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Marital Problems 

click to enlarge A cartoon from the TWOgether Pittsburgh marriage ad.
  • A cartoon from the TWOgether Pittsburgh marriage ad.

Women love to shop, crave husbands and enjoy staying home with children. Men don't like to ask for directions, and are resigned to spending all their money on the wife and kids.

Right? 

That's what a series of cartoon vignettes posted -- at least for now -- on Port Authority buses and local billboards would have you believe. One ad features two couples bowling -- one of the men explains to the other "I always hold her hand at the mall. Otherwise, she'll shop."

The cartoons, 14 vignettes in all, are advertisements for TWOgether Pittsburgh, a marriage education program and local grantee of the federal Healthy Families Initiative. Previous ad campaigns included photos in bus shelters with the back of a car tied off with cans, "Just Married"-style, but with zingers like "Just can't avoid a shoe sale" written on the car. 

TWOgether holds marriage education programs for couples and singles who want to learn from the "How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk" curriculum. The programs are free and generally held for two hours a week over six weeks, addressing issues like intimacy, finances and leftover baggage from the families of origin. While most are held in churches, program director Terry Mann says they aren't religious. Instead, they provide couples with a framework for communication. It's not quite therapy, but a means of shoring up communication. 

"We provide couples with skills and get them talking to each other," he says.

Mann says they've gotten about half-a-dozen complaints about the ads, almost entirely from women who objected to being portrayed as shopaholics or harried housewives.

"Any time you reach a mass group of people, there's a chance of offending people," he says. "You're looking at caricature and generalizations. In each round [of advertisements] we try to ramp it up a little more, make it a little edgier." Mann adds that the cartoons were designed and drawn by women at Downtown-based Smith Brothers Agency.

But the handful of complaints Mann's heard aren't the only ones. The Port Authority has gotten enough flak for the ads that they won't be appearing after the contract expires at the end of August -- by mutual consent. 

"Some people look at those and think they're funny -- other people look at those and they might be offended," says Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie. "Some say it's lighthearted humor, others say, 'It's not the kind of thing I would say to my spouse, its not what I would teach my children.' We want to avoid that kind of a problem."

Amie Ley, Smith Brothers Agency spokesperson, says the campaign is designed to "create awareness and build traffic for the Web site." 

The ad's designer, art director Shuhuei Lee, adds: "As the designer, and a woman, I'm surprised to hear that anyone would find these ads sexist. We chose to use the comic book-like treatment because it gave us the opportunity to deal with real world conflicts and attitudes in a light-hearted and eye-catching manner."

The ads' cartoonish generalizations are meant to draw people's interest and "reach them where they are," Mann says. "You help them see, it doesn't have to be that way. We work really hard so that we don't bash either gender. We work really hard at making it neutral."

(It's not entirely neutral, of course, since LGBT couples can't participate. Program funding comes from the federal Healthy Marriages Initiative, and as Mann points out, neither Pennsylvania nor the United States recognizes same-sex marriage: "All of our stuff is written and designed based on heterosexual couples, since it's a marriage grant," he says.)

In any case, Ritchie says that while the ads don't run afoul of the Port Authority's stated prohibition on overtly political ads, "We made our decision after we became aware of concerns that some of our customers had."

Ley, meanwhile, says the company is the one that decided not to continue the ads, because they were meant only to kick off the campaign.

"I don't know the basis behind any decision they may have made regarding the ads," Ritchie counters. But "we thought it was best to not renew the contract once it expires."

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