You don’t need to be addicted to watching America’s Next Top Model to know what a model looks like: thin and beautiful. You also probably don’t need to be told that a model’s diet mostly consists of celery and carrots. No model would be caught dead with ice cream dripping off her chin, or would she? Ironically enough, models seem to be doing just that when it comes to TV commercials – eating ice cream and all sorts of unhealthy foods. Certainly, they do it with more style and manners, even managing to not smear their lipstick while chowing down a greasy slice of pizza. Most of us don’t even think about this obvious inconsistency between the foods promoted and the thin models endorsing them and the advertising industry makes billions because we continuously go along with the messages presented. But what’s even more surprising, is that when it comes to teenagers – a population most vulnerable to the tricks of advertising – they are aware of the inconsistency but have internalized it so much that it is accepted as normal. For them this is not an inconsistency. Teens expect ad models to be thin and attractive and are not surprised by their juxtapositioning with fattening food products.
Past research has addressed the issue of food and body messages in advertising separately, focusing on the nutritional value of junk food which permeates advertising and its influence on consumer choices, and the ideal thin body-type that governs popular culture. What Keren Eyal from the IDC Sammy Ofer School of Communication and her collaborator, Dr. Tali Te’eni-Harari from Peres Academic Center have done in their ISF supported study, is combine the two issues into one research question:
How do adolescents perceive food advertisements – specifically, the food products they promote and the body shapes of the models promoting them – to which they are exposed in everyday life? Their work is grounded in the media practice model (MPM) which is a framework for understanding how adolescents engage with content while their identity is in a critical stage of development.
As part of a larger study which experimentally exposed students to various food ads (promoting diet versus fattening foods) with varying model body shapes (thin models, average-weight models, and no models), the current study done by Eyal and Te’eni-Harari, is a series of 82 in-depth interviews with middle and high school students from different regions in Israel. Their aim was to deepen the understanding of the cognitive and emotional responses adolescents have to food advertisements and the models that endorse them. This interview method allowed the students to express their perspective in their own language typical of their peers.
Interviews followed a semi-structured protocol. Questions addressed media use, attitudes toward food advertisements and physical exercising habits, and body perceptions. Then, students were shown four printed colored advertisements from the experimental stimuli. Specifically, students were shown ice cream ads: two without models (one for a diet product and one for a fattening product) and two fattening ice cream ads with models (one with thin models and one with average-weight models – that is, representing low- and high-fit messages). Following exposure to the ads, the students were asked about their perceptions of the food product and the models as well as their own body perceptions, social comparison with the models, and perceived self-efficacy to achieve the same body size.
The findings confirm that adolescents generally consider it appropriate for thin models to promote diet foods and average-weight models to promote fatty foods. When asked if they would eat the diet food themselves, most answered, “no” and that they would instead invest more in exercise and eating healthy – meaning, that most adolescents don’t see themselves as being very influenced by advertising, but they think that “other” peers are more influenced than they are – which is in alignment with the feeling of invincibility prevalent in this age group. Contrary to common belief, very few gender differences were found in respect to teens’ perceptions of food ads and the body shapes of the models. However, the study did find that these messages actually do affect teens’ cognition, emotions, and body image, especially among female adolescents. Teens’ skepticism toward advertising can further explain their acceptance of, and even expectation for the incongruent juxtapositioning of models and the foods they advertise.
An article about the study’s findings will be presented at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in San Diego in May 2017. The project was supported by a grant from the Israel Science Foundation (ISF).