash It! message that aired in prime time during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 football seasons. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored Squash It! PSAs on network television during the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (“March Madness”) regional-rounds and “Final Four” in 1997 and 1998. The NCAA also produced three spots featuring leading college football players that aired throughout the 1997-98 NCAA football season.

As a measure of the impact of the campaign, the Center’s national survey research found that 60% of African-American youths reported using the phrase “squash it” to disengage from a potentially violent confrontation in 1997, up from 48% in 1995. Needless to say, the campaign was one of many youth violence prevention initiatives undertaken in the 1990s. It was the sum total of these efforts that succeeded in sharply reducing the incidence of youth violence in the United States by the late 1990s.

Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums on Youth Violence Prevention

The Center also sponsored a series of Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums to provide opportunities for panels of students to express their views about crucial issues in their lives before audiences of influential decision makers. These on-stage discussions were moderated by senior officials such as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C.  The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported: “Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to conduct a dialogue with DC young people as part of the Squash It! Campaign launched by the Harvard University School of Public Health. According to Harvard associate dean Jay Winsten, Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY) are urging colleagues to attend, and [President] Clinton has been working behind the scenes to get media executives to [support the initiative].”

Shot of stage with "Squash It!" Campaign banner and students, Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forum (May 16, 1997, featuring First Lady Hillary Clinton)Each Forum also included a policy discussion in which a panel of experts on youth violence were interviewed by leading journalists (including NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC’s Barbara Walters and Cokie Roberts, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, and The New York Times’ Bob Herbert). The Forum held on May 16, 1997, featuring First Lady Hillary Clinton, was broadcast live on C-SPAN and can be viewed here: Violence Among Girls

The students expressed a strongly felt need for mentors to help them navigate present circumstances and pursue a successful future. The students’ comments raised an urgent, inescapable question for policy makers: If we are asking young people to “walk away” from violence, what is society offering as a positive alternative?

At about the same time, findings from a large-scale randomized trial of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mentoring program were published by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). This landmark study provided strong evidence that well-managed mentoring programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters provide tangible, important benefits that foster to healthy youth development.

As a direct result of experiences shared by young people at the Leadership Forums, and the findings from P/PV’s research, the Center made a strategic decision to segue from a “walk-away” media message to one aimed at recruiting large numbers of volunteer mentors to support the nation’s youth. The Center would serve as the communications arm of the mentoring movement. The Harvard Mentoring Project was launched in 1997.

1997-2015: Harvard Mentoring Project

"Mentoring Works" -- National Mentoring Month collateral, 2013(Harvard Mentoring Project)From 1997-2015, the Center for Health Communication spearheaded the Harvard Mentoring Project, a national media campaign to recruit volunteer mentors for young people from underprivileged backgrounds. Conducted in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, with media support provided by Hollywood studios and television networks, the campaign is credited with helping to greatly expand the annual number of young people receiving the benefits of formal mentoring programs from 300,000 in 1997 to 3.5 million in 2015.

Research has shown that formal mentoring programs for young people, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, can play a significant role in reducing drug abuse and youth violence as well as boosting academic achievement. Mentors help to build young people’s character and confidence, expand their universe, and navigate a path to success. From a public health perspective, mentoring addresses the needs of a child as a whole rather than via individual initiatives aimed at specific teen challenges such as pregnancy prevention, drug use, and school dropout.

In 1997, encouraged by businessman/philanthropist Raymond Chambers, the Center launched the Harvard Mentoring Project, a national media campaign to recruit volunteer mentors for youth from underprivileged backgrounds. General Colin Powell agreed to serve as the campaign’s lead spokesperson. The New York Times reported:

The ability of the communications industry to persuade Americans to modify their behavior for what are deemed laudable causes is being tested again by an ambitious project to sell the concept of mentoring. It is being brought to you by the same people who successfully sold the concept of the designated driver.

Conducted in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, other nonprofit partners, and leading media companies, the campaign applied the Center’s three-pronged communication strategy consisting of advertising, entertainment programming, and news coverage. All of the major broadcast television networks participated, along with 45 national and regional cable networks and leading Hollywood studios. The campaign was supported by grants from the MCJ Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In addition to its national focus, the campaign included a heavy emphasis on encouraging community-wide planning and coordination among mentoring groups. Designated local nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies were responsible for coordinating local campaign activities.

