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The Impact of Modern Advertising on Children's Personal Identity

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The advertising industry has become a notable staple of marketing in the modern era. From oversized billboards to television commercial sessions, advertising has taken up a strongly dominant role in contemporary life, through which information is repeatedly broadcast and eventually embedded into the minds of potential consumers. Under the influence of such advertisements, consumers become more susceptible to emotional appeal and more receptive to the views expressed by these commercials, thus leading to a possible shift in their personal values and opinions. Therefore, although the main focus of these advertisements primarily falls upon the products themselves, it is the warped portrayals of the sexes and the concept of gendered marketing that lead to a less well-developed sense of personal identity among consumers, especially younger children who have yet to fully develop their senses of judgement, thus affecting their views in a way that would hinder their personal and intellectual growth in the long run.

The myriad divisions and segregations within modern advertising can be traced back to the most basic human differentiation of gender. These “forms of audience fragmentation, particularly along race and sexuality lines … and their intersection with gender identities, have been found to contribute to the identity project of individuals in this era of late modernity” (Lemish 360). For the sake of ease, advertising companies choose to portray men and women “in stereotypical ways that reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender” (Wood 31), so as to appeal to as much of their target demographic as possible without having to overtly pay attention to their markets’ numerous distinctive niches. These stereotypes “distort how we see ourselves and what we perceive as normal and desirable for men and women” (Wood 32), thus turning into unspoken rules that dictate our personal identity and behavior, becoming much more than a simple marketing strategy. However, this act of convenience over innovation only leads to children being “polarized … into traditional gender role behaviors” (Nelson and Vilela 114), rather than encouraging them to embrace the unique, individual differences that will become composites of who they are in the future, as “children marketers contribute to the transmission of unhealthy gender stereotypes by appealing to the common sense wisdom stating that boys want success, action and power while girls want glamour, beauty and stability” (Cernat 902), boxing these adolescents in before they even have the opportunity to branch out and become their own person. In worse cases, with prolonged exposure to these gender stereotypical advertisements, these youth, particularly girls, “internalize these stereotypes and learn their ‘limitations,’ thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Wood 44) that consequently destroys their feelings of self-confidence and self-worth.

Similarly, with gender-stereotypical marketing also comes representation, or lack thereof, of people of different racial backgrounds, which “[contributes] to [adolescents’] sense of identity” (Barker and Joiner 9). The spread of globalization and modern technology has made the world become hugely diverse, to the point at which just making use of stereotypes is incapable of acknowledging the broad, manifold branches within communities across the globe. This phenomenon then becomes a catalyst for increased, or better, portrayals of such minorities, which is vital for a child’s development as the advertised products, much like their race or ethnicity, “are part of children’s identity, they tell the world who the child is, so what he has is what he is” (Cernat 900). Without proper representation to educate today’s youth on significant aspects of their personal identity, not only will the erasure in mass media diminish their exposure to other people who share the same circumstances, but it will also give adolescents the incentive to seek information from other resources, which may misinform them and twist their views of themselves in addition to those around them. An example of this would be how African-Americans, models in particular, have long been “portrayed in demeaning and stereotypical roles that appealed to the white majority” (Barker and Joiner 2) through photo manipulation, which often depicts them with lightened skin, and cosmetic choices, such as hair extensions, aesthetics that may not necessarily reflect the preferences of every African-American consumer. While certain decisions pertaining to changes or alterations in appearances can be interpreted as a matter of personal choice, the under-representation of those who do not make the same decisions is capable of greatly affecting, in this case, African-American, children’s personal standards of beauty and their outlook on the world around them, as their scope on the world is narrowed.

