By: James Yoo
We see ads all the time. Companies are constantly finding new ways to advertise and new channels to advertise them on. While younger generations might feel they are media-literate and can discern fact from fiction, advertising still creates inescapable social pressures.
For instance, why is shopping seen as a leisure activity? Why are foreigners shocked at American food portions? Why does alcohol pop into teens’ minds when it’s time to party?
Not to say any of these things are inherently bad, but there are certain cultural anxieties that can prompt larger problems. Shopping can turn into debt and self-image issues. Food culture can turn into obesity. In 2010, 31% of all US traffic deaths were caused by alcohol-impaired driving (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
What does any of this have to do with advertising? Sure, companies are constantly firing messages at us prized Millennials, but as a savvy generation, we’re immune to all the cheesy tactics, right?
That’s not exactly the case. We aren’t these immutable, Gen-Y whiz kids all our lives. Taking food advertising as a case study, heavier media viewing often predicts more unhealthy diets and higher body weight among children (Institute of Medicine, 2009). Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising, and even adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods after exposure to snack advertising (National Institutes of Health 2009).
In two experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not presented in advertisements, and “these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences” (NIH 2009). While there are numerous other factors that cause a craving or give people an itch to snack, it’s no coincidence that $4.2 billion goes into food advertising in the U.S. (Yale Rudd Center 2010).
We’re being primed as children, and we’re still being primed as adults. What’s more is that food advertising isn’t even increasing consumption of the advertised products. In other words, not only is the advertising failing as a business service, but it’s priming erratic attitudes and behaviors that advertisers didn’t even intend for society.
So where’s the accountability? Advertising is a huge institution, but it’s able to pollute the public however it wants. Hell, even drug companies can air commercials that break regulations until the FDA and FTC tell them they need to air corrective advertising. But by that point, positive associations have already been broadcast.
Counter-advertising is one step we can take to clean up the media environment. For instance, following an alcohol related PSA that encouraged viewers to drink responsibly (via testimony and informational ads), Gallup surveys offered strong evidence of a sharp drop in the number of impaired drivers on the road (Dejong and Hingson 1998).
Advertising can prime numerous behaviors and attitudes, without viewers, or apparently even advertisers, realizing it. Agencies need to be held accountable to test and criticize their content before airing their ads.
Yes, this will cost more money. But in the end, not only will it help limit the negative effects of advertising, but it will also help advertisers be more cost-efficient and strategy-effective with their campaigns. Advertising is a public institution, and it needs to recognize the reach of its influence and be accountable for its presence in the life of millions.