Sex sells

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published March 15, 2013

While not really seeing myself as a total prude, even having done post-doctoral training in sex therapy, I do feel there is a time and place for everything. Sadly though, sex sells and watching the much talked about 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl proves just how misplaced our values are. Some things just don't need to air on TV and certainly not in prime time. How sad too that while business boomed, this was how an Israeli woman chose to portray herself. How do our children see the actions of adults? Would we want our children to see their mother or sister or themselves as the woman in this ad? What do we teach them about our actions and values by even watching this ad? In this day and age with so many teens looking for direction, examining the media's impact on us and our children might be a good place to start.

A few years ago an Israeli clothing catalogue delivered midday to our home caught our children's attention. More recently, a Purim costume catalogue arrived at my door and let me tell you, one had to really look hard to find an appropriate costume. Forget Mordechai and Queen Esther; the scanty apparel looked more like hooker attire. How do you feel about provocative and unsolicited advertising coming into your home? What impact does it have on your children and your family, and what do you do about it? While to the naked eye (no pun intended), nothing may seem wrong with the cleavage exposed by the pretty pink blouse in the catalogue or the thin blonde bombshell graphically kissing on television, the subliminal message sent out to our children may be far less innocent than you may imagine. At a time when children are developing their own identity and formulating who they are, and when a picture is really worth a thousand words, these scantily clad bodies say far more than you’ve bargained for. Whether through television or print, these advertisements are specifically directed at you and your children in an endeavor to win brand loyalty and sell their product, but deliver a far more insidious message.

Women are depicted as good looking, sensual and sophisticated, with an inviting smile, flawless skin, great hair and tall, slim but busty bodies. They are handicap free, athletic, and sexy. Men are likewise smart, handsome and well buffed with an enchanting smile and massive sex appeal. The message: “look like I do, buy what I sell and you too will be happy, successful, thin and perfect." Sadly, many children want to emulate these made-up airbrushed models, but fall short-- seeing themselves as imperfect, fat and ugly. Unable to live up to societal expectations, they are unhappy, have low self esteem, poor body image and many present with eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts at a surprisingly early age.

Young children cannot distinguish between reality and what they see in an advertisement. Becoming increasingly materialistic, children are often less happy with what they have, demonstrate fewer community values and have poorer interpersonal relationships. Studies have shown a correlation with precocious sexuality, increased drug and alcohol use and violence. Psychologists, seeing the seriousness of the problem, have recently begun to evaluate advertising’s impact on children. The message advertising sends is, “Buy it for me, everyone else has it, I must have it.” The product is thought to bring immediate gratification and happiness and improve one’s life immeasurably. The child’s wish list is lengthy and when his “needs” are not met this may cause anger, jealousy and other emotions. The ‘gimmies’ start when kids are barely out of diapers and many four year olds who can’t yet read, can tell you the company depicted simply by logo recognition.

Parents, working long hours and feeling stressed and guilty, are often afraid to say ‘no’ and deprive their child of something potentially important. Buying a seemingly harmless product which was subtly touted as contributing to success, popularity and happiness seems a small price to pay. Ask children how they feel about not buying a product and one can see what the real issues are and why parents feel pressured.

While media influences children, the family is still the center of real learning, with real values at home being transmitted through modeling and appropriate discussion. Sadly, in many families, time together is not considered important and if a family manages to eat together once a week, it is often in front of the television.

What can you do?

  1. Listen to what kids chat about, see what they find important and discuss how it differs from your values.

  2. Help children critically evaluate what they see and hear. Point out that sex sells. Teach them to look for exaggerated or misleading claims of success. By talking to your kids about advertising and how they're being targeted, one can make it ‘cool” to resist ‘giving in’ to the latest fad. Help them become informed consumers.

  3. Use the media as a teaching tool. Ask children about labeling and whether the advertiser successfully conveyed his message. Were people exploited? Would they now want to buy or ban a product?

  4. Create opportunities to have quality family time and do so without spending more money or time in front of the television. Kids love “dates”, a walk, to bake or read with a parent.

  5. Give children 100 NIS and let them see what their money buys and how to manage it more effectively. They will learn to really question whether to make a purchase and better appreciate what they have.

  6. Help children pass on their belongings in a way that underscores the importance of giving rather than receiving. Get into the spirit of giving to food banks, donating unwanted goods or volunteering.

  7. Point out advertising that promotes your values. Let children see that ‘normal’ comes in all sizes, shapes and colors.

  8. Speak out about bad advertising. Knowing alcohol and pregnancy don’t mix, I once sent a letter to an airline whose television ad showed an obviously pregnant woman in flight, laughing and having a drink. The commercial was discontinued. Another time, I complained that “back to school” sample packs included a diet supplement. This resulted in the packs being completely revamped.

If you don’t like what you see, complain! Most parents have no idea of the extent to which marketing is being directed at their children. In this modern age, our best tool is education, not hibernation.