In addition to the current under-representation and misrepresentation of racial minorities, this very phenomenon is occurring for people of non-heterosexual sexual orientations as well. As stereotypes “convey characters and images quickly and clearly” (Sheehan 79), advertising companies commonly turn to heteronormativity or homosexual stereotypes, which “often functions only to make a certain type of homosexual natural and normal” (Clarkson 336), largely reducing the amount of visibility homosexuals and those who identify as otherwise on the sexuality spectrum receive in mainstream media. This results in “the marginalization of homosexuals” (Sheehan 110) and the erasure of people of other sexual orientations, seriously skewing adolescents’ personal identity as they are not only taught that the only way to behave is to follow contemporary norms or stereotypes, but that to do so is already to step beyond what is culturally and socially acceptable in American society. Even for homosexual men alone, the commonly-found reliance on normalization in media representations only constructs “a single norm for gay men, and all else are abnormal or less than acceptable” (Clarkson 339). This strengthens the idea of segregation based on sexual orientation, both within the gay community and American society itself, instead of viewing consumers as diverse, complex people who are defined by more than their sexuality. In turn, adolescents who are struggling with their self-identity will be taught that it is undesirable to stray beyond such societal norms, therefore hindering their personal growth as anything contrary to the “typical, safe, and acceptable” (Sheehan 175) behaviors as seen in contemporary advertising is left unspoken, rather than being addressed.

Furthermore, the trend of hyper-sexualization in modern advertising has grown more evident, and plays a huge part in affecting children’s personal identity too. Objectification of the female body has long plagued advertisements for products ranging from perfume to fast food, in which advertisers depict women in a sexual light, marketed towards appealing to the male gaze. While the passivity of this sexualized female role has recently shifted to accommodate more “active, desiring sexual subjects” (Gill 255), women who are “powerful and playful, rather than passive and victimized” (Gill 258), it is still remarkable to note how “the continued history and presence of women in decorative and sexual roles have generated much interest and controversy than similar portrayals of men” (Sheehan 101). Freeman and Merskin point out in “Having It His Way: The Construction of Masculinity in Fast-Food TV Advertising” that fast food commercials sometimes depict meat as synonymous with female flesh, both being “mutual objects of male desire” (Freeman and Merskin 470) and “objects of the camera’s implied heterosexual male gaze” (Freeman and Merskin 470). The issues presented within these representations of women are that they are unrealistic in strengthening the concept of power imbalances between the sexes and in reinforcing standards of beauty and fitness that are not easily attainable. By presenting the genders with an array of limits as such, the sexualization and normalization of “inequality, domination, and even violence” (Caputi 312) occur, allowing advertising to influence adolescents much like propaganda does, by “[reinforcing] or [modifying] the attitudes or behavior” (Portia 42) of its target groups to form uniform masses of consumers, ultimately disregarding any differences that make every individual unique, and encouraging its demographics to do the same.

In addition to dividing target customers by gender, products and advertisements are often gendered as well, further promoting unhealthy gender stereotypes as people and products are segregated, despite how certain gendered products may serve the same functions as each other, or how the differentiation was never necessary to begin with. Cernat observes in “Deregulating Markets, Deregulating Media: The Globalization of Gender Stereotypes in the Age of Corporate Media” that “one of the many sexist assumptions undermining the commercial messages is that girls can be sold boy toys, but a boy playing with a doll is the certain way of social stigmatization. Girls can aspire to a ‘higher’ status by playing with cars, but the reverse is not acceptable” (Cernat 902). Even from a young age, adolescents are brought up in an environment surrounded by consumerism, targeted as “they lack the sophistication and experience of adults” (Sheehan 162). Given that children “learn how to act from observing how others act” (Sheehan 170), they are thus the most vulnerable and impressionable of all potential consumers in modern society. Through gendered marketing, advertisers impose restrictions on what products boys and girls are expected to buy, purely based on the assumption “that girls and boys want different things” (Cernat 902). The effects of segregated marketing are nearly identical to that of using gender stereotypes in advertisements, it “[narrows] the options for what both girls and boys can be and do” (Levin 82) and teaches them that certain colors and product designs are exclusive to certain genders, which can leave them in a cycle of altered values that may be passed onto their children when they eventually become adults. Hence, there is the growing need to “help boys and girls expand their concepts of what is okay for them to do as boys and girls and develop a broad range of interests, skills, and behaviors” (Levin 83), so as to “counteract the harm caused to their childhoods by commercialization” (Levin 82) and form better-rounded senses of personal identity.

