The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A government campaign urged Italians to have more babies immediately. It didn’t go well.


Like many other European Union countries, Italy is facing a dramatic demographic change, with increasingly fewer children being born. So the Health Ministry recently launched an ad campaign to remind people of Sept. 22 being "fertility day."

"Beauty has no age limit. Fertility does," read one of the campaign's posters, which showed a woman holding an hourglass. A poster that addressed potential fathers depicted a man with a half-burned cigarette and the caption: "Don't let your sperm go up in smoke."

Commentators on social media were not impressed. Many Italians were also left confused by another ad claiming that fertility was "a common good" — a comparison that reminded some of fascist propaganda from the 1920s which urged women to have more babies to support the nation.

The ministry campaign was recalled over the weekend, but it continues to spark outrage.

"So embarrassed to live here," one user wrote. "The #fertilityday campaign is offensive, sexist and dangerous. I'm ashamed and embarrassed," another commented.

As a social welfare state, Italy's pensions system and economy relies on a certain number of younger people joining the workforce every year. Other nations such as Germany have tried to counter declining birthrates by attracting more immigrants. But Italy's youth unemployment rate stands at about 35 percent.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was equally unimpressed by the efforts of his Health Ministry.

"If you want to create a society that invests in its future and has children, you have to make sure the underlying conditions are there," he was quoted as saying by the BBC, implying that an advertising campaign could not make up for some of the shortcomings Italy has been accused of. Critics of the government have blamed lower wages for women and insufficient day care for the low birthrates.

With a fertility rate of 1.35 children per woman, Italy is even below the E.U. average of 1.6.

Pope says 3 children per family is about right. Catholics don’t need to breed ‘like rabbits.’

But Italy is far from being the only country that has tried to motivate citizens to have more babies with unusual campaigns, and perhaps the Italian Health Ministry should cast its eyes to the north to see how the countries of Scandinavia are trying to overcome their own lack of offspring.

Although some of them were branded "bizarre" by observers abroad, they are widely considered to have found the right tone by conveying a serious message in a creative or witty way.

In Denmark, for instance, schoolchildren are now taught in class that they should have more babies.

The Scandinavian country comes out on top of many international rankings, but in terms of fertility rates it lags far behind. According to the organization Sex and Society, which produces the country's sex education guides, unwillingness to raise children is only part of the problem.

Whereas sex education has so far focused on using contraceptives and preventing diseases, teachers forgot to mention some crucial biological aspects. "Suddenly we just thought, maybe we should actually also tell them about how to get pregnant," Marianne Lomholt, national director of Sex and Society, told the New York Times.

Between 12 and 20 percent of all Danes are unable to have children — mainly because they are already too old at the time they make the decision. Following the advice of Sex and Society, Denmark's Education Ministry now has teachers talk not only about the dangers of sex and pregnancies, but also about their benefits.

Private companies have had their own ideas: "Do it for Denmark" is the name of the ad campaign of Danish travel company Spies. In a video ad released in 2014, the company emphasized that 10 percent of all Danes were conceived abroad.

“Can sex save Denmark's future? 46 percent of Danes have more sex on holiday," a voice-over explained. Hence, taking a vacation won't just relax you — it can also be seen as an act of patriotism.

If Danes were successful in conceiving a child while on a vacation organized by the company, they were eligible to win three years of free diapers and a trip abroad — with their child, of course.

In neighboring Sweden, financial incentives are provided by the government. Either moms or dads are paid nearly their full salary for more than one year — for staying at home. For a total of 480 days, either the father or the mother of newborn children are legally entitled to receive 80 percent of their previous salaries.

Swedes also shouldn't worry too much about the time after their generous parental leave is over: Subsidized gym memberships and free massages are common at lots of the country's workspaces and should help them get back on track quickly.

Read more:

5 ways Europe is trying to convince its citizens to make more babies

A version of this post was first published April 5, 2015. It was updated Sept. 5, 2016.