Starting in 2001, the Harvard Mentoring Project sought to institutionalize, for the long term, the nation’s commitment to providing mentors for young people who are at risk of not leading healthy, productive lives. In collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, other nonprofit partners, and leading communication companies, the Harvard Mentoring Project established January as National Mentoring Month (NMM) — an annual, concentrated burst of national and local media attention, combined with White House and Congressional involvement and extensive community outreach. National Mentoring Month provides an annual “shot in the arm” for the mentoring movement.

Thank Your Mentor Day was launched in 2004 as a highlight of National Mentoring Month to promote three ways for people to honor their mentors: (1) Contact your mentor to express your appreciation; (2) “Pass it on” by becoming a mentor to a young person in your community; and (3) Write a tribute to your mentor for posting on the campaign’s website, WhoMentoredYou.org. The website featured video clips of prominent people discussing important mentors in their own lives, including contributions to the campaign from: Tom BrokawRay CharlesWalter CronkiteGwen IfillQuincy Jones, Senator John McCainEdward James Olmos, General Colin PowellBill Russell, and Tim Russert. The website also provided access to online greeting cards (eCards) created for the campaign by Hallmark Cards, enabling people to reach out via email to thank mentors who made significant contributions to their own lives.

In a 2005 evaluation report on the Harvard Mentoring Project, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation staff observed, “The campaign leveraged over $200 million in airtime and PSAs as well as dialogue in prime-time entertainment donated by the broadcast networks, Hollywood studios, cable channels and local affiliates. The campaign won the direct support of two [and later three] successive U.S. presidents, helping to establish mentoring as an important national priority.”

When the campaign was launched in 1997, an estimated 300,000 young people in the U.S. were receiving the benefits of a formal mentoring program each year. By 2005, more than 3 million young people were participating each year in structured mentoring programs.

President Barack Obama in support of National Mentoring Month -- "Be the Change: Mentor a Child"From 2008-2016, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama supported the mentoring campaign through speeches and White House events, and also established a mentoring program within the White House in which local urban youth were matched one-on-one with White House staffers.

In January 2011, the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of NMM. It coincided with the first annual National Summit on Mentoring held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote address, which was followed by a panel discussion with Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

The National Mentoring Month campaign, and the annual National Mentoring Summit, continue to be held each year, spearheaded by MENTOR.

2007: Harvard Tobacco Project

A smoking cigarette lying on a ledge.In 2007, Dean Barry Bloom and the Center for Health Communication joined forces to tackle Hollywood’s depiction of tobacco smoking and its adverse influence on initiation of smoking by young people. Building on the work of other advocates, the Harvard Tobacco Project proved successful in persuading the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represented all Hollywood studios, to change its movie rating policy to consider, for the first time, a film’s depiction of tobacco smoking. Continue reading on the CHC's website.  

Advocates for smoke-free movies, including, most prominently,  Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine and the director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, had been conducting an aggressive effort for many years to eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking in Hollywood films accessible to children and teens under 17. Dr. Glantz and allies cited a growing body of evidence that smoking in movies is an important contributory factor in the initiation of smoking by young people.  A coalition of state attorneys general an entered the fray,  demanding that any movie depicting tobacco smoking should (with certain rare exceptions) be slapped with an R-rating, requiring anyone under the age of 17 to be accompanied by an adult to view the film in a theatre.

The movie industry strongly resisted the R-rating as draconian and a violation of the creative freedom of filmmakers.

In 1999, with the conflict at a stalemate, the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication (CHC) decided to test what might be accomplished through a cooperative “inside” approach to filmmakers that would complement the aggressive tactics of the “outside” advocates (whose tactics included mounting protests outside movie industry events and placing accusatory full-page ads in trade publications like Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter). The incidence of smoking in films had reached a peak in 1998, with 88% of the top-50 box office movies depicting tobacco use.

With a grant from the Markle Foundation, CHC launched the Harvard Tobacco Project, directed by Susan Moses, CHCs deputy director. Drawing on relationships already in place, CHC set out to convene leaders in the entertainment industry to discuss the epidemic of teen smoking and what they could help do about it.  

At CHC’s request, Barry Diller, then chairman/CEO of USA Networks, Inc. and a member of CHC’s advisory board, convened the heads of major feature film studios and television networks on July 13, 1999, to discuss how Hollywood could help curb the teen smoking epidemic. The meeting was held over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel (Mr. Diller picked up the tab).

The meeting featured presentations by Susan Moses, director of the Project, and Lindsay Doran, former president of United Artists. Ms. Doran shared her successful experience in removing gratuitous smoking from films in development at her studio by framing the issue at a creative level—arguing, for instance, that relying on smoking as a device is often trite. As an outcome of the meeting, Ms. Moses and Ms. Doran were invited to make follow-up presentations on the studio lots.