Finally, critics of the above viewpoints argue that advertisements are merely providing “consumer education to children” (Lemish 171), using entertainment to teach them about various products and their values. However, in essence, it is undeniable that commercials are still of a persuasive nature, which Sheehan points out through quoting Dunn and Barban’s definition that advertising “is a paid, nonpersonal message from an identifiable source delivered through a mass-mediated channel that is designed to persuade” (Sheehan 2). Therefore, despite the argument that adolescents possess sufficient intelligence and know-how to determine fact and fiction, the potential still exists that less-informed children will be swayed towards believing the content presented in such advertisements and, at a more extreme extent, fail to notice the puffery and exaggerations. This is because “children tend to take [the statements in advertisements] at face value and do not critically analyze the message” (Sheehan 173). Calvert notes that this is particularly evident amongst children younger than the age of eight, as they “lack the cognitive skills to understand the persuasive intent of television and online advertisements” (Calvert 205). Growing up, adolescents obtain most information and knowledge from their environment and people around them. With the permeative presence of advertising in their lives before they can fully and realistically comprehend the purpose of the commercials they see every day, they are placed “at a distinct disadvantage in understanding commercial intent and, thus, in being able to make informed decisions about requests and purchases of products” (Calvert 214). Hence, the greatly influential role played by advertisements will shake the basis of every child’s personal growth from the moment they are introduced to the existence of these commercials, reshaping their opinions, values, and personal identity as they continue to mature.

In summation, the impacts of advertising on today’s youth are farther-reaching than what can be determined based on the content of on-screen commercials alone. Through poor representations of people of different genders, races, and sexualities, adolescents of today are left with stunted personal growth, as they are unable to create a stable foundation on which their personal identity can grow and evolve. What impacts these children even more is the strategy of gendered marketing present within today’s commercials and advertisements, as they act as constraints on identity development, further reinforcing gender norms and stereotypes, despite causing unnecessary segregation of products such as pens and dryer sheets. Therefore, it is clear that contemporary advertising plays a highly significant role in affecting children’s personal development, and the effects caused bring more harm than benefits, in terms of immediate influences and long-term impacts.

Freeman, Carrie P., and Debra Merskin. “Having It His Way: The Construction of Masculinity in Fast-Food TV Advertising.”“They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing: With Readings. Ed. Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russel Durst. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 454-79. Print.

In this essay, Freeman and Merskin analyze the structure of gender roles as found in advertisements issued by contemporary fast-food chains, such as the linkage between masculinity and eating meat, and the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies. The authors agree that such advertisements not only reinforce unhealthy “heteronormative, sex-role stereotypes”, but bring more harm than good through silent oppression of the sexes. A comprehensive list of facts and examples are used in order to justify both authors’ views, including advertisements previously used by Burger King, Carl’s Jr.,, and Subway, as proof of the emphasis on gender stereotypes. The authors also acknowledge a possibility of bias in their arguments as their opinions were strongly influenced by their identities as vegetarian ecofeminists. Despite this, their views were firmly supported by facts, all of which can serve as evidence to support my view that contemporary advertising negatively affects people of all ages.

Levin, Diane E. “Advertising Is Harmful to Children.” Advertising. Ed. Roman Espejo. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2010. 75-84. Print.

This piece primarily focuses on the negative effects of advertising on children, using bullet points to list the flaws of contemporary advertising as well as methods to return the childhood these children rightfully deserve to enjoy back to them. The author makes use of anecdotes to illustrate how mass media has influenced children’s behavior and subsequently increased parents’ worry, further categorizing different types of mass media into easy-to-follow lists to clearly present her views. The “Marketing Madness!” section provides me with the ideal explanations of how commonplace advertising has become, even for children, giving me sufficient background information on what children encounter daily. This then relates to “Having It His Way” and my other sources as it targets the effects of modern advertising on a specific demographic of consumers and can provide more than just a simple general overview of the impacts of advertising.

