Though I’m not a big TV watcher, I recently found myself beached due to a prolonged bout with the flu. Channel surfing yielded nothing I actually wanted to watch, but I found myself riveted by what became an unofficial study of the realm of commercials.
If you’ve ever wondered about the subtle—or not-so-subtle—effects of television ads, you need only talk to your child. Several years back, my husband and I were talking about our taxes. My son, who was only 4 at the time, interrupted and said, “Just ask Roni Deutch—she’ll tell you what to do!” We both stared in wonder: first, that he had memorized this promo, but also that he had apparently heard it on a children’s network! Though he obviously had no understanding of what he was saying, the message had been clearly implanted—and appropriately parroted—so that it reached its designated target.
In my “study,” I noticed that most of the commercials fit one of four categories: insurance, attorneys, diet products, and acne remedies. What, I asked myself, are the unspoken messages behind these sales pitches?
- Insurance: The message I received from the barrage of insurance ads was, “Life is really dangerous, and you need to worry about every worst-case scenario.” While I think most of us would agree that our world can be a dangerous place, the constant reminder that we need to “shore ourselves up” against all the potential disasters is a way of keeping us constantly in fear. When we exist in such a state of hyper-vigilance, it becomes difficult to relax and trust ourselves or our neighbors. Without those qualities, life can be pretty stressful and unsatisfying.
- Attorneys: The near-constant advice to hire a lawyer encourages us to blame someone else for our troubles and hold others accountable for a monetary value. Of course there are times when attorneys are necessary to resolve disputes or give us a voice when we aren’t being heard. But the obsession with being “compensated for our loss” keeps us in an adversarial mode instead of moving through conflict and letting go. It also leads us too often to jump to an outside party, when we might be able to negotiate and mediate on our own. When we experience losses—which we inevitably do in life—there isn’t always a numerical amount that can heal our pain.
- Dieting: The obsession—especially after the holidays—with weight loss is unavoidable on television. Every other ad features a “medication,” diet program, or machine that promises us the self-esteem and peace we crave, if only we were thinner. The underlying message to me is that we are not good enough as we are, and that if we just find that perfect remedy, we will be beautiful—and therefore happy. And, of course, that we should value ourselves on the basis of how we look. Almost all the data show that a program that incorporates moderate exercise and portion control along with healthy food choices will, over time, yield a healthy body weight. But all the smiling celebrities and “real people” actors who share their happily-ever-after stories convince us that we, too, could be our best if we just tried that perfect, immediate cure-all.
- Acne: Mostly targeted at teens and young adults who are already super insecure, these “success” stories, like the dieting ones, teach our youth to evaluate themselves on their appearance and to believe in the instant fix. Imagine that you are already self-conscious about your breakout and that all you see on television is how to get rid of this humiliating problem. Where you may have been able to keep it in perspective, the advertisers keep you focusing on it to the point that it encourages obsession. And what if none of these supposed solutions works for you the way they do for all the smiling celebs? Do you then feel “less than”? What may have been a molehill has the potential to feel like a mountain when it is constantly thrust in your face.
As a mom, I have always tried to help my son understand the insidious nature of advertising because it is sadly so ubiquitous in our culture. Though we may be inclined to just write off commercials and say “they are only ads,” their influence is greater than we like to admit.
So, next time you turn on the TV, notice all the advertising and observe your reactions. Does a potato chip ad make you hungry? Does a makeup ad make you go check out a mirror? Be aware of the influences and you will make mindful choices that are based on what you truly need.
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