By Jill Janson
Advertisers bombard us with messages all day, every day. “Buy this.” “Wear that.” “Eat there.” It seems we are constantly being told what we need, why we need it, and how great you will feel if you have it. As our world becomes increasingly media saturated due to the 24-hour-access of portable media landscape, we become less and less aware of the sheer amount of advertisements we are exposed to daily. Even with just one click onto a website, dozens of ads pop up. And these aren’t just any ads. These are messages personalized to you. As consumers, we are under the microscope, as the industry picks us apart and finds new and better ways to captivate us.
The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), a theory proposed by Petty and Cacioppo (1986), is a “cognitive processing” model that seeks to explain how persuasion occurs in mass media messages. ELM defines two main routes by which people might be persuaded: the central route and the peripheral route. The central route involves highly rational thinking, where people scrutinize the message and pick it apart, which often leads them to challenge it and pose a counter-argument. This route requires a sense of higher thinking, which often occurs if the message conflicts with their existing attitudes or beliefs. Those following this route are more difficult to persuade. Those that take the peripheral route of persuasion tend to take a “mental shortcut,” giving the message little cognitive thought or scrutiny. This route is strongly tied in with emotion, and the person’s likelihood to fall for persuasive cues, like the attractiveness of models or characters, the presence of humor or the use of a catchy slogan.
Which route we take as audience members depends on our motivation and ability. Is a four year old capable of scrutinizing an advertisement? No, because they don’t have the cognitive development to even differentiate between the TV programming content and ad content. What about a 15 year old? Yes, because they, at least, have the cognitive ability to understand that the purpose of an ad is to sell them something, which is more likely to make them view the ad negatively and not want to buy the product. But teens still give into ads so easily. Teens are easily persuaded by advertisers because the ads link “being cool” with having those jeans, or eating that cereal. Also, ad industries are very aware of ELM and spend a lot of time and money working to get around the central route, and reach consumers before they put their guard up and reject the message. This is why today’s ad campaigns are entertainment-themed and chuck-full of emotional cues, which overtake our ability to view it critically. This concern relates to media literacy or lack of it. Without having that higher-ordered understanding of media, we become a vulnerable group that advertisers zero in on.
Our Mediated Communication Theory class at Stonehill College works against this force through our Community Based Learning program with the after-school kids at Davis Commons in Brockton, Mass. The group of high-school students we work with fall right into that soft spot.
One week our media-literacy themed lesson plans focused on advertising and commercialization. My group focused on food advertising, which has recently been in the national spotlight due to the debate over increasing obesity rates. Many point fingers at the ad industries for the excessive amounts of advertising of unhealthy foods and snacks, which account for 83 percent for ads on children’s TV, while only 3 percent of ads are for healthy food.
To kick off our lesson, we drew the USDA food pyramid on the board. Next to it, we drew the “prime-time” pyramid, displaying how it would be divided up according to the media, which said 41 percent of our diet should be fats, oils and sweets, with only 6 percent going to fruit and vegetables. This was no surprise. We asked the Davis Commons kids to think of any commercials they have seen on TV for fruits or vegetables. Needless to say, there are few to none. Yet, junk food and fast food chain ads, selling fatty, sugary foods, are run one after the other.
We discussed with the kids how the ad industry uses techniques to persuade people, such as catchy slogans, fun and happiness, celebrity or character endorsements, and the glossy, appetite-inducing images. Think about the last time you ordered a frosty from Wendy’s, did it look like the picture in the magazine ad? Nope, because yours was edible and not made from glue and shaving cream. Or what about when you were choosing which cereal to buy from the grocery store; you probably picked up the one with your favorite character or celebrity pictured on the front. These are tricks used by the ad industry to push consumers to follow the peripheral route, and give into their persuasion. Ultimately, by addressing this topic at Davis Commons, our goal is to enhance the youth’s media literacy level, which means encouraging them to scrutinize media messages (i.e., applying the central route of persuasion, according to ELM theory).