Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Killing us, but not very softly

This is another essay I did for my writing class last term dealing with advertisements and children.
Super Bowl Sunday: the biggest advertising day of the year in the United States, if not the entire world. Millions of people across the globe tune in to watch and most of them aren't tuning in for the football game. The Super Bowl was originally a contest between two iron-willed teams out to prove to the world that they are the best. Today, the Super Bowl is known more for its advertisements. Several people have told me “I don't care about the game, I want to see the new commercials!” This statement boggles my mind even though it makes sense in a creepy Bizzaro-world way. Advertisers are blessed with an event that over the years has gained a large amount of worldwide attention, especially after television became mainstream. The Super Bowl consistently has a large audience who is glued to the TV until the game is over. People who watch the Super Bowl aren't inclined to change the channel when a commercial comes on, since the game is only broadcast on one specific station. Advertisers know that the audience is captive and relatively stuck watching the same station for the duration of the game.
What about people who have no interest in football? Advertisers benefit from a larger audience, so it is in their best interest to figure out a way to get more people to watch. Every year, Super Bowl commercials become more like shows in and of themselves. Now there are two captive audiences: People interested in the football game and people that are watching only for the commercials. Both audiences watch both programs because no one wants to change the channel.
Advertising has invaded almost every part of our lives. The Super Bowl is just one example of how advertisers have slowly taken over. Many people would say that advertising is a bad thing and that less of it would benefit just about everybody. However, those same people will gladly sit and watch a sports contest that has over the years become nothing but a day-long, multi-product infomercial. They will spend hours upon hours on Facebook, even though the entire site is funded by advertisers. Advertising has become more subtle over the years while at the same time becoming more bold. I compare it to a silk-covered brick. It is soft to touch and pretty to look at but if it hits someone it still hurts. People will ignore the pain if the object causing the pain is appealing enough. Feminist author Jean Kilbourne addresses advertising and how it influences our perceptions of what is beautiful in her video presentation Killing us Softly. I believe this influence is starting to affect children at a young age. Art critic John Berger said that we see before we can speak. Children, who are being babysat by the television at younger and younger ages, see a large amount advertisements. Advertisements are often bright, colorful affairs that easily snatch a persons attention. Even babies will pay attention to something if it is bright and colorful enough. Some of the first memories children have are of advertisements. By the time they are old enough to start spending money, they already are brand loyalists. Furthermore, they have an image of themselves and of others based almost entirely off of what advertisers have been telling them for years. Even though they have been bombarded most of their lives with advertisements, young people do not realize the influence advertising has on them or the way they interact with others.
Children can be cruel, especially towards other children. Advertising is making children more cruel to themselves and others. The problem involves more than actual ads. Programs that target children advertise to them through cleverly placed products. The programs have even become brands themselves. Television programs such as “Dora the Explorer” while educational, are still marketed to children as products. Dora backpacks, dolls, and even bedsheets are available. Children, absorbed by the show, end up wanting anything and everything associated with the show no matter how cheap or useless it is. This branding phenomenon isn’t a recent development. I remember many toys from my childhood that were connected directly to television programs. I also remember being convinced that I needed every last Transformers action figure and accessory, otherwise I would simply die! Products associated with television programs don’t need further advertisement. Children walking through a store will recognize the “brand” that has been created by the television program and instantly enter “I want it” mode. Branding teaches children that wanting is acceptable and that those who don't want the same things must be abnormal. On top of the desire to posses more, children that are over-exposed to advertisements begin to absorb them into every aspect of who they are. They start to form references and jokes based on the ads they see. The very few children who are kept out of the media loop become targets of reticule and even violence. Author Jackson Katz in his video Tough Guize, proposes that men start forming thoughts about how other men should act based on what they see on television. Children judge other children based on an image shaped by advertisements. Young children shouldn't have to worry about being too fat or having bad hair but they do.
Children grow up in this “be what we tell you or suffer” world and are affected by more than just the judgment of others. They are also being constantly judged by advertisements. People stare at the TV to immerse themselves in a reality that is better than the one they exist in but at the same time the more people watch, the more miserable they become. They realize that they aren't perfect and never will be no matter how much useless stuff they buy. However, they are inclined to buy useless things because ads tell them that they will feel a bit better. They will fit in more wearing an expensive fragrance or they will be more socially adept after a few beers but they will never be 100% perfect. Images in advertisements display a reality that is edited, manipulated, and impossible to emulate.
Children grow up with this reality, and as they grow, they turn into the perfect consumers. Through repeated exposure to television, billboard and even radio advertisements, children are taught that in order to fit in, they must have certain possessions and look a particular way. They become convinced that if something has been branded, it must be superior, even if experience tells them that the generic option is the same or better than the “name-brand.” The knee-jerk reaction of many parents when they realize the massive impact of exposure to advertisements, is to completely isolate their children from media sources. While this protects children from becoming brand-tools or product-mongers temporarily, isolated children often are sucked further into consumer culture because of the sudden and massive exposure to media that happens when their exposure is no longer monitored. Media isolation can also cause problems during childhood because the isolated aren’t aware of pop-culture references, which can make them the target of ridicule and bullying. The flip-side to over-monitoring is under-monitoring. Parents who don’t care about or are not aware of the impact media exposure has on their children’s lives will not monitor what their children are exposed to. As scary as the notion is, part of the solution to the over-saturation of consumerism is to encourage children to think. Of course, this means more work for parents, which can be daunting for someone who is struggling with a career on top of being a parent. However, opening a dialogue with children about media exposure will help them make smarter choices as consumers. It will also help them have a better sense of reality when it comes to body image. Many parents believe in the power of conversations with children when it comes to subjects such as drugs or alcohol. I believe that the same conversations should be happening about media and media exposure. As more people become aware of the impact media has on their lives and on the lives of their children, people can work towards lessening the impact advertising has on their lives.

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