An Adolescent’s Perspective of the Weight Loss Tricks Exemplified in Magazines
Girls love long hair, fancy clips, dangling earrings, glittering dress and fancy beauty products and boys love sporting macho looks, long beards, a thick moustache, muscular arms and rugged clothing. Its natural that we associate beauty with girls and brawns with boys. The differentiation starts right from childhood when Power puff girls, Shimmer and Shine, and Frozen have been sidelined as a girl’s thing whereas boys are inclined towards watching superhero stuff, Doremon and so on. The characters in these girl-focused series come with long-flowing hair, pretty hairdo’s, the standard pink-and-purple dresses and above all, look extremely thin and curvy. So, before everything else these kids are clear about one thing-beauty! Their definition of beauty includes being thin and slim. So, as these young girls grow up into adolescents their mindset is totally inclined towards staying slim. Moreover, the number of beauty products, advertisements and photographs depicting models almost never focus on a normal-weight individual but those that have a super-thin structure. We believe what we see and the media holds a great control over our thoughts and behaviors. It influences women’s idea of looking good, being thin and has a greater responsibility in affecting the weight control behaviors and attitudes displayed by young adolescent girls and women.
Girls are at the maximum growth stage during puberty and engaging in destructive health habits brings about unwanted health effects right from menstruation problems to nutrition losses. Youngsters today live in a virtual-reality world trying to re-create things that they love seeing on-screen. This makes girls vulnerable to the gimmicks and photoshop effects of models portrayed in magazines and ads. Many girls start dieting and engage themselves in unhealthy weight loss practices to lose weight and become like the models whom they worship. Its impossible to find a young woman who is satisfied with her body image irrespective of whether or not she flaunts a well-sculpted figure. This has been the boon to the beauty industry and the supplements markets today as they have come up with a line of weight loss supplements, pills, creams and more to help our lovely girls lose weight! This, along with the unhealthy weight loss tips and tricks given in magazines and websites add to the dangerous consequences that’s being increasingly witnessed in our young girls and women today. A Canadian study proved that 27% of 12- to 18-year-old girls suffered from disordered eating behavior; anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder, is becoming predominant in countries such as Hong Kong and other Asian countries and, in the United States alone there was a 2-fold increase in sale of dietary supplements and weight loss pills between 1994 and 2002.
Health communication theory shows that ads and entertainment industry cultivate beliefs and attitudes that shape behavior and girls who are constantly exposed to these develop an affinity toward dieting that make them go about taking a variety of health-related decisions that can have an impact on their health and lifestyle all through their lifespan. So, how are the weight loss claims understood by girls, how it affects them and what kind of attitude do they need to counter the deceptive and insistent strategies used by marketing people while advertising weight-loss products?
Young Girls & their Attitude to Weight Loss Advertisements
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after examination of 300 ads from magazines, TV, newspapers and radio identified a number of ‘Red Flag’ claims used in weight-loss advertising such as ‘weight loss without exercising’, ‘permanent weight loss’, ‘weight loss despite previous failures’ and ‘safe and natural claim’. Many of them show unbelievable before and after pictures taken along with testimonials as a common advertising trick. The study here looks into a diverse sample of male and female adolescents and their psychological well-being after reading about dieting, eating tips and health loss tricks in magazines. The study wanted to understand about three things:
The study extracts data from project EAT (Eating Among Teens) which is a school-based survey of nutrition and weight concerns among 4746 adolescents.
Question about magazine reading included ‘How often do you read magazine articles in which dieting and weight loss are discussed?” for which the responses could be “Never”, “Hardly ever”, “sometimes” or “often”. When answers are either of the last two, it comes under ‘Frequent Reading’ category.
Healthy, unhealthy and extremely unhealthy weight control behaviors was assessed using the question ‘Have you done any of the following things in order to lose weight or keep from gaining weight in the past year?” and the choice of behaviors included:
Binge eating that was assessed with the question “In the past year, have you ever eaten so much food in a short period of time that you would be embarrassed if others saw you (binge eating)?” (“yes”/ “no”). Body satisfaction, self-esteem and depression were assessed through different methods. Weight status was found through height and weight measurements. Gender, school level, ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES) was analysed using a single item of self-report of ethnic identity.
Adolescent girls are dissatisfied with their body due to ‘awareness of mediated social pressures’ and ‘internalization of these pressures’. A group of individuals decided to study the response of girls to print and television (TV) weight loss advertising. This knowledge can be applied for creating media literacy and health education curricula. The study included 42 adolescent girls aged between 9 and 17 years residing across seven regions in the United States. They were made into groups of three and each group was shown specific examples of print and TV ads for weight-loss products and asking for their views on such products. All of their responses were audiotaped.
4 girls were 9-10 years old, 26 of them were 11-13 years, 7 of them were 14-15 years and 5 were 16-17 years old. 16% of the girls were from poor economic background, 31% came from working-class families, 24% belonged to middle-class, 22% to upper-middle class and 7% were from wealthy backgrounds.
