“Squash It” Campaign

In 1994 the Center launched the “Squash It!” Campaign to Prevent Youth Violence. “Squash It!” is a phrase used by inner-city youth in such urban centers as New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Kansas City, and Miami to signal decisions to disengage from confrontations. The “Squash It!” Campaign had two objectives: 1) to use the phrase and an accompanying hand gesture to promote a social norm that says it’s “cool” and smart to walk away from potentially violent confrontations; and 2) to mobilize public support for programs that offer young people positive alternatives to violence. The hand gesture, a stylized “T” based on the time-out signal in sports, is formed by bringing the palm of a flat hand down onto a vertical clenched fist.

The Campaign was supported by grants from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the MetLife Foundation, and The Joyce Foundation.

The Center conducted focus groups with inner-city teenagers from Boston neighborhoods to explore how social norms and expectations are influencing street culture. The phrase “Squash It!” arose spontaneously and repeatedly in these initial sessions. The focus groups also yielded a key finding: involvement with guns and violence was normative social behavior within current street culture, independent of gangs and drugs. When teenagers from different neighborhoods crossed paths, a highly-charged confrontation was expected to result if one even looked at another the wrong way–a confrontation that could escalate rapidly. Despite this social expectation, young people sometimes made decisions to walk away from confrontations, and accomplished this without losing face. When two groups encountered one another, each group established that it was willing and able to fight. Sometimes, however, the leader on one side made a silent calculation: he didn’t know what weapons the other side had, and whoever lost would come back tomorrow. He declared, “It’s not worth it. Let’s squash it”, and the two sides disengaged. The “Squash It!” Campaign sought to build on this pre-existing component of street culture.

“Squash It!” PSA video titled Recycled
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The strategy for the “Squash It!” Campaign relied on a critical observation that emerged from the Center’s focus groups and national survey research, namely, that there is a disconnect between teenagers¹ social norms and their private beliefs. As a measure of social norms, a large majority of teenagers in our national survey (all races and geographic locations combined) agreed with the statement, “Most people I know would say that it’s almost impossible to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” At the same time, when asked about their private beliefs, large majorities of students with the following statements: “it takes more self-control and more self-respect not to fight than to fight,” and “it shows strength to walk away from an angry scene or confrontation without fighting.” Of special importance was the fact that this same disconnect between social norms and personal beliefs is shared by a majority of urban youths in the survey who say they have been involved in serious violence.

These findings provided a strong rationale for the “Squash It!” Campaign–namely, that publicizing and validating teenagers’ privately held beliefs (“it shows strength to walk away”) would grant social sanction to decisions to walk away and thereby change social norms.

Youth violence is a highly complex problem and no single approach offers a complete solution. The “Squash It!” Campaign was designed to complement strict enforcement of criminal laws, gun control, educational reform, jobs creation, mentoring programs, youth development, community-based initiatives, and other essential approaches to violence prevention. In addition, the Campaign was designed to reinforce the impact of school-based conflict resolution programs.

“Squash It!” PSA video featuring KRS-One
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The “Squash It!” Campaign targeted two audiences: first, and foremost, the urban teen population; and second, the community of influentials–those individuals and organizations who could contribute to youth violence prevention by supporting policies and programs that protect young people, offer them hope for a better future, and motivate them to walk away from violence. It is these community leaders who can provide alternatives, serve as mentors, and create environments supportive of the walk-away message. The Campaign’s outreach to influentials framed the critical question, “If we are asking youth to walk away from violence, what are we inviting them to step up to as an alternative?”

The “Squash It!” Campaign consisted of three primary components: 

1) a national media initiative targeting urban teenagers involving: the Hollywood creative community, the music industry, and professional and collegiate sports leagues, in an effort to embed the “Squash It!” walk-away message in popular culture through the use of entertainment television, films, music (in particular, rap groups popular with inner-city youth), and public service announcements (PSAs).

