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Can you resist those Super Bowl ads?

If a salesman showed up at your front door to sell your child beer and junk food, it’s unlikely you’d choose that moment to go get a snack or do a load of laundry.

So why do it when he enters your home through television ads?

According to Erica Austin, interim director of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication, and colleagues Bruce Pinkleton and Stacey Hust, the most effective response isn’t necessarily to slam the door and turn off the TV — that salesman is going to get in one way or another — but to engage your child in a bit of ad hoc media literacy training.

“I see it as a great opportunity to interact with kids,” said Pinkleton, who with Austin conducts research into the effectiveness of media literacy programs. “It’s fun to just get them talking.”

Next month, advertisers will be spending more than $2.5 million to get a 30-second message into your home during Super Bowl XLI. It’s a perfect time to talk to your children about what is being advertised and what is being sold.

You are the product
“What’s really happening is that the producers of shows are delivering an audience to the advertisers,” Austin said. “What’s being bought and sold is the audience.”

When children understand that, she said, it really changes the way they look at ads. The bottom line is that children need to understand there are motives behind media messages, most often profit motives.

It’s not that you can’t enjoy a creative ad, she said, but if you don’t talk to your child about the negative consequences, contradictions, stereotypes or illogical appeal of the message, no one else is going to.

You can laugh at a funny ad, Pinkleton said, but then follow up with a discussion about the underlying message. A good way to start is an open-ended question such as, “What do you think about that?”

According to Hust, who studies media effects and health communication, television ads can become an influential “super peer” (a term coined by other researchers) if there is no filter — such as media literacy — between the ad and the child. Ads aimed at teens are often an extremely sophisticated layering of child-oriented images and adult themes, she said, such as beer commercials that use characters similar to those in milk ads.

Testing the programs
Pinkleton said other researchers around the country, and particularly at the University of Washington, are working to build media literacy programs aimed at children, but WSU has developed a reputation for designing the rigorous studies that test the effectiveness of the programs. In particular the Murrow School is a leader in looking at how media messages influence health-related decisions.

One of Austin’s most cited contributions to the field of media literacy is the creation of a model that highlights some of the key steps people go through as they move from seeing or hearing a message to internalizing it and acting on it.
 
According to the Murrow School’s research, cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics, media literacy education changes the way people think about the messages so that they end up making better decisions.

You can link to the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on “Children, Adolescents and Advertising” ONLINE @ http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;118/6/2563. For more information on discussing advertising with your children, see www.medialit.org.

Ad checklist
Use this checklist and ask your children to use it to assess ads, including those slick Super Bowl commercials.

* Who created this message?
* What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
* How might different people understand this message differently?
* What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
* Why is this message being sent?

— From the Center for Media Literacy www.medialit.org

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