One life at a time
Legate Carl Landwehr’s multimedia mission to save babies and their mothers . . .
He was a student in 1969 at the University of Missouri, and abortion had become a major topic on campus. One day, a professor began to argue in favor of abortion during class. Landwehr found himself becoming increasingly upset until he finally shouted, “What if your mother had thought about aborting you?!” The professor answered, “Then I would be one less consumer.”
Landwehr was stunned.
Today, as a member of Legatus’ St. Louis Chapter and founder of the Vitae Foundation, he recalls that pivotal moment. Landwehr kept thinking about the abortion ideology as he graduated from college, got married and worked for a bank.
Left brain, right brain
A few months after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the United States in 1973, Landwehr joined Missouri’s Catholic Conference in the public policy division, which enabled him to work with several coalitions including Missouri Citizens for Life. In 1978, he and several others — including John Ashcroft’s wife — founded the Vitae Society Foundation with the intent of saving lives any way they could. They stood in front of abortion clinics, handed out literature, talked to women and prayed. However, Landwehr wasn’t convinced that this was the most effective way.
“My wife and I had become friends with John and Janet Ashcroft,” he said. “We also had several friends who were business leaders. I asked all of them: If life were your product, how would you sell it? The answer I got was that we had to use mass media, deliver the message and do research on our clients. And this became what we now call the Vitae Foundation.”
At first, Vitae produced pro-life billboards using “left brain” messages focused on logic, explaining why abortion was wrong.
Then, in 1993, Landwehr met Peter Herschend, a highly successful businessman who founded the Dollywood theme park with singer Dolly Parton.
“He looked at my ads and said, ‘Carl, they aren’t good enough. You have to take the message to the right side of the brain. That’s where the consumer makes decisions.’”
Landwehr learned that the right side of the brain is the emotional side, as opposed to the analytic left side. Through meetings with consumer psychologist Dr. Charles Kenny, he came to a very important conclusion for pro-life media in general.
“We can’t win this argument on the left-side of the brain,” Landwehr concluded. “We need to win on the right side of the brain.”
In 1995, Herschend funded specific research for Vitae on what moved women to the abortion decision and how to connect with them. The results produced what Landwehr calls an “aha!” moment. They discovered that women with unplanned pregnancies were filled with fear and a loss of self-identity. Unplanned motherhood was actually perceived as a “death of self.”
“We realized that we had to trust this woman as a consumer,” Landwehr said. “We need to tell her what she needs to hear, understanding her emotions, how she looks at this issue.”
Prior to this, the pro-life movement often did billboards with beautiful pictures of babies or fetal development — telling women what they thought she needed to know. But if Vitae’s goal was to save babies and get abortion-minded women into pregnancy care centers, the approach had to be smarter. Ads had to convey a sense that women could regain control of their lives and identity. The billboards Vitae uses now advertise “free abortion alternatives.” The message is not obviously pro-life, but it conveys hope that women can regain control.
The success of Vitae’s ads speaks volumes. In 2008, Vitae began a New York City subway ad campaign; more than 1,300 babies were saved in 2009. Vitae’s ad in a Spanish-language newspaper doubled the number of abortion-minded women who came into the Los Angeles Pregnancy Center. And Vitae’s 2009 Atlanta billboard campaign generated 2,000 calls to local pregnancy centers.
“What Carl brought to the movement is the idea that we needed to do good research on what our message should be,” said Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann. “Carl’s work is aimed at people in the middle, neither self-identified with pro-life or pro-choice. Vitae found ways to engage them.”
Vitae also does extensive research on where to place ads before going into a new city. In Dallas, they use billboards. In Boston, Internet-based ads for college students. In Washington, D.C., bus ads. Through the years, Vitae has raised $60 million, placed ads in 33 U.S. states and worked in 16 foreign countries.
“Vitae is about how to be most effective at getting women into pregnancy care centers, so they can decide to keep their babies,” said Thomas Cronquist, Vitae’s senior vice president, eastern market expansion. “Carl is always running toward the horizon. He runs after the big picture, trying to promote a culture of life.”
That big picture view has drawn support from the likes of Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Gov. Sarah Palin, and others. “Carl is a visionary who recognizes the power of mass media and is using it effectively to reach young women,” Gov. Mike Huckabee told Legatus Magazine. “He knows that the reason even the most recognized companies use advertising is because it works. And what Vitae does really works.”
According to Archbishop Naumann, one of Landwehr’s most impressive feats was to raise significant money on a sustained basis for TV ads. “He proved that if you could show real results, you can get donors to commit,” he said.
But Landwehr says his greatest success happens every day when people see his ads. In 2009, a young couple rode a bus in Washington, D.C. They were seniors at a local university and had recently gotten married during a trip to Vegas. When they discovered they were expecting, their world crumbled. He wanted an abortion. She wanted the baby. They looked up and saw a Vitae ad. They called and Janet Durig, director of Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center answered. After an hour of counseling, the young man turned to his bride and said, “I am so sorry I put you through this.” They wept and decided to keep the baby. Today they live on the West Coast with their young son.
“The most amazing part of the story,” said Durig,” is that this happened after the ad had been on the bus for just a few hours. It happened on the first day of Vitae’s ad campaign in D.C.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.