Friday, October 10, 2003

Slick ads, vulnerable teens

By Linda Cagnetti
The Cincinnati Enquirer

'Weekend memos' give our editorial writers a chance to express their own opinions, comment on topics they have been writing about, or take a lighter approach. The opinions in 'Memos' do not always follow the Enquirer's editorial positions.
It's hard to talk to girls and women about violence without talking about advertising. It's hard to overlook advertising's power when talking to teens about alcohol, cigarettes, body image, self-worth and sex.

That's because the messages that most influence our young people these days seem to be those told by advertisers.

So when Jan Langbein, executive director of Genesis Women's Shelter in Dallas, Texas, came to speak to students and the Mothers' Club at Cincinnati's St. Ursula Academy recently, she delivered a sobering wake-up call about the culture that advertising sells our young people as it tries to sell them products.

"These subtle and not-so-subtle ad messages desensitize and normalize violence against and among young people, especially girls and women," she said.

We're so bombarded with ads, she said, that we're often deaf and blind to the subconscious messages that affect how young people think and feel about themselves and each other.

She offered examples:

"Put some weight on" shows an exotic, bare-breasted girl so skinny that the watch she's selling is on her upper arm.

"Until I find a real man, I'll settle for a real smoke, " says a teen girl in a cigarette ad.

A cover on Jane magazine, which is targeted to teen-age girls, features a pretty, fresh-faced adolescent next to a headline "15 ways sex makes you prettier."

A CD cover featuring the movie Strangeland and "the ultimate loud rock soundtrack" pictures a teen girl with her mouth surgically stitched closed. "The subconscious message here," says Langbein, "links violence and mutilation of girls with cool music."

Another ad showed a fashionably dressed teen girl squatting so she's face-level before a boy's groin. Both are wearing Puma sneakers. The message is buy Pumas and be sexually hip.

These are the mild examples. I can't print others Langbein showed. But look around. Hundreds of ads peddling products imply that sexuality is a young woman's main concern, that violence is "normal," even sexy. They signal that the only acceptable body for young women (and boys, too) is an ultra-slim, even emaciated one. Nothing short of perfect is acceptable. They co-opt the young's desire for connection and control, as in "buy these jeans and you'll have friends."

Advertising doesn't cause violence or addiction, said Langbein, but it creates an atmosphere and perception that encourages or "normalizes" it. Ads selling products to vulnerable young people subtly glorify narcissism and rebellion.

Young people are bombarded with ads and their messages. Jean Kilbourne, researcher and author of Can't Buy My Love, says the average American is exposed to more then 3,000 advertisements a day of some kind and watches three years' worth of television ads in a lifetime. She says this barrage most dramatically affects young people, especially girls.

No wonder, said Langbein, that we have increased date rape, sex abuse, addictions and eating disorders among teens.

She urged both students and parents to scrutinize these familiar images in a new way.

"They're not harmless," she said. "Pay attention to the subconscious messages. Talk with your young people about them. Protest to the advertiser and don't buy the product."

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