When Planned Parenthood launched its Roo chatbot in January 2019, it wanted to provide a way to answer teens’ most pressing questions about sex, with the most accurate information—an alternative to insufficient sex ed programs across the country and widespread misinformation available online. But there was one problem: Teens weren’t adopting it as much as Planned Parenthood wanted. So the organization approached advertising agency R/GA with a straightforward question: How do we get kids to ask Roo questions?
R/GA creatives knew they needed to meet teens where they already were: online. But they also knew they wanted to go down a different path than most sexual health PSAs, which often use fear or shame tactics to reach their intended audience.
“Our approach was the complete opposite,” says Katie Edmondson, an associate creative director at R/GA. “We wanted to have a celebration of positivity and openness and support.” Edmondson also admits she watches a lot of YouTube, just like many teenagers: 69% of 13- to 18-year-olds say they watch online videos every day.
Together, these factors led Edmondson and her team to create Roo High School, a YouTube series starring well-known influencers answering sex ed questions with the help of Roo—without any judgment or shame. It’s the winner in the advertising category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.
One Roo High School video opens up with Eva, who has 11 million subscribers on YouTube as @MyLifeAsEva, standing in front of a set of lockers that serve as mystery doors. The insides of the lockers are decorated as different sex-health themes such as masturbation and puberty, and Eva and her costars read off questions and then turn to Roo for answers.
“What happens during puberty?” James Butler, a model, dancer, actor, and YouTuber with 318,000 subscribers, reads. “Let’s just see what Roo says about this,” responds model La’Shaunae Steward, before reading off the real (though somewhat abbreviated) response from the chatbot: “A whole bunch of changes. You may deal with hair in new places, pimples, growth spurts, body odor, and feeling more emotional or sexual.” Other examples in the series include questions that teens may be more embarrassed to ask their teachers or parents, such as “What will happen to me if I masturbate too much?” and “What is a normal period?”
The Roo High School series was launched during prom season, so the campaign ended with a “prom party” live stream hosted by Eva, during which she talked about her own prom experience between Roo segments. Roo High School assets continued to run after prom season, though. Edmondson says they wanted to hit on the cultural moment of prom but still have evergreen content, so other Roo High School videos don’t focus on that event.
Planned Parenthood had already done some research, including bringing Roo to real high schools and having teens play around with it and ask the chatbot different questions, that helped inform the series and its target audience, which was black, Latinx, and LGBTQ teens who, especially when they live in conservative communities, often face challenges getting accurate and nonjudgemental answers.
R/GA’s marketing science team did some research as well, looking through online platforms such as Reddit and Discord to see where teens were already asking questions and getting not-so-accurate answers. They also did a writing session with some of the teenagers who were going to be featured, discussing the sex education they had received in school. “We wanted to make sure we were really hitting the most relevant questions for these people, that typically a sex education curriculum might not answer,” says Edmondson. Those topics included consent, gender identity, and sexual orientation. It was a balance, Edmondson says, of really popular questions, and then questions these teens may never actually hear people talk about.
After the Roo High School campaign, the chatbot saw a 1,300% increase in people asking questions, Edmondson says. When Planned Parenthood first launched Roo, the bot had about 25,000 conversations in its first week, and the nonprofit was aiming for 500,000 conversations by the six-month mark. After the Roo High School campaign, the chatbot received almost 1 million questions in less than five months.