We can consider the effects of advertising on a societal and individual level. I would like to begin globally and move to research on children, and specifically emotionally troubled children. As Guidlach stated over fifty years ago, "the purpose of every drop of advertising ink and paint . . .[is] to make a number of human beings do something that otherwise they would not have done". (Guidlach, 1931, p.165) Advertising's chief effect is the creation of demand for products. And among the products most heavily advertised are automobiles, sweets, alcohol, processed or "engineered" foods, petroleum products, tobacco, and cosmetics. This leads to some interesting questions. Do less environmentally destructive and more healthy products need no demand stimulus? Would people naturally gravitate towards healthier ways of living if demand for less healthy options were not artificially bolstered? In 1986, U.S. companies spent one billion dollars on alcohol advertising. So we must seriously consider if advertising is education for destructive habits. Our survive/thrive instincts know what's good for us, but what is good for us does not have a large profit margin. With 30% of the U.S. population overweight, advertisers can claim success in creating overconsumption to meet overproduction.(Key, 1989, p.31)


And Americans raise their children on television advertising. By age 2 or 3, children are subjected to 25-30 hours a week (3 hours a day). Children on average can run a VCR by 2 and a half years old, years before reading begins. With the beginning of elementary school, viewing drops off slightly, but then jumps to over 4 hours a day between ages 8 and pre-adolescence. (Sprafkin, 1992, p.24) After sleep and school, television viewing is the American childs most time-consuming activity. By age 16, the average American has seen 640,000 commercials. (Deiterich, 1976, p.3)

The sheer amount of time is an important effect in itself, as it takes away from other activities. A a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1998) found a strong relationship between childhood obesity and television-viewing. 67% of youth aged 8-16 watch at least 2 hours a day and 26% watch at least four hours daily. The children who watched over 4 hours a day had 20% more body fat than those who watched less than two. In confirmation of earlier data, the study also found 43% of African-American children in the 4 hours or more group. The study suggested that crime-fear kept these urban children more dependent on television. Not only the time lost to physical activity, but also the dietary suggestions in the ads, contribute to unhealthy children.


Time spent watching television has negative results, but we also know about the extent to which children comprehend ads. Up to about age 8, many children have trouble distinguishing between content and advertising (Adler, 1977 p.33) In one study, no children of elementary school age could adequately describe the system of audience size and advertising revenue that determines programming. Only 25% had some idea that television is a commercial medium, that it exists to make money. (Wartella, 1979, p.146) Over half of kindergartners could not answer what an ad wanted them to know, whereas, only 10% of third graders could not answer the question. As understanding of the purpose of advertising increases, enjoyment and trust of ads decreases. In another study, over half of first graders liked and trusted all ads; only about 30% of third grader could say the same; and under 10% of fifth graders liked and trusted all ads. (Esserman, 1983, p.89) A similar study found that while 5-7 year olds experienced a 20% attention drop when an ad came on, 8-10 year olds experienced a 30% drop and 11-12 year olds attention dropped over 40%. Most disturbing from this study was that 3-4 year olds often showed an increase in attention when ads came on. (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988, p.167) And even drops in attention make for incidental learning. Although children learn to distrust, dislike, and divert attention from ads, there are some extremely formative years where children's cognitive development and range of experiences do not yet shield them from the claims of the advertiser. It is difficult to determine just how ads inculcate desires and values in younger children given their limited comprehension.


How important is it if our children's chief source of culture is commercially-bound? Sociobiologist Edward Wilson has suggested that long-standing human traits that are culturally transmitted, such as sharing and reciprocal altruism, could disappear in two or three generations due to cultural shift or maladaptation. (Wilson, 1975, p.575) If our culture only transmits marketplace values, we could be breeding a less compassionate and social human.

That advertising employs anti-therapeutic and antisocial strategies can be supported by the logic of advertisers themselves. Advertisers have defined "the basic creative problem of advertising-- to find an uncertainty-arousing scene, idea, or symbol that will permit the brand to reduce the uncertainty". (Bogart, 1966, p.27) Advertising is fundamentally about promoting dissatisfaction with one's present state. The goal is to make consumers feel as though they are lacking without the product advertised. The FTC has determined that an ad is unfair if it promises emotional need fulfillment or anxiety relief, (Shimp, 1976, p. 212), but proving a promise is very difficult, given the indirect nature of many advertising claims. This constant pressure to change behavior can prove taxing. And of course the strategy of attaching emotional need fulfillment to products brings us back to Guidlach's disgust with the promotion of fetish. Another author has suggested that advertising connects people and objects so that the two become interchangeable. (Williamson, 1978, p.12) Confusion over people vs. object relations is a central defining feature of autism (Schuler & Watanabee, 1995, p.92) and perhaps advertising promotes autistic social strategies in all of us.

