Magazine article USA TODAY

Warning Advertising May Be Hazardous to Your Health: Ads Pose a Threat to Physical, Emotional, Social, and Cultural Well-Being. (Mass Media)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Warning Advertising May Be Hazardous to Your Health: Ads Pose a Threat to Physical, Emotional, Social, and Cultural Well-Being. (Mass Media)

Article excerpt

AS YOU WAIT at the ATM machine for your cash, on-screen commercial loops keep you "informed" about something to buy. Before you are allowed to proceed with filling your tank with gas, the screen affixed to the gas pump demands that you reply to its question about whether you also want a car wash. On other gas pump screens, ads dance as the gas flows.

Ads show up in slot machines designed to entice children by featuring themes such as Candyland, Monopoly, the Pink Panther, and South Park. The gaming industry promotes a "family-friendly" image to ensure that future generations will support casinos. Advertising sprouts from the "product information" about a new computer as, embedded within the instructions for installing a software program, you may find plugs for new equipment and software.

Advertising occurs indirectly as well. A camera shot in a popular film may linger a little too long on the bag of Frito's corn chips on the kitchen table (the one where Mel Gibson sits). Advertising includes the envelope, addressed to "Occupant," that states, "God's Holy Spirit said, `Someone connected with this address needs this help.'"

Because we live in a market-driven economy in which we consume more than we produce, advertising flows constantly--from television to billboards to print ads to blinking Internet messages to elevator rides. Consider a few facts. In the 1970s, columnist George Will lamented, grocery stores stocked about 9,000 items; by the late 1990s, they were up to 30,000. More stuff demands more ads--and more-aggressive ones. In the early 1970s, the daily number of ads targeted at the average American was 560; by 1999, this number jumped to 3,000.

In 1998, the World Opinion Web site noted that the total amount of money devoted to market research around the world is approximately $11,000,000,000. American children and young adults spend huge amounts of money and heavily influence their parents' spending. In 1992 alone, this outlay amounted to over $100,000,000,000. By 1997, this figure ballooned to $212,000,000,000.

Accordingly, advertisers spare nothing in seeking what one Pepsi executive called "a tight, enduring connection to teens." Such "connections" are well-established. In a survey of 534 young people, 99% of them correctly identified the croaking frogs from a Budweiser TV commercial.

Each year, American advertisers spend approximately $150,000,000,000--a cost that is passed on to consumers in higher prices. As consumers, our relationship with advertisers is a curious one. We pay for the cost of advertising and supply the profits. We also pay for the total tax write-off that businesses receive for advertising expenses. A large sign inside Russia's Mir space station before it was destroyed summed it all up: "Even in Space ... Pepsi Is Changing the Script." Indeed, advertising seems like the only script around--on Earth as it is in heaven.

Consumption--and the advertising that drives it--is our most powerful cultural force, shaping our attitudes, beliefs, values, and lifestyles. Pervasive and powerful, advertising's effects largely go unseen, because we think about advertising like fish think about water--we don't. This is especially true for children and young adults, who have grown up immersed in a world that promises everything, to everyone, all the time--for a price. Because kids are a potential long-term investment, advertisers position them as "super targets."

In the 1960s, marketers began to define children as a separate demographic category. By the late 1970s, research indicated that children had trouble distinguishing between television programs and commercials. Most had little or no understanding of ads' persuasive intentions, thus making them highly vulnerable to commercial claims and appeals. In 1978, such research prompted the Federal Trade Commission to attempt to ban TV commercials aimed at youngsters.

Ironically, the trend to marketing to kids gained momentum, culminating in the establishment of Channel One in 1989, which now beams television commercials to a captive audience of more than 8,000,000 students in 40% of America's schools. …

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