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Think Ads Don’t Affect Kids? Think Again

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Years ago, we killed Joe Camel. He was preying on kids and as a united body of parents and concerned adults, we told the cigarette companies that our kids weren’t fair game. Other than the cigarette manufacturers, everyone is happy that the large-snouted ugly beast is gone. Since he went away, public awareness of the effects of advertising has increased. We know that our kids—especially teens and preteens—are extremely influenced by sexy, luring advertisements. And they are particularly vulnerable when adult behaviors are the focus of the ads.

Pediatrics just released a study looking at the effects of advertising alcohol to 7th to 12th graders.

The study found that exposure to alcohol commercials not only increases a child’s likelihood of using alcohol, but it also leads him or her to have problems during his or her later teen years.

They state, “Younger adolescents appear susceptible to the persuasive messages contained in alcohol commercials broadcast on TV, which sometime results in a positive affective reaction to the ads. Alcohol ad exposure and the affective reaction to those ads influence some youth to drink more and experience drinking-related problems later in adolescence.”

So here we have it. Marketing stuff to our kids changes their behavior. But we’ve known this for years. Joe Camel taught us that kids buy cigarettes when they see ads and now we know that when kids see alcohol ads, they drink more.

We also know from recent studies that boys who play violent video games during the teen years are more likely to be aggressive when they are in their twenties. And as far as sex is concerned, we have that data too. Seeing sex or sexual references on television increases the likelihood of teens being sexually active. Sex and teens is a very dangerous combo. Not only are they exposed to an epidemic of STD’s, but they also run the risk of dealing with psychological issues and of course, pregnancy.

No one is surprised by any of this. Of course advertising works. It wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry if it didn’t work. So here’s my question. Why do we, who care about our kids, allow this to happen? What happened to the passion that drove us to oust Joe Camel?

The answers are disturbing. First, many of us feel overwhelmed,believing that the lid’s been blown off of the media industry and we can’t make a difference. So we throw our hands up and say prayers for our kids. We just hope they’ll be OK.

Then, there is self interest. We want alcohol sold, and if it means pulling along some kids into the drinking mix, that’s not such a big deal. The drinking age is lower in Europe and they get by. What’s the big deal, we reason? As far as selling sex, no one wants to touch that one with a ten foot pole. Selling sex is BIG business in the U.S.; encouraging kids not to have sex is considered morally prudish and politically offensive. After all, we fought hard for sexual freedom and we don’t want the strides we made surrendered—no matter what it costs our kids.

I, for one, haven’t given up on our kids, and I hope you haven’t either. I tell kids why the media sells them alcohol and sex. Companies do so for one reason and one reason alone: to take their money. When I talk to teens like they understand and have real choices about what they do, they listen. Then, I do something that most adults would find utterly offensive. I apologize to teens on behalf of my generation. “You didn’t ask for these problems, “I say. “We did. And now you are paying the price for our mistakes.” Funny, when you tell kids the truth, they like it. And they listen.

We need more adults who are willing to stand up to marketing giants and tell them to back off. Our kids’ lives are at stake here. Have we fallen so deeply into complacency that we are willing to offer children up to the sex, violence, and marketing gods? I hope not. And I don’t believe that we will. All we need is a few good lawyers who are willing to take on the giants. They won before, and I know that they can win again.

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Feeling a a bit uneasy about having "the talk" with your son or daughter?
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