Mercy Academy's principal, Amy Elstone, says the billboard campaign used pointed wording like "You're Not a Princess," and "Life's Not a Fairy Tale," to highlight the private school's emphasis on critical thinking.
The posters popped up recently at a few bus stops and billboards around the city, but the message has drawn wider attention with the suggestion that what girls need to live a fairy tale life is their own minds. The girl-power theme attracted the attention of NBC's "Today" and other national outlets, and the school says it has been a smashing success.
"We just want to teach our girls that they write their story, not society, not popular culture, and we try to empower them to do that," Elstone said. The print ads were introduced during a season when eighth-grade students are making decisions about high school, and Mercy, which is an all-girls school, wanted an unconventional message as part of its marketing, she said.
"We feel like we have a unique approach to education and real-life learning, and we were struggling with a way to articulate that," she said. The school, which is affiliated with the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, has about 550 students and a $10,000 annual tuition. The school is run by a lay board of directors.
The ads are simple in composition, with a gray background decorated by well-known fairy tale symbols, like magic wands and slippers. One of the ads has a faceless prince, with the message, "Don't Wait for a Prince ... Be Able to Rescue Yourself."
"It's exactly what girls need to hear," said David Vawter, chief creative officer at Doe Anderson, the firm that designed the campaign. Vawter said Mercy was initially concerned that the message would be seen as negative, but school officials decided to embrace its edginess.
"It's a metaphor for saying you need to prepare for real life," he said.
The ad campaign echoes a message that has become increasingly common, encouraging girls and women to live independently and question traditional gender roles. For instance, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book, "Lean In," urges women to more aggressively pursue their career goals. A recent video by toy company GoldieBlox also went viral, showing three young girls singing a parody of the Beastie Boys song "Girls" with lyrics about girls building spaceships and coding software.
"Boys are valued for being tough and rough and playing sports and not crying, and girls are taught to be soft and helpless, and that's not a good message for either boys or girls," said Marsha Weinstein, director of Louisville Girls Leadership, an organization that selects girls from each of the city's high schools to work on team projects.
Weinstein said the Mercy ads cut "right to the chase."
"Just think about Martin Luther King and `I Have A Dream,"' Weinstein said. "Those were just words, you could say, but that was a powerful message."
Olivia Fung, a 17-year-old Mercy student, said she had the same princess dreams many girls had when she was younger.
"Growing up, I thought being a girl was all about being pampered, having that right of being a princess," said Fung, who is planning to study advertising at a college in New York.
"But ... it's not about being pampered, it's about getting a job and success, and being a good person on the inside and out," she said.
The brief ad campaign ended this week, but Elstone said the school is considering bringing the campaign back next year.
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