More Babies Campaign Pours Salt in Italy Demographic Wounds

  • Government retracts controversial fertility ads after backlash
  • Italy GDP could shrink by up to 0.6 percentage points a year

Italy’s efforts to prevent a demographic time bomb backfired after marketing campaigns featuring storks and hourglasses provoked a public outcry and had to be pulled.

The series of ads to raise awareness about the country’s low fertility rate -- just 1.37 children per woman compared with a 1.58 EU average -- had slogans like, “Beauty knows no age, fertility does” with a woman holding an hourglass and others proclaiming: “Don’t let sperm go up in smoke,” or “Get going! Don’t wait for the stork.” An ad showing drops of water dripping from a nearly dry sink with the caption "fertility is a common good," echoed a similar campaign run by dictator Benito Mussolini during Italy’s fascist era. 

The ads “have clearly failed as a communication campaign,” said Francesco Daveri, a professor of economics at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Piacenza. “They have nevertheless been the catalyst for a very serious economic issue that should be in focus 365 days a year.”

An aging population combined with a low fertility rate has resulted in the number of people in the 25-to-49 year range, the most productive age group, shrinking by 700,000 in the last 10 years in Italy, and it could contract by another two million by 2029, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The demographic pattern could erode Italy’s gross domestic product by up to 0.6 percentage points a year, said Daveri.

"An aging population and low fertility have severe economic implications,” he said. “More health spending, a greater pension burden, but most of all, economic policies geared toward the elderly."

Danish Campaign

Italy isn’t the only country facing declining birthrates and aging populations, and isn’t the first to push its citizens to have more children. 

In Denmark -- where the fertility is 1.69 children per woman -- travel company Spies made news with its “Do it for Denmark” and “Do it for Mom” campaigns with humorous ads encouraging young people to have more children. The city of Copenhagen also contributed to the debate, with a government campaign reminding young people to think about children sooner, including slogans asking women if they’d “counted their eggs today?” and men if their sperm was “swimming too slowly?”

Singapore, which has an even lower fertility rate of 1.24, partnered with Mentos mint-maker in 2012 for a “National Night” ad in which a rapper encouraged citizens to have more kids saying “let’s do our civic duty and manufacture life.”

Insensitive Campaign

The Italian campaign included 12 images published online by the Health Ministry, whose spokesman said on Monday that they were "teasers" before a broader campaign is launched. The campaign also had a government website with a video game where players could be sperm or eggs that needed to avoid “enemies” like contraceptive pills, cigarettes and alcohol to reach the final goal: insemination.

Thousands of Italians complained that the ads were insensitive towards the childless, sexist as they put the burden of blame on women, and didn’t address the reasons why people delay having kids, like unemployment and lack of child support services.

The ministry still plans to hold a "Fertility Day” on Sept. 22 to discuss the demographic challenges that have prompted Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin to call Italy a “dying country.” Of particular concern is that the median age at which women have their first child is the highest in Europe, according to Eurostat data. Lorenzin, who continues to defend her campaign, also falls into that statistic and told Vanity Fair that she had almost given up on children until she finally had twins last year at age 43.

“I was very fortunate, but shouldn’t be an example,” she told state television Rai in an interview. The campaign “is not meant as a threat, it’s meant as information, so young people can be aware of the fact that fertility has limits.”

Pension Shortfall

The demographic deficit has consequences including a heavy pension and health care burden for the increasingly small working population, and even investor flight.

“Old people, who generally have more savings, may want to invest in countries with a younger population and for higher profits to provide for their own support,” said Ronald Lee, a professor of demography and economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “That makes it even harder to curb unemployment and spur growth at home.”

Breaking out of that vicious cycle is less a matter of ad campaigns and more about addressing the underlying problem, including more money and services for families and the young, economists said.

Italy, unlike neighboring France, isn’t doing enough to help couples having kids in terms of employment, housing, childcare and pro-paternity policies, according to a report published in May on website La Voce by sociologist Marco Albertini and demographer Alessandro Rosina.

French Model

“It’s not about the desire of having children, it’s about having the possibility,” said Linda Laura Sabbadini, an Italian social statistician specialized in gender and women’s issues. “The government should help Italians to have as many children as they want, removing social and economic hurdles, such as rigid working hours, limited men’s role in raising kids, and lack of social services.”

In France, the government spent 2.9 percent of GDP for families in 2013, almost twice what Italy spends, according to data of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. French women are the youngest in Western Europe when they have the first child, and the fertility rate in France, calculated as the average number of children per woman, is 2.0, according to Eurostat.

In Italy, “fewer young people mean fewer children, putting the pension system increasingly under pressure,” said Sabbadini. “Without a change in policies, things can deteriorate further and the decline in population can become self-fulfilling.”

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