Of course, females disproportionately feel the problems that object/person confusion creates. Feminist scholars have consistently and vigorously studied "objectification" as it occurs in advertising and the media generally. Two related areas that have been identified as damaging are limited career options and beauty pressure. Since Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, feminists have suggested that ads perpetuate a limited options for females. In commercials, self-worth is still based largely on the ability to attract a man and even today advertisements consistently underrepresent women in professional roles.(Courtney & Whipple, 1983, p.24) The claim that ads merely reflect reality does not hold true for beauty either. Models in advertisements weigh 25% less than the typical American woman. 1 in 11 ads convey a direct message about beauty. (www. adbusters.org/main, www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza.diag) The link between advertising, unrealistic body image, and eating disorders is becoming clear.(Percy & Lautman, 1994) There are presently 7 million females and 1 million males with either anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and the number is growing. (www.somethingfishy.com/ed.htm) These diseases often remain secret until they result in hospitalization or even death. Family dynamics and sexual abuse are often seen as causes for these diseases, but these students are not usually labeled for special education services. In fact, they tend to be high achievers who aspire to the ideals the culture suggests. Eating disorders activists are increasingly acknowledging the role that advertisers play in setting goals of beauty and body image that can lead to destructive patterns.


Special educators are primarily interested in the social and emotional effects advertising may have on children. As Urie Bronfenbrenner said of television, it would be "folly to ignore the possible effects and to allow this massive intrusion into the daily lives of children without at least questioning its impact". (Bronfenbrenner, 1970, p.163) Every teacher must be aware that commercial norms effect peer-group relations. As advertising researcher Key noted, "young people are commercially managed into group identifications, values and behaviors under the pretense of individualized preferences". (Key, 1989, p.12) He relates this management with a loss of perceptual flexibility.

Much of the research with children considers the effects of television without necessarily defining it as a commercial medium. However, in findings presented to the House of Representatives on the commercialization of children's television, it was found that the more children watched, the more likely they were to be restless, disruptive, and aggressive. They also perceived the world as a more dangerous place than light viewers. (House Committee on Energy and Commerce, 1988) I would argue that this skewed version of reality on television is precisely because it is an overwhelmingly commercial medium. The need to produce psychological uncertainty slants the representation of reality. Still, it is difficult to assess if the problem is with television the appliance or with its commercial purpose.

To get at precisely this issue, one study compared the effects of a commercial with a noncommercial role model. Children were shown Batman or Mr. Rogers, and then they were measured for patience and rule-following behavior. As expected, the children watching Batman were less patient and less compliant. (Moore, 1977, p. 65)

I was able to find only two studies that directly addressed impact on children with emotional and behavioral problems, and both of these were over twenty years old. This lends credence to the idea that the 1970s research agenda was never adequately followed up on. It also confirms my belief that there is a whole area of research that we in special education need to begin.

The first study concluded that television has the greatest impact on isolated children with poor social skills. These alienated children find companionship in the medium. (Roberts, 1973, p.197) Another study went more in depth to consider televisions role in reinforcing behavior norms of right and wrong. The goal was to "determine the extent that persons with a history of emotional difficulty and aberrant behavior embrace the values. . . displayed by favorite television characters". The researcher gave emotionally disturbed children conflict scenarios and asked them how they themselves, their favorite television character, a friend, a parent, and a favorite adult would handle the situation. Children were more likely to give a violent response for themselves, the favorite television character, and the peer. The researchers concluded that "emotionally disturbed children are less inclined than normal children to accept adult. . . influence and more inclined to accept peer and favorite television character influence". (Boucher, 1977, p.345) This study seems to confirm that the marketing goal of identifying with youthful peer groups is successful but harmful. Advertisers themselves have noted that kids embrace television as it provides "an escape from the demands and pressures of the family environment" and that parents see television as a threat because "television interferes with parental control". (Boyd & Levy, 1967, p.92) It is my belief that we need a lot more research focusing on the role of commercial culture in promoting antisocial and self-destructive strategies in special education students.

If we consider how much the definition of emotionally disturbed/behaviorally disordered is concerned with emotional and social difficulty, it would behoove us to study areas in our culture that can confound a healthy emotional and social life. Emotionally troubled youth are also known to take on commercial television characters and employ advertising slogans in every day speech. These creative uses of the medium may be trying to tell us something about the components of disability. Certainly more work could be done to understand the constructed fantasy lives many of our children live in. What these children say and act out indicates that we will inevitably need to examine how the commercial culture impacts troubled youth.


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