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Raising Teens to Be Savvy, Secure Consumers

Just when I thought America had cornered the market on frivolous lawsuits, I heard of a woman in Dublin, Ireland, who took a restaurant to court for making her gain weight. No joke. In her suit, Mary Dillard said an eatery named Lester’s “ran attractive advertisements and food deals” that “caused her to eat more than what was necessary for an adult woman.” She added that the smell of food from the restaurant would invade her home and cause “undue hunger.”

There are certain givens in life. Dogs bark. Babies cry. The Cubs lose. And companies will promote their products in the most provocative ways possible. Advertising is part of the cultural landscape. Billboards. Magazine and newspaper ads. Radio and TV commercials. We’re assaulted by a barrage of sales pitches every day to the point that we can’t open e-mail without someone trying to sell us something.

Therefore, it’s our job to sort through those urgent pleas, separating useful information from manipulation and empty promises. As Mary Dillard discovered, even legitimate appeals to our basic needs, such as hunger, require discernment and self-control. It’s also imperative that we teach that skill to adolescents — fledgling consumers eager to flex newfound muscle in the marketplace.

Helping Teens Dissect Advertising

From fashion designers to makers of the latest high-tech gadgets, advertisers desperately want a piece of the youth market. Teens have no mortgages. No life insurance premiums. No grocery, utility or medical bills. That amounts to billions of dollars in discretionary income from allowances and part-time jobs. But are your young people savvy enough to spend wisely? Here are questions you can ask teens as you dissect advertising:

  • What is the sponsor really selling, the product itself or just an image connected with the product?
  • Is this ad trying to exploit a human weakness such as vanity, lust, greed, pride, envy or a desperate need to be accepted by others?
  • What’s the catch? Is there fine print or a hidden disclaimer that exposes this as an offer that really is too good to be true?
  • Why do some ads want customers to “buy now, pay later”? What will that cost in the long run?
  • Do I really need this product, or is the sponsor just trying to create a need for this product? People are constantly being made to feel insecure about bad breath, impending baldness (I’m waving the white flag on that one) or the devastation of a dropped cell phone call. And for every manufactured fear, there’s a product or service waiting to restore calm.
  • What information is conveniently left out of this commercial message? For example, beyond the sticker price, certain vehicles cost more to insure and maintain than basic transportation.

Putting Advertising into Perspective

Of course, advertising isn’t all underhanded, and it’s not inherently evil. It serves many purposes. For one thing, it would cost about $10 for a fifty-cent daily newspaper if not for ad revenue offsetting publishing expenses. Or think of how many Web sites we browse at no personal cost beyond the hassle of dealing with a few pop-up ads. Also, businesses use commercials to compete for customers, and competition keeps prices down.

I could go on. The point is that cursing advertising or blaming it for leading us into temptation is pointless. Rather, we must arm ourselves and our teens with the tools to deconstruct ads and expose those with questionable agendas. Manipulative advertisers prey on people’s insecurities. They encourage comparison (“Be like — or better than — the guy next door”), which destroys contentment. But Christians can rest confidently in their relationship with God. By turning youngsters to scriptures such as Romans 8:15-17, Galatians 3:29-4:7, Ephesians 2:6-7 and 1 Peter 2:5, we can help them realize that nothing the world promises can compare with the riches we already have as children of the King.

Poet and humorist Ogden Nash wrote, “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.” Let’s give our teens the perspective to see beyond commercial messages that get in the way of what’s really important.

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This article first appeared in the Plugged In Magazine.

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