ROME • The Italian government has a baby problem: Birth rates are falling rapidly, with only 488,000 babies born in Italy last year, half the average born each year in the 1960s, and the smallest number of births since the country itself was born in 1861.
But a campaign intended to encourage Italians to procreate backfired on government officials, who are now apologising for a series of advertisements that ended up offending the very population they were supposed to reach.
The campaign was on Wednesday condemned as racist just weeks after its original promotional material was panned for being sexist.
Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin ordered changes to the campaign at the start of the month after captioned images intended to promote the National Fertility Day were denounced as patronising, sexist and hectoring.
But on Wednesday, she was forced to pull one of the replacement images, which had been intended to promote a healthy lifestyle by juxtaposing images of "good" and "bad" lifestyles.
In the first photograph, white smiling couples relax by the sea. It is captioned: "Good habits to get into."
In the second photograph, a mixed group including dark- skinned young people with Afro hair smokes cigarettes, lights up a bong and appears to be sniffing drugs. It is captioned: "Bad friends to let go of."
According to an image in the Phoenix New Times, the "bad friends" picture resembles one that was used in a United States anti- drug campaign.
The poster set off another media storm, with users ridiculing the ministry for simply having swopped sexism for racism.
Ms Lorenzin released a statement saying she was launching an internal investigation and had sacked the ministry's communications director.
The photos represent a homogeneity of people, as is the multi-ethnic society in which we live... Racism is in the eye of the beholder.
HEALTH MINISTRY STATEMENT
However, the Health Ministry released a statement, quoted by The Guardian newspaper, saying: "The photos represent a homogeneity of people, as is the multi-ethnic society in which we live... Racism is in the eye of the beholder."
NO INTENTION TO OFFEND
We did not intend to offend or provoke anyone. If the message has not gone across as we would have liked, we will change it.
HEALTH MINISTER BEATRICE LORENZIN
In the earlier series of posters for the campaign, which included the National Fertility Day yesterday, a woman holds up an hourglass and a caption reads: "Beauty is timeless. Fertility isn't."
Another shows a rotting banana with the caption: "Male fertility is much more vulnerable than you might think."
"We did not intend to offend or provoke anyone," said Ms Lorenzin. "If the message has not gone across as we would have liked, we will change it."
But even Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has lashed out at the campaign organisers, saying the advertisements were inappropriate, considering the societal limitations that offer a negative environment for couples to consider pregnancy.
"If you want to create a society that invests in its future and has children, you have to make sure the underlying conditions are there," he said.
Italian women noted on social media that the government can hardly urge women to get pregnant while youth unemployment is at 42 per cent and women are not offered paid maternity leave.
In some cases, women are still required to sign documents that allow their employer to fire them if they become pregnant.
Critics have also focused on other obstacles, including low wages and inadequate childcare provision.
Italy has the lowest birth rate in the European Union and one of the lowest in the world, with only eight babies born for every 1,000 residents last year, according to EU figures released in July.
Ms Lorenzin warned earlier this year that the current "catastrophic decline" would reduce the number of newborns to 350,000 a year within a decade unless action was taken to reverse the trend.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE