British TV presenter Kate Garraway in the Get Britain Fertile campaign.

British TV presenter Kate Garraway in the Get Britain Fertile campaign.

Recently, a new UK advertising campaign called “Get Britain Fertile” has been making the rounds on the internet. Sponsored by pregnancy testing company First Response, the aim of the ad – if you haven’t yet deduced from its name – is to get women to start thinking about their ticking fertility clock at a younger age. How young? Well, the sooner, the better, really. Because who wants to end up being a mum with greying hair and wrinkly skin?

Presumably, that’s the message the campaign organisers wanted us to come away with.  Why else would the ad feature 45-year-old TV host Kate Garraway dressed up in a cartoonish “gray wig and old lady makeup” cradling her naked bulging stomach?  

As Slate reported earlier this week, the shock tactic has attracted some scathing critique. For example, writer Aviva Shen from Think Progress noted: “First Response has decided the solution to the trend of women waiting longer to have children is to criticise them, prey on their fears of aging, and exploit social disgust for even moderately sexual old women.”

First Response argues that the provocative image is supposed to act as a kind of fertility wake-up call – a well-meaning attempt to reinvigorate the well-worn discussion of “how old is too old to have a baby”. But despite the heart-felt pledge by Garraway that the ad is “not trying to push women into a panic over their ticking fertility clocks”, one can’t help but to catch a whiff of the social shame that underscores this kind of message.

While it’s true that being aware of your fertility window is important, as Guardian’s Barbara Ellen rightly pointed out, “Is there a grown woman left in Britain who's not already aware of this?” Quite. If anything, women in their 30s are constantly being mocked, reminded, then mocked again of their hyper-awareness of the ‘ticking clock’.

And even though Garraway urges us to “make informed choices early”, part of that decision rests on practicalities that no amount of rushing can eliminate. As Shen highlighted in her response piece: “Women were...quite clear about their motives to wait: two-fifths said they would delay having a child until they have financial stability, while over a third said the cost of childcare is a deterrent. Another third said they would wait until they found the right partner.”

Time and again studies have shown that scare tactics don’t work – whether it’s to do with smoking, drinking, obesity or climate change. Shaming inevitably hurts the very same people that campaigns like this purport to help and does nothing to address the (often responsible) reasons behind delaying parenthood in the first place.

“[Get Britain Fertile] taps into the culture of misogyny surrounding female fertility. It feeds the urban myth of women "refusing" to have children because of careers, partying, or holding out for [the right man],” writes Barbara Ellen.

And the truth is, men have a role to play in the fertility debate, too. Dads-to-be also delay fatherhood for myriad reasons – they may be partners to women who are ready to start a family and are well aware of their peak fertility age. And what of the men who aren’t aware of their own breeding deadline? According to a recent study, only 9 percent of Australians knew that men’s fertility starts to decline after the age of 45.

So despite the campaign’s good intentions, I rather like Ellen’s suggestion of how to improve the ad: “If the GBF campaign really is aimed at both sexes, perhaps they need to include a photograph of a man with the caption: "Play fair and, by the way, sperm deteriorates too."