Time magazine reported:

“When Doran and Moses met with executives from Imagine Pictures, says Doran, they said, 'Smoking is not in any of our scripts.' But then they called the next day and said, We looked, and it's everywhere.'" Karen Kehela, co-chairman of Imagine, recalls trying to take smoking out of one script after the meeting, "but the actor insisted on smoking," she says. In fact, many movie stars can't leave their cigarettes in the dressing room. "Actors who smoke look for any reason to incorporate it into their characters," [Rob] Reiner says. "You have directors who don't care about the social implications or are kowtowing to the actors."

Meanwhile, the advocacy groups continued to generate publicity, and Congressional hearings were held on the controversy, but the issue didn’t come to a head until 2006, when Dan Glickman, a former U.S. Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture, was appointed chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). His predecessor at MPAA, the legendary Jack Valenti, was a member of CHC’s advisory board, and CHC staff had stayed in close touch with the MPAA over the years.

When Dan Glickman arrived on the scene, he feared a lawsuit from state Attorneys General who were involved in the fight against smoking in movies. (In addition, Mr. Glickman had lost both parents from cancer and was personally attuned to the issue.) He asked CHC for help, and CHC arranged for Mr. Glickman to meet with HSPH Dean Barry Bloom, who offered to take the lead on the School’s behalf with support from CHC.

Mr. Glickman sent a letter to 40 state attorneys general dated October 5, 2006, stating:

MPAA has assumed the lead role on behalf of the member companies to determine how we can best address the issue of tobacco in motion pictures and its potential impact on youth smoking. To that end, we are collaborating with the renowned Harvard School of Public Health, whose experts are joining us in pursuit of this goal. Harvard has worked with our member companies in the past on this issue and their experts are now formulating recommendations for considerationMy objective is to gain consensus among the member companies of MPAA on Harvards pending recommendations and then begin implementation.

CHC worked with Mr. Glickman’s staff to arrange a closed-door summit meeting of senior studio executives to hear presentations on relevant research and recommendations. The summit was held on February 23, 2007 with presentations by Dean Bloom, Professor Jonathan Samut, a leading epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Dr. Jay Winsten, CHC’s director.

In closing his presentation, Dean Bloom made a plea to the assembled executives:

Take substantive and effective action to eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youths, and take leadership and credit for doing so. Don’t ignore the issue or put a fig leaf on it …No one has died from hearing the f-word, but 438,000 people in the U.S., and five million worldwide die each year from tobacco-related illness. We appreciate that movies are expensive, complex and demanding to make. If you are honest I think you will admit that most smoking in movies is both unnecessary and clichéd and serves to make smoking socially acceptable to kids.

On May 10, 2007, the MPAA announced the most far-reaching change in film ratings policy in 40 years. Henceforth, “all smoking will be a consideration in the rating process. Three questions will have particular weight for our rating board when considering smoking in a film: Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? And, is there an historic or other mitigating context?”

The implication of this policy was that, if a filmmaker is contractually obligated to deliver a G-rated (general audience) film to the marketplace, he or she would need to take into consideration that the inclusion of smoking might result in a more restrictive rating for the film, causing a breach of contract. 

Dean Bloom issued a statement applauding MPAA’s decision: "The addition of tobacco smoking as a factor in determining a movie's rating marks an historic and important step by the film industry to protect children and adolescents from one of the most significant health concerns our nation and our children face today. By placing smoking on a par with considerations of violence and sex, the Ratings Board has acknowledged the public health dangers to children associated with glamorized images of a toxic and lethal addiction to tobacco.” 

The American Cancer Society called MPAA’s action “an important initial step…We in the public health community will continue to vigorously monitor tobacco use in film and advocate for strong parental warnings and elimination of tobacco use in movies marketed to children and youth.” Some advocacy groups strongly criticized MPAA for falling to impose a mandatory “R” rating on films that depicted smoking without a historical justification. Winsten told The Boston Globe, “"Critics who say that the new policy does not go far enough are forgetting this: You can't hit a grand slam without bases loaded. This week's decision was a clean single to center field. Game on!"

Following MPAA’s action, Disney Studios and Warner Bros substantially reduced the incidence of smoking in movies accessible to young audiences. Advocacy groups, state attorneys general, and members of Congress, continued to press the studios to do more.

Contributed by Jay A. Winsten, January 2023