Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

Weight-Loss Ads and Young Girls

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Media literacy and deceptive advertising are hot topics lately, as is the fact that people are getting heavier and adult models are dying weighing 88 pounds. In the United States the sales of weight-loss products and dietary supplements nearly doubled between 1994 and 2002, and as I hope you know, supplements are not regulated by the FDA, and at least one company lately has had to pay millions in fines for deceptive advertising.

Within that context, a recent article in Health Education Research by Hobbs et al analyzed how 42 girls aged 9 to 17 interpreted weight-loss advertising. The results in this article suggest that:
  • these girls did not notice that the ads failed to mention any health risks or dangers associated with a product;
  • only 11% of the girls were aware that the people in the ads might have financial motives;
  • few of the girls were aware of the message subtext;
  • only 29% of the girls were able to determine who the ads were targeting; and
  • only 11% of the girls noticed the use of statements about the "safety" and "all naturalness" of the products are persuasive techniques.
The good news was that 71% of the girls recognized that the use of testimonials and before/after photos were persuasive techniques and nearly half of the participants recognized the deception associated with statements about "permanent weight loss with no diet or exercise." Their findings suggest that there is a lot more parents and teachers can do to increase the media literacy of youth, particularly around weight loss.

There are no magic bullets. Weight-loss is not for sissies - it takes a lot of exercise and a reduction of calories consumed, period. We can all help girls resist the health risks associated with these potentially harmful products by increasing their media literacy as we point out these characteristics when we see the weight-loss ads on TV.

Photo credit: Travelling Matt

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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