2) research involving: (a) formative research through focus groups with urban teens to examine the sociology of fighting behavior, to test “Squash It!” messages and Campaign logos and designs, and to monitor changes in urban youth culture; and (b) survey research to confirm and extend focus group findings and track the progress of the Campaign.

3) an outreach to adult influentials, through a series of Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums, to build support for programs and policies that protect young people and offer positive alternatives to violence.

The Campaign’s “walk-away” message achieved wide exposure. Television producers incorporated the “Squash It!” message in scripts of “Beverly Hills, 90210” (FOX), “Dangerous Minds” (ABC), “ER” (NBC), “Family Matters” (ABC), “Hanging with Mr. Cooper” (FOX), “In the House” (UPN), “Living Single” (FOX), “N.Y. Undercover” (FOX), and “South Central” (FOX). Two of the programs, “Family Matters” and “South Central,” also tagged the episodes with “Squash It!” PSAs featuring the entire casts. The Center forged partnerships with seven leading rap labels, and recruited MTV to produce and “Squash It!” PSAs featuring top rap artists, including Coolio and KRS-One. These PSAs aired frequently on Fox and MTV; in addition, throughout March 1997, Fox Television affiliates in 45 of the top 50 markets gave heavy exposure to the PSAs. The “Squash It!” Campaign and MTV also produced PSAs featuring urban teens that aired frequently on MTV, ABC, and CBS; these PSAs were distributed to all local television stations by the National Association of Broadcasters. At the Center’s request, the National Basketball Association produced and sponsored PSAs with a walk-away message that aired frequently during the 1995 and 1996 play-offs. In addition, the National Football League and Fox Sports produced PSAs with the “Squash It!” message that aired in prime time during the 1994-95 and 1995-96 football seasons. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored “Squash It!” PSAs on network television during the men’s basketball regional play-offs and the “Final Four” in 1997 and 1998. The NCAA also produced three spots featuring leading college football players that aired throughout the 1997-98 NCAA football season. In addition, Black Entertainment Television (BET) featured “Squash It!” PSAs during a BET Teen Summit special on youth violence prevention in July 1996. CBS aired a “Squash It!” PSA during the Grammy Awards two years in a row, in 1997 and 1998.

To reach influentials, the Center sponsored Harvard-MetLife Leadership Forums in Kansas City, Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. featuring senior public officials (First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, [then] NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton, [then] US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director David Satcher) and leading journalists (NBC’s Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC’s Barbara Walters, ABC’s and NPR’s, Cokie Roberts, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, The New York Time’s Bob Herbert). These Forums provided opportunities for young people to express their views before audiences of influential decision makers.

The “Squash It!” Campaign attracted extensive coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, The Chicago Tribune, Ellen Goodman’s syndicated column, National Public Radio, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide, the Voice of America, the Associated Press, and other news outlets.

The “Squash It!” Campaign achieved its greatest success among African-American teenagers, one of the campaign’s primary target groups. In a 1997 national survey, approximately 72% of African-American teenagers were aware of the Campaign (up from 61% in 1995), and 60% had used the phrase “Squash It!” to disengage from potentially violent confrontations (up from 48% in 1995). These findings document the Campaign’s success in influencing the interpersonal interactions of African-American teenagers nationwide, as reflected in the increased usage of “Squash It!”

The following chart summarizes findings from the 1997 national survey of junior and senior high school students:

1997 “Squash It” Survey Findings

Total Male Female White African-
Heard of “Squash It!” Campaign 33% 38% 28% 23% 72% 37%
Used phrase “Squash It” 17% 18% 16% 6% 60% 14%
Used “Squash It” hand signal 10% 12% 8% 6% 29% 7%
Heard someone use phrase “Squash It!” in person 24% 26% 21% 10% 75% 28%
Saw someone use “Squash It!” hand signal in person 15% 17% 13% 7% 41% 18%
Heard someone on TV use the phrase “Squash It!” 31% 36% 25% 21% 68% 33%
Saw someone on TV use “Squash It!” hand signal 23% 28% 18% 16% 43% 30%