Are You Listening? By Pamela Williams, MPH, R.D.

Photo: Simone van den Berg
Fifty or sixty years ago, it was typical to see kids and teens sit down for dinner with their parents and eat a meal together. Today, scenes like this are becoming sketchy. Why the change in mealtime? Here is one idea that describes the change.

Once upon a time families ate their meals together, especially breakfast and supper. Then the American dream was born. Advertisements carefully pried us from satisfied lives and created in us a desire to want more—not because we needed it, but simply to sell product.

To support our desire, we needed more money so two parents had to work. Since no one had time to fix foods or have money to buy pricey restaurant meals, families needed a way to eat fast and cheap. Fast food restaurants met this demand. Eventually, parents started to give their kids five or six dollars a day to buy these meals before, during or after school. This gave kids and teens spending power. Advertisements bypassed parents and shifted toward teens. Today, 18 year old boys now have $525 to spend each month and girls have $430. Collectively, teens now spend $150 billion each year on food, beverages and other non-food products.1

The advertisement shift included creating commercials that featured perfectly beautiful people or celebrities to get teens’ attention. Advertisers focused on details such as using certain colors in their advertisements. It is no mistake that many fast food restaurants use red. It means – stop as in the “stop sign” and fast as in “fast sports cars.” Yellow, another popular color means bright and happy. Together the red & yellow message says – stop and buy our food, eat fast and be happy.

And there’s more. Today, rather than relying on traditional advertisements like television, radio or print, advertisers are finding other ways to reach today’s youth.

Today they are using cell phones. Imagine this—advertisers place an ad on a bottle of cola. The ad asks the reader to stop by their web site for free prizes and ring tones. To get these gifts, kids leave contact information—their cell phone number, what they like, their income, their age, and almost any other information advertisers need to target their message. Once advertisers have a phone number, they can target specific ads and offers via text messaging. Take this one step further. Advertisers are looking at placing blue tooth technology with billboard ads. When a teen walks by with a familiar cell phone number, a coupon can be text messaged for the restaurant right down the street.

Then there are online videos. Originally, folks would make videos and place them online for friends to view. These short videos were used for personal messages, singing and other fun events. But once advertisers saw the power in e-mailing viral videos, they began making their videos and people started e-mailing them to their friends. This type of advertising can reach thousands of teens and adults without the expensive price tag that comes with commercials for television.

And what about virtual social communities? These are fun places where teens sign up and become a member. They adopt an identity and become whoever they want to be online. They meet other people, play games and engage in a make-believe place that is wrapped around products such as soda or fast foods. By playing games and engaging in other events, participants earn and trade points for coupons or product-related prizes. Some of these communities have a make-believe guide that gives advice.

Recently, an article reported on another way advertisers will retrieve information about their target population—neuro-marketing. The old fashion way of determining what consumers liked or disliked was to conduct focus groups. This involves a group of people who would sit down and respond to questions, scenarios, etc. Now researchers can record the brain’s chemical responses to ads, food, or anything else they want to study.2

The goal of all of these modern methods of marketing is to simply sell products and keep kids and teens loyal to brands—for life! And unfortunately, more than half of these products sold to them are fast foods, sweetened cereals and other sugary and fatty foods.

What can we do?

First, educate our kids about healthy choices. A crash course on keeping a steady supply of fruits and vegetables in the diet and cutting back on fast foods, sodas and other calorie-dense foods can help them shape a healthy diet.

Second, parents and adults can role-model the desired behavior. Showing teens rather than telling them is a powerful message. People seem to learn and adopt healthy habits through role modeling.

Third, have a family meal night one time a week. Getting teens and kids around the family table can encourage healthy eating and healthy conversations. If lifestyles permit, have family meal night more than once a week.

Fourth, talk to teens about advertising. Discuss with them the hidden messages in commercials or how the goal of many commercials is to sell product not improve people’s esteem or make them look better.

And finally, teach teens the importance of thinking things through rather than living the commercial’s message or any message without question. In many Bible stories, people are often compared to sheep. Sheep can easily get lost or go astray just as these Bible stories tell us.3 Gary Richmond, a former zookeeper at the Los Angeles zoo wrote a book called, All God’s Creatures. One of his chapters is dedicated to sheep. It explains how easily they follow whoever is leading. Even if danger is nearby, sheep will still follow and walk right into danger’s pathway. He says that, “they tend to think as a group, not for themselves, so they just go with the flow, even if the flow is going the wrong way.”4 Teaching kids and teens to ask questions and make decisions can help to avoid the trap of just going with the flow.

Advertisers may be effective in giving messages to kids and teens but we can choose to think through these messages and incorporate healthy practices in our lives.

 1Toops, D. RU Communic8N W Teens? Food The digital resource of food processing magazine. Accessed August 31, 2007
 2Hansen, Christine. Brain Scan, November 1, 2006. Deliver Magazine, Accessed September 12, 2007. 
 3Isaiah 53:5 and Jeremiah 50:6
 4Richmond, Gary. All God’s creatures: Spiritual Lessons from the Animals of the Bible. Word Publishing: Dallas, 1991, p.132.

Pamela A. Williams, MPH, R.D., is a dietitian and writes from Cypress, CA. All rights reserved © 2010 Click here for content usage information.