Media Runs the Show and Your Life

June 9, 2009
By Valentina Guzzo BRONZE, Tarrytown, New York
Valentina Guzzo BRONZE, Tarrytown, New York
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Ever wonder who was the first kid to wear a matching trucker’s hat and sneakers? What about the first kid to make Uggs the new choice of footwear and spandex the new “it” jeans? These “innovators” aren’t known by name, like those that grace the runways in Paris and Milan, but they are responsible for making what is “it” today and “not” tomorrow. Their contribution to society would be insignificant, written off as just a weird style if it weren’t for one deciding factor… the media.
Media has become an integral part of our society. In a world dominated by ipods, sidekicks, macs and blackberrys, we are constantly being exposed to advertisements and images that entice the viewer to want to purchase the product or follow the fad. For the average middle aged American who has spent his or her lifetime being a “guinea pig” of commercials and corporate advertisements, an ad for cellulite cream or a weight loss product is just another unavoidable aspect of television viewing. For adolescents however, these ads represent more than just the product they sell; they symbolize a model lifestyle. Adolescence is often the time of accelerated mental and physical growth for both male and female teens. Moreover, this is the time when boys and girls are increasingly confronted with expectations to conform to their expected gender role prescriptions (Johnson 4). An advertisement might be trying to sell a new “seamless” foundation but with a celebrity modeling it, a teenage girl doesn’t see the foundation for what it is, a cosmetic product used to cover up and hide blemishes. She sees the foundation as a stepping stone on her endless journey to perfection. “The portrayal of beauty and perfection can put pressures on teenagers to become the ideal image (Gonzalez 2).
According to Zollo (4) since the 1980’s teens have become heavy media users. The introduction of targeted programs has helped nationalize teenagers’ experiences and have connected them through common images and expressions. When I was around seven years old I remember waking up really early (8 am) to watch the line up of Saturday morning cartoons. You couldn’t watch one, thirty minute program without having to listen to at least ten minutes of intermixed commercials. These commercials weren’t for allergy medications or orthopedic footwear; they were advertisements for action figures and talking dolls. In other words the ads were targeted at a specific age demographic (ages 4-10). I specifically recall seeing one commercial for Gummies, a kind of candy. The whole concept behind the commercial was if you ingested this Gummy, your head would turn into a fruit. I was so fascinated by the idea of my head transforming into the shape of a cherry that when my parents went to the super market I begged them and even threw a fit, until they complied and bought me my Gushers. Of course, my head never did turn into a cherry, much to my dismay, but I was a victim of the influential power media holds on youth.
Fortunately for me, my relationship with media and its impact on my actions and personality is limited to that seemingly harmless “Gusher” incident. Many adolescents however become victims of the media. Women, as seen through the eyes of the media and cultural norms, are expected to take care of themselves and be physically attractive (Wolf 5). This ideological portrayal of women presented by the media commences from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Schor (3) suggests that teen media is a mirror for unrealistic body images and gender stereotypes. As a result body image dissatisfaction (BID) has become an ever increasing problem in adolescent girls. The issue is that adolescence is a time when puberty initiates and it’s also a time when a girl’s physical appearance is most important to her. According to Levine and Smolak (6), between 40% and 70% of adolescent girls are dissatisfied with two or more aspects of their bodies, most generally with the hips, buttocks, stomach, and thighs. A program, ABC’s “Connect with Kids” program aired an episode entitled “Mirror Mirror” and it spoke of young celebrities having plastic surgery. It also mentioned how plastic surgery has become the new fad in the adolescent generation. Teens are even getting plastic surgery as high school graduation gifts (Camacho 8). As an adolescent, I’ll admit it is difficult at times to flip through the pages of a “teen” magazine and see glossy prints of tall flawless models who manage to pull off the “skinny” look without losing the full figure form (undoubtedly due to the help of cosmetic surgery and whole lot of silicon). According to the National Eating Disorders Association (2004) there are 10 million women, mostly teens and young adults, suffering from anorexia and bulimia. The thought, I wish I could look like that does cross my mind every now and again but I remind myself that most of those models don’t look like that and their pictures have been digitally remastered to look “perfect”.