Dines, Gail, and Jean M. Humez. Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Critical Reader. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2011. 1-671. Print.

In this book, the authors make use of examples ranging TV shows to the rise of fan culture in order to show how gender, class, and race are made use of and affected in an interdependent relationship with mass media. While some sections of the book are not applicable to my topic, the parts on representation and consumer culture in advertising will give me a more in-depth view of the wide range of people that are impacted by advertising, allowing me to form a more well-rounded argument on my topic. This expansion in the variations of consumers I am focusing on can also lead to an expansion in the variations of effects advertising may have on people of different genders, races, and classes.

Gender, Culture, and Consumer Behavior. Ed. Cele C. Otnes and Linda Tuncay-Zayer. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1-450. Print.

This book, similar to the aforementioned one, also discusses how consumerism is affected in the light of gender and culture, and brings the study of gender roles one step further with the conducted studies on masculinity and femininity, and how men and women react to such traits respectively. These views can contribute to my arguments as they present opinions from a more personal, first-person point of view, stated by those directly affected by modern gender role portrayals in advertising. Thus, I will be able to compare these views with the portrayals described in my other sources, such as “Having It His Way” and Gender, Race, and Class in Media to determine whether contemporary advertising can effectively and accurately depict the genders as they view themselves.

Sheehan, Kim B. Controversies in Contemporary Advertising. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2003. 1-333. Print.

This book takes a more general approach towards advertising and focuses on the broad category of controversies that exist within contemporary advertising, rather than fixating upon a highly specific aspect or target group. Although this does not seem like the most ideal source to use in contrast to the specificity of my topic, it provides me with background information the same way “Advertising Is Harmful to Children” does, which will deepen my understanding on what other flaws contemporary advertising may have, therefore aiding me in taking a better-informed stance on my topic. The sections on the intended and unintended effects of stereotypes and (mis)representation in advertising are also precisely the evidence I could use to prove that the impact of modern advertising on gender roles are farther-reaching than what most would expect.

Cernat, Maria. “Deregulating Markets, Deregulating Media: The Globalization of Gender Stereotypes in the Age of Corporate Media.” Journal of Research in Gender Studies 4.1 (2014): 895-904. ProQuest. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

This paper, as stated by its title, is a study on the worldwide spread of gender stereotypes through corporate-dominated media. Aside from the direct impacts contemporary advertising may have on gender roles and stereotypes, it is also crucial to discover how advertising facilitates the spread of gender norms and how this occurrence influences people across the world. Despite the fact that my topic is predominantly concerned with effects caused by American advertising, it is notable that America has a great sphere of influence that covers immense distances across the globe. Therefore, with the use of this paper, I will be able to provide details to just how far gender stereotypes in American advertising can spread, similar to Controversies in American Advertising.

Wood, Julia T. “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender.” From Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture 9.231-244 (1994). New York University. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

This paper explores the effects of mass media on the perception of gender roles in a way that is similar to Gender, Race, and Class in Media, discussing the ways in which stereotypical gender depictions influence men and women, and how both genders influence each other in turn as well. The author makes use of numerous examples to show how the media has been regularly reinforcing certain gender stereotypes in the past few decades, which proves that such stereotypes have long been imposed onto us from a young age. Bearing this in mind, this could serve as a logical reason as to why the trend of questioning media-depicted gender roles had not seen a lot of growth until recent years, hence serving as part of the motivation behind having selected my topic of choice.


? 5-7 pages

? 1 They Say/I Say essay that has not been discussed

? Use/cite at least 4 sources (look at many more though)

? 1 book (printed in 2000 or after)

? 1 scholarly article

? Topic: Related to contemporary life in America (e.g. Elections/Politics, role of Starbucks), exploring topic but also arguing about it with examples from America, examples from outside America can be used too but only for comparison

? When in doubt, cite your source

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