The research team collected samples of 42 TV commercials endorsing weight loss products such as dietary supplements, diet aids and food replacement products. Samples of 15 women’s magazines that included 31 ads confined to weight loss, meal replacements and diet ads were included. Finally, 7 ads including 4 print, 2 30-s TV commercials and a 3-min excerpt from a 30-min TV infotainment was shortlisted. All the participants were shown all seven ads one at a time along with a set of non-directive open-ended questions that helped in discussing and interpreting the different ads shown. This included questions such as ‘What’s the first thing you think about when you look at this ad? What do you notice specifically when you look at this ad? Which elements catch your eye? How do you feel when you look at this ad? What does this remind you of?’ At the end of the session all of them were invited to ask any questions.
Two main points were considered: views of the participants on deceptive advertising claims and persuasive techniques and knowledge and attitude demonstrating critical analysis of advertising based on key concepts. Depending on the answer given by the girls each of the concepts were given a score of ‘satisfactory’ when their answer revealed that they had a clear understanding of the concept, ‘some evidence’ when they had some understanding of the concept and ‘no evidence’ when the answers showed no signs of any understanding of the concept.
Though girls are awed by advertisements relating to weight the study did show that all of them had a certain level of knowledge regarding the deceptive techniques used in weight-loss advertising. For example, before and after pictures were not believed and 71% participants thought this to be a persuasive technique. Most of them had the lingering doubt whether the picture was modified, whether the individual in the photo really used the product advertised or above all, if it was the same person who was photographed in the before picture as well.
Participants’ View on Persuasive Techniques
The claim ‘weight loss products yield rapid weight loss’ was reported as inaccurate by 57% of participants in the study and only 17% believed the claims on products such as ‘doctor-endorsed and scientifically proven’. But many 1participants believed and relied on products that had the image of a white-coat doctor. 11% found weight loss products claiming to be ‘safe’ and ‘natural’ to be unrealistic and persuasive. Most did not decipher nor pay attention to visual imagery that vouched for the safety of the products nor to the warning language present in print form minutely in some corner of the product. It is good to know that 48% of participants recognized claims of ‘permanent weight loss with no diet or exercise’ to be persuasive and deceptive. The advertisements also triggered a lot many participants to think which helped them realize the best way to lose weight-they understood that eating healthy, exercising and being active is the right approach and it is not reliable to engage in drinking some juice or taking a pill to lose weight.
Critical Thinking About Weight Loss Advertising
The second research question asked includes ‘What kinds of attitudes, knowledge and skills can build critical thinking in response to the persuasive techniques used in weight-loss advertising? Eight elements of critical analysis were identified when the girls answered this question.:
Identification with character: More than 90% participants related to the emotions and perceptions depicted by the character in the advertisement.
Compare and contrast ads with real-life experiences: Almost 59% girls compared the ads with some real-life experience with some family member. The compare-contrast statement prevailed as a ‘reality check’ to help them compare the representation of weight loss shown in the ad to the real-life experience of the close people in the girl’s family.
Use of prior knowledge about weight management: 40% participants were able to bring out their views on the correct ways to weight loss that included regular exercise, portion control, eating fruits and vegetables, limiting fast foods, chips and soft drinks when they were shown ads portraying claims such that you need no diet or exercise to lose weight.
Identification of target audience: Girls were not able to immediately distinguish ads targeting older and young groups. They could not also identify techniques specially used to target women audience.
Recognition of visual techniques to establish credibility: Ad makers try to improve the credibility of the product by placing them in locations where it could enhance its credibility. For instance, placing a product that claims to be ‘natural’ in the center of a forest or using a doctor to advertise for a medically proven formula brings on greater appeal to the product.
Recognize message subtext: Ads force customers to buy by stating implied and direct messages. Only very few participants were able to read between the lines to decipher the actual message contained in the ad. Most others were willing to buy it due to the captivating images or the alluring text words.
Recognize financial motives: Though many girls could decipher money as an intention of these ad makers only one participant could clearly see the economic realities of weight-loss advertising from the perspective of the advertiser-they pour in money for the commercial to reap greater benefits. Many girls could identify that these commercials use actresses and spokespersons as they are famous but these people do the commercial only for the sake of money.
Recognize omissions: None of them came up with immediate questions on an omission that they noticed, none came up with health risks or dangers linked with products containing ephedrine or other chemicals but they came up with questions that implied that these girls were indeed thinking about the information and visuals shown in the ads.
Enabling youngsters to analyze and comprehend weight loss-related advertisements helps them learn more about healthy eating and also develop critical-thinking skills. It is an enriching learning experience that would help these young adolescents learn aplenty about optimal weight loss techniques, eating habits and lifestyle routine.
Reading Magazine Articles About Dieting & Associated Weight Control Behaviors Among Adolescents: https://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(02)00455-X/pdf
How Adolescents Girls Interpret Weight Loss Advertising https://academic.oup.com/her/article/21/5/719/753094
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