Media has always held the power to shape the way people, specifically inexperienced adolescents, reflect and act. When one thinks of the stereotypical teenager, their mind conjures an image of a rebellious, sex crazed alcohol/drug addicted adolescent. What is rarely taken into consideration is that teenagers are victims of their society. Alcohol consumption among teenagers (12-20) contributes to the three leading causes of death in the adolescent age group in the United States. Drinking has also been linked to health risk behaviors such as sexual activity, smoking and fighting. In a study conducted by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (Health Policy Institute, Georgetown University, District of Columbia), results indicated that alcohol advertising remained common in magazines with greater than 15% youth readership. A study has confirmed that sexually charged music, magazines, TV programs and movies directly correlate to the acceleration of adolescent’s first experience with intercourse. The logic behind this is that the media serves as a “virtual peer” feeding adolescents the idea that everybody is sexually active. “This is the first time we’ve shown that the more kids are exposed to sex in media the earlier they have sex,” said Jane Brown of the University of North Carolina. The consequences of earlier experimentation are increases in sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. According to Brown (5) the teenage pregnancy rate in the United States is three to ten times higher than that found in other industrialized nations, making that and the exposure to venereal diseases a major public concern. A teenager can’t open a magazine without seeing some reference towards sex. Googling teenage magazines I immediately see an image that glaringly displays the caption, “The New Virginity Code… Are You or Aren’t You?” It appeared in the September 2006 issue of Cosmogirl.
This is not to diminish the value of the influence media has on the adolescent generation. Shows like Degrassi and Hannah Montanna are teen-targeted shows that simulate obstacles faced by teenagers and beneficial ways to deal with them. Take Episode #39 of Degrassi: one of the main characters Ellie has an alcoholic mother and resorts to cutting herself to deal with the pain at home. Her dark and dangerous secret is discovered by none other than the popular and most hated girl in school, Paige. Instead of going the more dramatic route and having Paige tell the whole school about Ellie’s cutting problem, she gets Ellie to open up about her family problems and seek help in the form of counseling and group therapy. At the end of the episode a few contact numbers are provided so that if anyone watching the show happens to be in a similar situation, they can seek help as well. While these shows are geared toward positive images of teenagers many that receive far greater adolescent attention aren’t. These so-called shows that provide scenarios and roles that young people can identify with are often made overly dramatic to create suspense and generate more ratings. Often these programs feature young, attractive celebrities who serve as subliminal advertisers. Take the show Dawson’s Creek for example. Dawson’s Creek dressed the show’s actors around the J. Crew brand (Klein 9). In 1998, not only did the characters all wear J. Crew clothes, but the actors chosen matched the types of models used in J. Crew’s catalog and advertising. The brand was placed in the script coining phrases like, “he looks like he stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue,” and the cast also graced the cover of the January issue of J. Crew (Klein 9).
Media since its inception has never failed to fulfill its service of informing the masses on the latest news; whether it’s the newest trend or faux pas. Somewhere in this quest towards giving people the information they desire, the media has become convoluted and corrupted by business. It has since shifted its primary focus of communicating information to reach large audiences; to trying to target specific age demographics and force feed them products while, advocating unhealthy lifestyles. After extensive market research conducted over the past twenty years, it has reached the attention of big time executives that the real profit can be found in the adolescent generation. Studies have shown that teenagers are impressionable and quick to follow. That is why executives at places like Conde Naste, (Publisher of Teen Vogue) spend a majority of their time brainstorming about new ways to reach teens. If the media continues to focus its attention on the youth, it can only be presumed that in the next fifty years society will be looking at a world of alcoholic, sex-crazed, anorexic…five year olds.

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